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PREPPING THE BATTLEFIELD
by Charlie Christensen
In the weeks and months immediately following Sept 11, the attention of the nation and the world turned to Afghanistan and its Islamic Fundamentalist leadership. On an almost daily basis the nation's top military and political leaders updated an anxious nation on the progress being made in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his followers. But at the Pentagon, in situation rooms far from the glare of the media, another war was being planned-to topple Saddam Hussein and seize control of Iraq.
According to senior administration officials, six days after the attacks on the World Trade Center President Bush signed a short document marked "TOP SECRET" that outlined the plan for going to war in Afghanistan as part of a global campaign against terrorism. Almost as a footnote to the document was a directive to the Pentagon to begin planning military options for an invasion of Iraq. With that directive, the journey on the path to war with Iraq officially began.
In the ensuing months, as top military leaders went about the daily business of directing the war in Afghanistan, they spent unseen hours choreographing troop deployments and moving stocks of military equipment into the Persian Gulf. The requirements for an offensive against Baghdad were great, and the logistics of getting everything in place would be a daunting task. Although much of the preliminary logistical work could be done under the cover of fighting the Taliban, until the Administration could build its case for regime change in Iraq, moving the full might of the US military into position required stealth.
In late November 2001 the pressure on the pentagon to come up with war plans for Iraq was mounting. In an interview with 60 Minutes Bob Woodward recounted the situation this way:
"... there's this low boil on Iraq until the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 21, 2001. This is 72 days after 9/11. This is part of this secret history. President Bush, after a National Security Council meeting, takes Don Rumsfeld aside, collars him physically, and takes him into a little cubbyhole room and closes the door and says, 'What have you got in terms of plans for Iraq? What is the status of the war plan? I want you to get on it. I want you to keep it secret.'
Six days after the president's request for the Iraq war plan, Rumsfeld flew to see General Tommy Franks at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa.
"Pull the Iraq planning out and let's see where we are," Rumsfeld told Franks when they were alone....
"Let's put together a group that can just think outside the box completely," Rumsfeld ordered. "Certainly we have traditional military planning, but let's take away the constraints a little bit and think about what might be a way to solve this problem." (Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack, p.36-37)
After the meeting, Rumsfeld and Franks appeared before the news media to brief on the ongoing Afghanistan war.
The next week Franks was ready to present the first draft of the Iraq war plan to Rumsfeld, but the Defense Secretary was not altogether pleased with what he saw. In his book, General Franks recalls Rumsfeld closing the meeting by saying, "Well, General, you have a lot of work ahead of you.... Today is Tuesday. Let's get together again next Wednesday, December 12. I want to hear more details at that time."
By mid-December, the initial movement of men and supplies into the region had begun. On Dec. 11, the Pentagon was reported to have moved the headquarters of its 3rd Army from Fort MacPherson, Georgia to Kuwait. Colonel Dan Smith, of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think-tank, said of the move, "This is very significant, particularly in respect to the enlargement of the war against terrorism. It is a clear sign that the [Bush] administration is thinking ahead to what it will do when it has finished in Afghanistan.
Franks met Rumsfeld again, as scheduled, on the 12th:
"General Franks," Rumsfeld asked when I'd completed the briefing, "what's next?"
Aware that we might move from the conceptual to the practical at any time, I chose my words carefully. "Mr. Secretary," I said, "we want to begin now to improve our force posture in the region."
"How visible will these activities be?" Rumsfeld asked.
"Mr. Secretary, the troop increases in Kuwait will be seen as training exercises, and we can time the carrier cruises to draw minimum attention. I don't envision any CNN moments, but there is no guarantee."
Intel had reported that Saddam and his military advisers accepted what they saw on CNN as holy writ, assuming that the cable channel would report all critical developments. To the Iraqis, the open Western media may have been less politically useful than the Arab press and the al-Jazeera network - but it was more reliable.
"I'm thinking in terms of spikes, Mr. Secretary - spurts of activity followed by periods of inactivity. We want the Iraqis to become accustomed to military expansion, and then <em>apparent</em> contraction." (Tommy Franks, American Soldier, p. 341, 342)
That same day, Kuwait's defense minister, Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al Sabah reassured the Kuwaiti people that the US decision to transfer the headquarters of its armed forces' central command to Kuwait was temporary, and was not linked to Iraq. It was only intended to allow the Americans to command and control their forces in Afghanistan.
"This command is here only for follow-up and control and no additional US forces have been sent to Kuwait," he told the Saudi-owned daily Al Hayat. "It is in line with the defense accord signed between Kuwait and the US in 1992...as you know, the US operations in Afghanistan are conducted mostly from air."
On December 28, 2001 Tommy Franks was summoned to the President's Crawford ranch to give him his first briefing on the newest plans for the Iraq war. After their meeting, reporters were once again told that the two had met to discuss Afghanistan.
In the months that followed, the movement of men and machines into the region increased. In February, the New York Times reported that the "top Marine general for Central Asia and the Persian Gulf (was) moving his headquarters to Bahrain from Hawaii, joining Army, Navy and Air Force counterparts who (had) already uprooted from peacetime postings in the United States to set up battle stations in the region...."
By March, military planners were already working on a new phase of the operation when they moved the Fifth Special Forces Group from Afghanistan to Iraq in order to direct Kurdish Rebels in northern part of the country. This move was significant as the Fifth Group Special Forces were a rare breed in the US military: they spoke Arabic, Pashto and Dari. They had been in Afghanistan for half a year, had developed a network of local sources and alliances, and they believed that they were closing in on bin Laden. Six months after 9/11, and with the al Qaeda chief still free, resources vital to his capture were being systematically removed from Afghanistan.
Along with the redeployment of human assets to Iraq came the reallocation of sophisticated hardware. The US air force redeployed the only two specially equipped RC135 U spy planes in the region. The planes had been used to successfully tap the al Qaeda leadership's radio transmissions and cell phone calls, but the hunt for bin Laden would have to go on without them. They too were headed for the Gulf. By the end of the month, upwards of 1800 US troops were reported to be operating near the borders of Iraq, most of them Special Forces.
At a March 29, 2002 press briefing at the pentagon, General Franks was asked about the obvious increase of forces in the region:
Q: Are you now pre-positioning men or weapons or material in anticipation of a possible military action against Iraq?
Q: You're not?
Franks: We have not -- we have not positioned assets in my region in anticipation of an action any place, with the exception of what we have talked about in Yemen, in terms of providing support to President Ali Abdullah Saleh in his efforts to reduce terrorism inside Yemen.
As the months went on, more and more soldiers and equipment poured into the region. At the same time Administration spokesmen reassured an apprehensive world that they were exploring all the diplomatic channels available to avoid the conflict and that no military action was yet planned. As late as Sept 2002, there was still no firm decision on Iraq, according to the Secretary of Defense.
"What the president wants to do, and will do in his own time, is to provide information he feels is important with respect to any judgment he decides to make," Rumsfeld said, "As yet, President Bush has not made a final judgment on how to deal with Iraq"
Rumsfeld's statement came as the level of troops deployed by CENTCOM in the region reached 48,000, which excluded personnel assigned to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and represented a 100% increase over the previous year.
By early in 2003, the Iraqi battlefield was prepared, the culmination of well over a year's worth of planning, and in March the main thrust of the invasion began.