The Day We Stopped The War

A year after Desert Storm, Saddam is still in power. Did the fighting end too soon? A behind-the-scenes look at the decision to halt the war.

Few war leaders have ever faced as pleasant a dilemma as the one that awaited George Bush on Feb. 26,1991 for on that day, Bush learned that his high-stakes gamble in the Persian Gulf was finally paying off. Over the previous six months, Bush had essentially bet his presidency on the showdown with Saddam Hussein. He had struggled to build a multinational coalition against Iraq and deployed 443,000 U.S. and allied troops, together with their high-tech weaponry, in the Persian Gulf. And everything worked-the smart bombs, the Stealth fighters, even the daring armored assault that was even now grinding 41 divisions of Iraqi troops into the bloody sand. Operation Desert Storm, launched in controversy and culminating in what its commander rightfully called a "Hail Mary pass," was turning into a spectacularly easy victory.

The dilemma that faced the president that morning, then, was exactly when and where to stop. Six weeks of the most precise bombing in the history of modern warfare had reduced the Iraqi Army to a brainless, stumbling hulk. The ground campaign, now about 60 hours old, was rapidly smashing through and around the demoralized invaders, and with miraculously low allied casualties. Beyond Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's advancing armored columns, thousands of Iraq's best troops were streaming north in a ragged collection of tanks, trucks and stolen cars toward what would soon be known as the Highway of Death. So much for the fourth biggest Army in the world.

And so the mood, when Bush convened his top advisers in the Oval Office that morning, was one of jubilation, pride and relief. The inner circle-the "Gang of Eight"-Consisted of Bush, Dan Quayle, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Jim Baker, White House chief of staff John Sununu, national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft and his deputy, Robert Gates, and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It was Powell's job, as Bush's chief military adviser, to sum up the situation on the ground, and he did so in forceful terms. Allied forces were advancing so quickly that the primary objective expelling the invaders from Kuwait-would be achieved within 24 hours. The Iraqi Army was already broken as an effective fighting force, and unbelievable carnage was being inflicted on the survivors retreating along the main road out of Kuwait. To press the attack further, Powell argued, "would be un-American and unchivalrous." "The way Colin presented it, to have pursued the campaign beyond where we did would have been just a massacre," an administration aide recalled-and another official, among those present in the Oval Office that day, says there was no real disagreement with Powell's conclusion. The next day Bush took Powell's advice and announced the cease-fire.

Today many senior U.S. military officers and civilian officials believe that decision was a mistake. The primary reason is obvious: Saddam Hussein, defying every expectation, has survived a catastrophic military reversal and now seems to be as firmly in control of Iraq as ever (page 26). Although the war unquestionably wrecked the cream of the Iraqi Army and though the United Nations has apparently dismantled Iraq's nuclear-weapons program-man Western analysts believe the dictator has rebounded politically and that he is newly determined to reassert himself as a player in the gulf region. At the Pentagon, Desert Storm is increasingly viewed as a case of unfinished business-and the fear now, as one Army officer put it, is that "we're going to be back [to the gulf] doing this again in three to five years."

The real concern is not, as some have argued, that the victorious allied forces should have driven straight through to Baghdad. Invading Iraq was clearly beyond the United Nations mandate that bound Bush and his allies, and it almost certainly would have involved the United States in a costly and nasty land war 6,000 miles away. By the same token, those who now see Desert Storm as something less than a complete victory do not necessarily argue that the United States should have targeted Saddam Hussein. Bush and his advisers wanted Saddam out: they said so publicly, and they hoped that a crushing military defeat would quickly force his overthrow. But they saw no practical way, short of a lucky bomb strike during the air campaign, of ending the dictator's career, and despite contrary reports, Saddam's elimination was never an explicit objective of U.S. policy.

The real complaint within the military-the reason Desert Storm now leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many American military people-is that the timing of Bush's cease-fire order stopped allied forces just a few miles short of their final objective. That objective was to encircle and destroy the entire Iraqi invasion force in the Kuwait theater. Instead, approximately two divisions of the Iraqi Republican Guard and an all-important fleet of helicopters and 500 to 700 tanks escaped the allied trap by retreating northward from the battlefield on two roads near the Iraqi city of Basra that could easily have been blocked by U.S. forces. "I can't think of another case where a victorious army has declared a unilateral cessation of hostilities," says military analyst Jeffrey Record. "Hitler's 'stop' order in 1940, which saved the British Army [at Dunkirk], is, I suppose, the closest parallel. From a purely military point of view it was a mistake, no question." A senior U.S. officer is more disparaging. "It was a blunder," he says. "Whose fault was it? There's enough blame to go around."

