U.S. Pullout Could Change Iraq Air War

U.S. air power plays a key but largely secret role in Iraq. If a significant number of U.S. ground troops leave, Iraqi soldiers — perhaps = influenced by Iranian interests — could decide where U.S. bombs fall. New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh offers his insights.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: My commanders tell me that as Iraqi forces become more capable, the mission of our forces in Iraq will continue to change. We will continue to shift from providing security and conducting operations against the enemy nationwide to conducting more specialized operations targeted at the most dangerous terrorists. We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate and conduct fewer patrols and convoys.

SIMON: President Bush speaking this week at the US Naval Academy. He presented his strategy for victory in Iraq which calls for Iraqi troops to assume many of the combat roles now undertaken by US forces. The president declined to give a timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq, but in this week's New Yorker magazine, Seymour Hersh asserts that American airpower, working in concert with Iraqi forces, will replace US troops on the ground. Seymour Hersh joins us in the studio.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. SEYMOUR HERSH (The New Yorker Magazine): Glad to be here.

SIMON: Now you write that airpower has already enjoyed a significant underreported role.

Mr. HERSH: Oh, my God, it's the total X factor. There's been no public discussion by this administration of airpower in terms of how many missions, how much tonnage. During the Vietnam War--I'm long of tooth, and I remember that--we used to get a daily account of how many sorties--That's one flight, by one bomber--how many sorties, how much tonnage, and one could get a sense of what--how--where--the air war was very intense then. And here only you get anecdotal stuff.

The one statistic we found is really quite amazing. A Marine Air Wing, which is responsible for close air support of the Marines in the field, reported that between fall of '03 and late fall of '04, about 15 months, it expended 500,000 tons of ordnance, and that is two million, 500-pound bombs--two million, 500-pound bombs--one Marine Air Wing. We have many more Air Wings that are being flown by the Air Force and by the Navy. We have no embedded reporters at an Air Force base or on a Navy carrier. We don't know where they're flying out of. I assume some in--out of Kirkuk, I would think, and some out of Doha, etc.

We have no concept of what's going on today, but what I've been told and what is going to happen is pulling out will not mean an end--certainly will not mean an end to the violence, nor will it mean in any way that we're changing the president's position that he wants to win. Pulling out simply means we're going to be reducing the number of American boys exposed to death, which is great. But in replacement, we're going to increase the bombing. So therefore, violence probably in all likelihood will go up.

SIMON: Now one of the concerns you say that military people who were your sources on this story have expressed is that if you have US Air Forces working in concert with Iraqi ground forces, with laser-guided weaponry these days, it's often, in fact, the ground units that are responsible for fixing the target, not the airplanes.

Mr. HERSH: Oh, absolutely.

SIMON: Tell us how that works.

Mr. HERSH: We have planes in the area, loitering, flying around, waiting for contact. `Oh, my God, there's an insurgent there,' and the plane rushes over, drops its bomb. These are jets. And, of course, all the targeting now is done by Americans on the ground because that's the most sensitive part. The pilot is simply a delivery vehicle. He's simply delivering death. And to the credit of the Air Force, one of the concerns is we want to know who's telling us what to bomb, and no matter how they shape it, what they would ask if you were asked at the White House, they would say, `Well, they're going to have a joint American-Iraqi, at first, and then, eventually, we'll train them and, eventually, the Iraqis will take over, obviously, because we're getting out.'

The reality is, the Iraqi army is undoubtedly very likely to be penetrated by the insurgency. There's a lot of tribal disputes. There's a lot of internecine warfare. We learned in dealing with interpreters on the ground--when the war began, interpreters would say, `Do this house,' and it turned out to be their brother-in-law they wanted--that they had a problem with. So we learned that--a lot of things will go wrong, just in ground operations.

SIMON: The military people who spoke with you, do you get the impression that they're expressing some of the anxieties and doubts and concerns about this transformation you describe in the military as well, or even in the councils of government, that they express to you?

Mr. HERSH: No. The story I hear from my friends inside, and this comes more from the civilians, senior civilians with access, this president and the people that run them don't want to listen to what they don't want to listen to.

SIMON: Can you talk about your sources for this piece?

Mr. HERSH: My senior editors, they know who I talk to. And in the checking process of The New Yorker, the people that talk to me deal independently with the checkers. And I'll tell you the one thing I didn't put in the article. Some of my sources said the real problem with giving the Iraqis the right to control and target bombing ultimately is many believe that the Iranians, who have emerged the big winner in this war, will end up directing American bombing inside Iraq. That's...

SIMON: They're worried that Iranian-backed, -inspired or perhaps actual Iranian insurgents will meld into--No?

Mr. HERSH: No. No. The Iranians have an enormous influence inside many aspects of Iraqis--particularly the Shia society. There's an election coming that most likely the--a coalition led by a Shia will probably be in control and probably somebody from the Skuri Party(ph), which has long ties to Iran. And don't forget Jafari, who's the prime minister, and other leading Shia. During the war between Iran and Iraq, Jafari, the prime minister now, was on the side of Iran.

SIMON: What about your Air Force sources? Can you describe them to us?

Mr. HERSH: On duty, active, thinking, people who believe that bombing is an art. People who have said to me that the bombing, even as it's being done now, is--somebody calls for a bomb, and you drop a bomb, as they--there's absolutely no overarching thinking or logic to the bomb. It's simply bombing them back to the Stone Ages. As one said to me, `It's the most primitive way to use Air Force.' And they think thematically about air war and power and with--knowing that one of the things about bombs is that history has always shown us that bombs inappropriately applied, are applied with too much glee and too much use, are counterproductive. And so the people that understand that get very nervous when they see our Army commanders on the ground calling in bombs every--you got three guys in a building. Let's bomb it. And for every victory we have in the field, it's more than matched by dropping bombs--and, you know, when you kill a kid's father, mother and five brothers and sisters, and he's 17, you've just made a car bomber. And you're--what are you bombing? We're bombing urban areas, largely.

SIMON: Seymour Hersh, contributing writer at The New Yorker magazine. His article in this week's issue, Up in the Air: Where is the Iraq War Headed Next? Thanks very much.

Mr. HERSH: Thank you.

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