Category Archives: Iraq

WMD in Iraq: What I Wrote; Ten Years Later

Here is the column I wrote about WMD in Iraq before the 2003 war:

A Hazy Target; Before going to war over weapons of mass destruction, shouldn’t we be sure Iraq has them?

Los Angeles Times, Sunday, March 9, 2003, Part M, Page 1

William M. Arkin

For all their differences, proponents and opponents of war with Iraq agree on one thing: The paramount threat posed by Saddam Hussein is his possession of chemical and biological weapons.

“The one respect that we think most about and worry most about is an enemy with weapons of mass destruction,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz said last month. Opponents of war with Iraq have much the same view.

Administration leaders argue that only war can smoke out Hussein’s hidden biochemical capabilities. Doves argue that we must rely on inspections because attacking Hussein could provoke him to use chemical or biological weapons; if Israel were hit, they warn, the result could be nuclear war. By different routes, the two sides arrive at an almost obsessive focus on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons.

Each side has practical as well as principled reasons for doing so. For the administration, equating chemical and biological weapons with nuclear weapons — and warning that, sooner or later, Iraq’s weapons will find their way into terrorists’ hands — has become a way of making the case that war with Iraq is essential to protecting American lives at home.

For those who oppose the U.S. position, treating chemical and biological weapons as weapons of mass destruction akin to nuclear weapons justifies diplomacy and brinkmanship because of the seeming horrendous consequences of failure.

The question is whether these weapons in fact form a foundation sufficient to support all the weight being placed on it.

Instructively, the one place where policy is not being driven by the focus on chemical and biological weapons is inside the American armed forces.

For one thing, while not dismissing the seriousness of chemical and biological warfare, most field commanders are reasonably confident they can handle any such attacks Hussein can mount. For another, they understand all too well the mass destruction a full-scale war might inflict.

Moreover, most know that, after nearly four months of renewed weapons inspections by the United Nations and the most intensive effort in the history of the U.S. intelligence community, American analysts and war planners are far from certain that chemical and biological weapons even exist in Iraq’s arsenal today.

Incredible as it may seem, given all the talk by the administration — including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s discourse last week about continuing Iraqi deception — there is simply no hard intelligence of any such Iraqi weapons.

There is not a single confirmed biological or chemical target on their lists, Air Force officers working on the war plan say.

No one doubts that Iraq has consistently lied and cheated about its proscribed arms capabilities. This is a country that has used chemical weapons against Iran and against its own population, a country that fired missiles at Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1991.

And the rundown of Iraqi weapons that remain incompletely accounted for since the 1991 Gulf War is daunting: 6,500 bombs filled with chemical agents, 400 bombs filled with biological agents, 31,500 chemical munitions, 550 artillery shells loaded with mustard gas, 8,500 liters of anthrax.

Moreover, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency analysts believe that Hussein’s forces could launch two types of short-range missiles, rockets or artillery that are capable of carrying chemical agents. The analysts say Iraqi aircraft or unmanned drones could mount sprayers to disperse chemicals or biological agents.

Analysts also think it possible for Iraqi commandos to penetrate coalition lines with small quantities of these weapons.

And U.S. intelligence has received reports that Special Republican Guard units, as well as secret police and security services charged with defending the regime, have been given bio-chem protective gear. President Bush, in his Feb. 8 radio address, said the administration had intelligence “that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons.”

“We cannot rule out of course that Saddam might try in some kind of desperation to use chemical or biological weapons,” National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said, echoing the administration line.

Yet, in fact, there is as much uncertainty as certainty about Iraq’s capabilities, as well as about the military effectiveness of any 11th-hour resort to chemical and biological weapons. So much of what the U.S. believes is based upon Iraq’s history, not knowledge of current conditions.

Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said as much when he told Congress last month that U.S. beliefs were “based on … past patterns and availability … that he will in fact employ them.”

But the thinking that lies behind such statements when made by military professionals is quite different from that underlying the pronouncements of Rice and Wolfowitz.

When Maj. Gen. John Doesburg, the Army’s top biological and chemical defense commander, says the United States must assume Hussein thinks “it’s OK to use chemical agents, because he’s done it,” the general is simply engaging in the kind of worst-case thinking that professional soldiers are trained to do.

“What does he plan to do? I have no idea,” Brig. Gen. Stephen Reeves, Army program officer for chemical and biological defense, said at a Pentagon news conference last month.