This failure to "close the pocket" at Basra is the untold story of the gulf war. The Bush administration, which still hopes to use Desert Storm as a trump card during the 1992 campaign, is eager to keep the current rumbles of dissent and recrimination under wraps. But in a monthlong investigation of the closing days of the war, NEWSWEEK has learned that:

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other senior U.S. officers privately opposed the cease-fire order and recommended that allied forces be allowed more time-at least 24 hours, and possibly two or three days-to complete the encirclement of the retreating Iraqis.

Powell is widely criticized for misjudging the situation on the ground and failing to report it accurately to Bush and the Gang of Eight. But Schwarzkopf, who by law reported directly to the president, had at least two opportunities to express his misgivings to Washington and failed to do so.

Two key allies-the British and the Saudis-were incredulous at the American cease-fire order. Gen. Sir Peter de la Billiere, commander of British forces in Operation Desert Storm, is said to have gone "ballistic" at the news, and British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd questioned the decision in a face-to-face meeting with Bush. But Bush, citing Powell's advice, was adamant.

Powell refused NEWSWEEK'S request for an interview on the controversy. So did Schwarzkopf, who is now writing a memoir of the war (NEWSWEEK plans to publish excerpts of the book). De la Billiere, interviewed in London, said "there was no particular debate" about the timing of the cease-fire. "The only question I would raise is whether we should have demanded more out of the peace discussions" with Iraqi military leaders. "But that's a political question. I've got my own views, but I'm getting out of my depth and we'd better keep off of it."

But NEWSWEEK'S interviews with dozens of ranking U.S. officers and civilian officials suggest that the resentment over this lost opportunity runs deep. Bush's national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, is said to have been "livid" when he learned of the failure to block the road out of Basra-although Scowcroft like man others insists for the record that he does "not think we ended the war too soon."

An aide said Schwarzkopf does not intend to replay the dispute in his forthcoming book. But other associates pointedly recalled the general's postwar comments to television interviewer David Frost. "My recommendation had been, you know, continue the march," Schwarzkopf said then. That comment prompted an immediate call from Bush himself and led to a public apology by Schwarzkopf, who said he had misspoken himself But did he? Aides say Schwarzkopf had in fact planned his comment to Frost and that it revealed his true feelings about the timing of the cease-fire. "He wanted to plant the seed so that history would accurately reflect what his views were," an aide said.

Sorting out these disagreements requires a closer look at the last 24 hours of the war-the situation on the ground and the situation in Washington. By the second day of the ground war, the Iraqi forces in Kuwait were already outflanked by the allied forces that raced, unopposed, across southern Iraq from the west. On Monday evening, Feb. 25, Maj. Gen. Buster Glosson, the Air Force's top targeter for the air war, sat in the "Black Hole," the crowded basement floor of the Royal Saudi Air Force Headquarters in Riyadh, where the U.S. Central Command secretly developed its massive air campaign. Since the air war began, the planners in Glosson's command were becoming more involved in the control of day-to-day sorties. Events were now moving too quickly; air tasking orders (ATOs) prepared two days in advance often were out of date almost by the time they were printed. Glosson had control over the ATOs and was changing them constantly because the battlefield had become so fluid.

Glosson was preparing his evening briefing for Schwarzkopf on the next day's targets when the phone rang. The call was from an officer in the Kuwaiti resistance in Kuwait City, a man who was one of Glosson's most reliable intelligence sources during the war. "They're packing up," the source said. Glosson walked over to the Tactical Air Control Center. "What's the JSTARS picture showing?" he asked. JSTARS-the Joint Surveillance Tactical Attack Radar System-is the Pentagon's most advanced airborne radar platform for monitoring enemy vehicles and movements.

JSTARS shows nothing, came the reply.

"Call me if anything starts to develop," Glosson said.

Two hours later the phone in Glosson's office rang again. "Come down here a minute," said the caller from the TACC. JSTARS had begun picking up movement north from Kuwait City. The picture on the radar screen was fuzzy but revealing: there were big, cohesive Iraqi convoys rolling north on Highway 6 toward Basra. "It was the mother of all retreats going north," says Brig. Gen. Tony Tolin, who was monitoring the exodus that night.

Kuwaiti officers in the Tactical Air Control Center assured their American counterparts that the convoy was purely Iraqi military. No Kuwaitis were in it, so the allies could bomb it to bits as far as the Kuwaitis were concerned. The American targeters never completely trusted the judgment of their Kuwaiti colleagues: to the Americans, the Kuwaiti officers seemed less than concerned about the safety of Arab guest workers left behind in their occupied country. But in this case the intelligence appeared to confirm the Kuwaiti assessment.