Military leaders like Doesburg and Reeves do not mean to suggest that chemical and biological weapons are the battlefield equivalent of nuclear weapons. And they certainly do not mean to suggest such weapons are so uniquely horrific that they should drive the nation’s policy decisions — either toward or away from war.

Among other things, using chemical and biological weapons effectively is so difficult that this alone has always been considered a major impediment for Iraq. The weapons are unpredictable. Weather conditions are a major factor. Chemical and biological agents also have to avoid exposure to heat, light or severe cold.

When U.N. weapons inspectors were in Iraq during the 1990s, they found it had turned toward unmanned ground vehicles and sprayers as platforms for delivering chemical and biological weapons because Iraqi engineers could not master the technology for delivering such weapons in missiles or artillery shells; loaded into the warheads, the chemical and biological material was usually incinerated when the warhead exploded.

Moreover, “it takes a lot of chemicals to have a significant effect on the battlefield,” Doesburg told Bloomberg News. “We don’t suspect he has the stockpile.”

According to war planners, three aspects of U.S. military strategy are specifically related to preventing the use of such weapons once open hostilities begin.

First, initiating the use of force across all fronts, with simultaneous air and ground operations, will communicate what Wolfowitz calls “the inevitability” of Hussein’s demise. “No one wants to be the last one to die for Saddam Hussein,” he said.

Second, the war plan itself favors smaller and more highly dispersed formations to limit exposure to the kinds of brute-force chemical attacks that occurred in Iraq’s war with Iran.

Third, early air and special operations assaults, particularly in western Iraq, will seek to disrupt any potential attacks on Israel.

Despite so little hard evidence of Iraq’s capabilities, U.S. troops have been vaccinated, trained, equipped and dressed to prepare for chemical and biological war. For military units, all this is no more than prudent planning.

For the rest of us, we must take care that apprehension about weapons of mass destruction — whether generated from hawks or from doves — does not become a substitute for thinking through the justification to go to war, a decision that could have consequences for years to come.

There have been recent reports that U.S. Marines in Kuwait were literally using “sentinel” chickens to aid in the early detection of chemical and biological weapons.

“I just have to tell you from personal experience,” said Reeves, “having had a great-uncle with a chicken farm, chickens are spectacularly nervous animals. They will literally worry themselves to death.”

Exactly.

Eager Lion Now Supplants Bright Star as Largest U.S. Exercise in Middle East

The details emerging about the Eager Lion 12 military exercise in Jordan are almost as scary as the speculation circulating in the press about a Syria (or Iran) mission preparation.  Jordan and the United States continue to insist that the exercise has no connection with any real-world events.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) now says that the exercise is “the largest annual exercise in the Central Command area of operations,” supplanting Bright Star, the exercise series previously conducted in Egypt.  I guess the masters of war planning have a lot of faith in the stability and resilience of the Jordanian government, come to think of it, just like they did about Egypt.

Eager Lion, which most press reports refer to as including 17 participants, actually includes 19 participants, according to CENTCOM.   They include Australia, Bahrain, Brunei, Egypt, France, Italy, Iraq, Jordan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Spain, Romania, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and United States.  The exercise is touted as “building relationships,” but the 19 nations weren’t named until May 15th: I suppose it’s more like a furtive affair than a relationship.  It’s interesting to note that Turkey, previously reported as participating, evidently is not; and that Iraq is there.

Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit offload from a Navy Landing Craft Utility vessel at the Royal Jordanian Naval Base in Aqaba, May 2, 2012, to begin their participation in Exercise Eager Lion 12. (Official Marine Corps Photo by Sgt. Richard Blumenstein)

And though special operations is the undeniable focus, more than 1,000 U.S. Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit stormed ashore – okay maybe didn’t storm, but landed – in a display of amphibious readiness.  What surprised me in the belated announcement of the Marines May 2nd landing is that the Marine Corps casually referred to the augmented battalion and its Iowa Jima assault ship as the “forward-deployed crisis response force.”

I didn’t even know that there was such a crisis response force, and nothing was reported in the news media when it was deployed in March.

The on-scene U.S. commander for Eager Lion 12 is Maj. Gen. Ken Tovo, who in his day job is Commander Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) and for the exercise is Commander, Combined Joint Task Force Spartan (CJTF Spartan).  Tovo is one of the most talented officers in our Army’s senior ranks and clearly is one of our nation’s Special Operations Forces’ superstars,” CIA Director David Petraeus said in an email to the Tampa Tribune.  There’s an odd hit job on Tovo on Examiner.com, as if anything is actually known about the man.

Iraqi WMD: Nine Years Ago, One of My Proudest Journalism Moments

A Hazy Target: Before going to war over weapons of mass destruction, shouldn’t we be sure Iraq has them?

William M. Arkin

Los Angeles Times, March 09, 2003

 

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt — For all their differences, proponents and opponents of war with Iraq agree on one thing: The paramount threat posed by Saddam Hussein is his possession of chemical and biological weapons.

“The one respect that we think most about and worry most about is an enemy with weapons of mass destruction,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz said last month. Opponents of war with Iraq have much the same view.

Administration leaders argue that only war can smoke out Hussein’s hidden biochemical capabilities. Doves argue that we must rely on inspections because attacking Hussein could provoke him to use chemical or biological weapons; if Israel were hit, they warn, the result could be nuclear war. By different routes, the two sides arrive at an almost obsessive focus on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons.

Each side has practical as well as principled reasons for doing so. For the administration, equating chemical and biological weapons with nuclear weapons — and warning that, sooner or later, Iraq’s weapons will find their way into terrorists’ hands — has become a way of making the case that war with Iraq is essential to protecting American lives at home.

For those who oppose the U.S. position, treating chemical and biological weapons as weapons of mass destruction akin to nuclear weapons justifies diplomacy and brinkmanship because of the seeming horrendous consequences of failure.

The question is whether these weapons in fact form a foundation sufficient to support all the weight being placed on it.

Instructively, the one place where policy is not being driven by the focus on chemical and biological weapons is inside the American armed forces.

For one thing, while not dismissing the seriousness of chemical and biological warfare, most field commanders are reasonably confident they can handle any such attacks Hussein can mount. For another, they understand all too well the mass destruction a full-scale war might inflict.

Moreover, most know that, after nearly four months of renewed weapons inspections by the United Nations and the most intensive effort in the history of the U.S. intelligence community, American analysts and war planners are far from certain that chemical and biological weapons even exist in Iraq’s arsenal today.

Incredible as it may seem, given all the talk by the administration — including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s discourse last week about continuing Iraqi deception — there is simply no hard intelligence of any such Iraqi weapons.

There is not a single confirmed biological or chemical target on their lists, Air Force officers working on the war plan say.

No one doubts that Iraq has consistently lied and cheated about its proscribed arms capabilities. This is a country that has used chemical weapons against Iran and against its own population, a country that fired missiles at Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1991.

And the rundown of Iraqi weapons that remain incompletely accounted for since the 1991 Gulf War is daunting: 6,500 bombs filled with chemical agents, 400 bombs filled with biological agents, 31,500 chemical munitions, 550 artillery shells loaded with mustard gas, 8,500 liters of anthrax.

Moreover, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency analysts believe that Hussein’s forces could launch two types of short-range missiles, rockets or artillery that are capable of carrying chemical agents. The analysts say Iraqi aircraft or unmanned drones could mount sprayers to disperse chemicals or biological agents.

Analysts also think it possible for Iraqi commandos to penetrate coalition lines with small quantities of these weapons.

And U.S. intelligence has received reports that Special Republican Guard units, as well as secret police and security services charged with defending the regime, have been given bio-chem protective gear. President Bush, in his Feb. 8 radio address, said the administration had intelligence “that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons.”

“We cannot rule out of course that Saddam might try in some kind of desperation to use chemical or biological weapons,” National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said, echoing the administration line.

Yet, in fact, there is as much uncertainty as certainty about Iraq’s capabilities, as well as about the military effectiveness of any 11th-hour resort to chemical and biological weapons. So much of what the U.S. believes is based upon Iraq’s history, not knowledge of current conditions.

Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said as much when he told Congress last month that U.S. beliefs were “based on … past patterns and availability … that he will in fact employ them.”

But the thinking that lies behind such statements when made by military professionals is quite different from that underlying the pronouncements of Rice and Wolfowitz.

When Maj. Gen. John Doesburg, the Army’s top biological and chemical defense commander, says the United States must assume Hussein thinks “it’s OK to use chemical agents, because he’s done it,” the general is simply engaging in the kind of worst-case thinking that professional soldiers are trained to do.

“What does he plan to do? I have no idea,” Brig. Gen. Stephen Reeves, Army program officer for chemical and biological defense, said at a Pentagon news conference last month.

Military leaders like Doesburg and Reeves do not mean to suggest that chemical and biological weapons are the battlefield equivalent of nuclear weapons. And they certainly do not mean to suggest such weapons are so uniquely horrific that they should drive the nation’s policy decisions — either toward or away from war.

Among other things, using chemical and biological weapons effectively is so difficult that this alone has always been considered a major impediment for Iraq. The weapons are unpredictable. Weather conditions are a major factor. Chemical and biological agents also have to avoid exposure to heat, light or severe cold.

When U.N. weapons inspectors were in Iraq during the 1990s, they found it had turned toward unmanned ground vehicles and sprayers as platforms for delivering chemical and biological weapons because Iraqi engineers could not master the technology for delivering such weapons in missiles or artillery shells; loaded into the warheads, the chemical and biological material was usually incinerated when the warhead exploded.

Moreover, “it takes a lot of chemicals to have a significant effect on the battlefield,” Doesburg told Bloomberg News. “We don’t suspect he has the stockpile.”

According to war planners, three aspects of U.S. military strategy are specifically related to preventing the use of such weapons once open hostilities begin.

First, initiating the use of force across all fronts, with simultaneous air and ground operations, will communicate what Wolfowitz calls “the inevitability” of Hussein’s demise. “No one wants to be the last one to die for Saddam Hussein,” he said.

Second, the war plan itself favors smaller and more highly dispersed formations to limit exposure to the kinds of brute-force chemical attacks that occurred in Iraq’s war with Iran.

Third, early air and special operations assaults, particularly in western Iraq, will seek to disrupt any potential attacks on Israel.

Despite so little hard evidence of Iraq’s capabilities, U.S. troops have been vaccinated, trained, equipped and dressed to prepare for chemical and biological war. For military units, all this is no more than prudent planning.

For the rest of us, we must take care that apprehension about weapons of mass destruction — whether generated from hawks or from doves — does not become a substitute for thinking through the justification to go to war, a decision that could have consequences for years to come.

There have been recent reports that U.S. Marines in Kuwait were literally using “sentinel” chickens to aid in the early detection of chemical and biological weapons.

“I just have to tell you from personal experience,” said Reeves, “having had a great-uncle with a chicken farm, chickens are spectacularly nervous animals. They will literally worry themselves to death.”

Exactly.

Feeling Surrounded?

A routine Air Force promotional release about a top chaplain visiting airmen at an “undisclosed location” in Southwest Asia got me thinking again about secrets, and about war with Iran.  That’s because the location he visited used to be Balad air base in northern Iraq, home for a long time to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing.

Brig. Gen. Kurt Neubauer, the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing commander and the final commander of Joint Base Balad, relinquished command of Balad during a ceremony December 4th last year, the Air Force reported.  An Air Force article about the final days of Balad said the once busy base was “transitioning to the next undisclosed location without missing a sortie.”

“Believe it or not, I deployed to this particular undisclosed location exactly 10 years ago this week–just six months after 9/11,” the chaplain remarked about the new location.  “Just six months ago, this installation was literally covered in dust–several inches thick in many places, including the chapel interior,” he said.

So what base is it?  In what country?  My guess is Kuwait, particularly Ali al Salem airbase, but I don’t know.

I imagine Tehran knows.  But otherwise, it continues to be a kneejerk official secret.  I wonder if that secret, and the importance of that secret, is known even to Congress?

When Does Preparation Become War?

Today in Secret History: February 10

As people continue to fret about an Israeli (or American) attack on Iran, is there some lesson we can learn from pre-Iraq war history?

On February 10, 2003, the main body of the 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) arrived at H-5 airfield in the eastern desert of Jordan in preparation for the second Gulf War (All Roads Lead to Baghdad, p. 97), an in-the-shadows unit, in support of a non-existent special operations task force, at a secret base in a classified country.  Though in hindsight it looked like a war to depose Saddam Hussein was a certainty, at the time, there was still quite a public and international debate.

Of course, from Baghdad’s perspective, war seemed more and more certain, what with the accelerated bombing already taking place under the cover of Operation Southern Focus, with CIA and special operations forces inside Iraq, and special operations deployments building up along the Iraqi border in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the conventional military deployments centered in Kuwait.  In hindsight, as crazy as it might seem, it looks like everyone’s preferred outcome – everyone in the U.S. and Iraqi governments, that is – was war.

By the time the shooting officially started a month later in mid-March, this secret Joint Special Operations Task Force West (JSOTF-W), also known as Task Force Dagger, had built up to include these special operations helicopters of the 3rd Battalion, the 5th Special Forces Group from Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, a company from the Army Reserve 19th Special Forces Group, British and Australian special operations forces, elements of the 75th Ranger Regiment, a quick reaction force from the 82nd Airborne Division, a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System [HIMARS] battery, and the even more secret Task Force 20 (TF-20), the black Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) task force given the mission of finding Iraq’s WMD.

According to the official Army special operations history, the Jordanian-based task force had two missions: “deter the launch of Scuds from western Iraq, and support conventional forces in their attack in southern Iraq.”  I love the use of the word deter here: Deter what?  Ignore for a moment that there were no Scud missiles to be found in Iraq anyhow, and certainly none deployed in western Iraq — an intelligence analysis failure that drove a lot of effort — but how does a secret mission deter?   Of course, the sage explanation for the sensitive Jordanian deployments – and Jordan denied the presence of any U.S. military forces in the country – was to keep Israel out of any war, which is to say, to convince Israel that the United States was doing all it could do to prevent Iraqi attack, just as it had done – and failed to do – in 1991.

It’s a head-hurting house of secret cards: a highly visible and officially secret coalition special operations force preparing to infiltrate into a country even prior to the “outbreak” of war.  Retired Gen. Mike Delong, the deputy commander of U.S. forces, says in his autobiography Inside CENTCOM (p. 93) that up to 300 commandos, “dressed as native Iraqis” infiltrated into Iraq prior to March 19.

When the special operations forces found no Scuds, they moved on to Iraqi airfields and Hadithah Dam – which intelligence speculated might be intentionally blown up to flood the Euphrates River valley; again no explosives were found to corroborate such speculation.  Some commandos headed for Saddam’s western palaces, others for suspected WMD sites.  It wasn’t without cost on the U.S. side: Three Rangers were killed at Hadithah in what was probably the first suicide car bombing of the long war.

Did the deployments make war more certain?  Would they have changed the public (or international) debate had they been known?  Do these clandestine special operations undermine or enhance diplomacy?  Why do we fall back on rote words like deterrence when in fact the mission was destruction and prevention?  All good questions still very much unanswered today.

Today in Secret History: February 1 — Deceptions All Around

Deceptions All Around

On 1 February 2002, more than a year before the 2003 Iraq war, Gen. Tommy Franks briefed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on his concept of operations for an Iraq war.  Communicating via secure video teleconference (VTC), the two discussed a variety of deceptions that would be employed prior to the war.

“Several Arab heads of state, with whom I had close relationships,” Franks would later write in American Soldier (pp. 366-369) “had provided valuable information based on their own personal contacts with Saddam Hussein…. I knew these leaders were invaluable conduits through which we could pass information – and disinformation – to the Iraqi regime.”

Franks doesn’t discuss the American disinformation, which in hindsight seems to have been mostly tactical in nature – such as how an attack would unfold – but he also doesn’t discuss what “valuable information” he learned, which we now know, was a lot of hooey about Iraq’s non-existent WMD.  What a sad self-reverential chain: Saddam bluffed, Arab leaders repeat it, U.S. leaders believe it, the public is convinced it is true, it justifies going to war…

Oh, and everyone’s favorite source – Hosni Mubarak of Egypt – is now gone, casualty of his own deceptive authoritarian corrupt echo chamber.

The second deception would be “increased kinetic strikes in the no-fly zones to weaken Iraq’s integrated air defenses,” Franks said.   In English, that’s a war before a war, under the cover of U.N. sanctioned no-fly zones.  And indeed by March 2003, enormous damage had been done to Iraq’s air defenses and command and control under Operation Southern Focus.  The government in Baghdad protested the accelerated bombing, the U.S. stuck to the description that they were routine operations in response to Iraqi provocations, and the public was none the wiser that war was a done deal.

Rumsfeld’s guidance to Franks for the conduct of Southern Focus, according to Cobra II by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor:  ‘stay below the CNN line.’”