JSTARS immediately began diverting Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers on patrol against Scud missile launchers to Highway 6. But the weather was lousy and the planes had trouble finding and stopping the convoy. Only the F-15E Eagles could fly under the bad weather and strike. Glosson telephoned one of his wing commanders. A fiery North Carolinian, Glosson had become an instant legend in the Black Hole for getting things done no matter whose feathers were ruffled. The weather was something he couldn't change and it had been mercurial through most of the air and ground war. An aide recalls Glosson once having an Air Force weatherman on his knees sweating bullets in front of a map because he couldn't accurately predict the weather in Baghdad.

"Look, I know everybody's already flown tonight," Glosson told the wing commander. "But get them out of bed and put them in F-15Es and tell them to head for Kuwait City." Glosson realized the crews hadn't been briefed on the mission: JSTARS would feed them the target coordinates along the way. The mission would be dangerous. The convoy had been firing back at attacking fighters with antiaircraft guns and shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles. "I fully expect to lose some airplanes," he told the wing commander. "But I want that convoy stopped, period."

A dozen F-15Es scrambled and successfully bombed the front of the convoy in the early morning hours of Feb. 26 near the Mutla Pass, a critical chokepoint on the way into Iraq. That blocked the convoy from dispersing across the desert and escaping further bombing. After turning the lead vehicles into rubble in an attempt to block the road, the F-15Es flew south and attacked the rear of the convoy to seal it off from behind. More than 1,000 vehicles were trapped.

Tuesday morning the weather cleared. Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers swarmed over the length of the convoy, turning it into smoking rubble. Many of the Iraqi soldiers had fled their vehicles that night. Others tried vainly to drive around the traffic jam. In coldly clinical Air Force parlance, the convoy was a "target-rich environment." Soon after JSTARS detected convoys on Highway 6, Navy pilots patrolling the Kuwaiti coast spotted a second convoy fleeing up the eastern highway parallel to Bubiyan Island. Navy jets were scrambled to halt that retreat as well, and the Bubiyan highway also became a killing zone.

Reporters and photographers covering the war later reached Highway 6 with Desert Storm's ground forces. They recorded the carnage that stretched along that road for miles, producing gut-wrenching images of charred bodies in the blackened hulks of bombed-out vehicles. Trucks, personnel carriers and hundreds of civilian vehicles lay strewn along the road. U.S. Army officers who later came upon the devastation were sickened by what they saw. The media dubbed it the "Highway of Death." Human-rights groups were outraged. "It wasn't a tactical retreat," said Kenneth Roth, deputy director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "It was a panicked, desperate flight and these were just lowly soldiers trying to get the hell out of there. It appears that this was a case of senseless slaughter."

For the military men and women who attacked Highway 6 that night, the reactions were more complex. To this day, there is no doubt in their minds that the convoy was a valid military target. Pilots who were revulsed by the oil fires that blackened the skies of Kuwait had no qualms about killing the soldiers who had set those fires. Glosson's intelligence also revealed that the convoy was not solely made up of lowly privates. He insists there were senior military leaders in some of the stolen cars-officers who had presided over the rape of Kuwait.

If there was any regret, it is that the Iraqis put themselves in such a vulnerable position. Air Force Maj. John Kinser was flying aboard an AWACS directing the planes swooping down on Highway 6. Why the hell didn't they get out of their cars and trucks, Kinser thought. The Air Force was interested only in destroying military equipment: soldiers fleeing on foot wouldn't be attacked. "I remember thinking to myself-. 'The dumb shits, why didn't they just walk out?"' Kinser recalls. "We wouldn't have had to do this to them. That was the low point in the war for me. A couple of times I found myself thinking, 'Man, this is just a slaughter down there.' I understand why this was done. But I really felt for the Iraqi soldier. They just didn't know what they were facing."

Just who-the Air Force and Navy pilots or Army tank units-- sealed off the Iraqi escape route along Highway 6 remains a matter of some dispute. The men of the Tiger Brigade of the U.S. Second Armored Division say the bombing did not stop in the Iraqi retreat and that it was their firepower that turned the road into the Highway of Death. Lt. Col. Douglas Tystad commanded one of the lead battalions in the ground assault. The attack began in the late afternoon of Feb. 26 and continued through the night as the U.S. tankers pounded the Iraqi convoy from close range. Tystad vividly recalls the barrage of red and green tracer rounds, the great white bursts of explosions in the trapped convoy and the dark silhouettes of frantic Iraqi soldiers backlit by the flames of the burning vehicles. "We didn't know what we had done until the light came the next day," Tystad says. "And now I'm glad we didn't. I think if we had known that all those dismembered and charred bodies were out there, lying in those great pools of blood, we would have had a very spooky night."

What seems incontestable is that the carnage along Highway 6 had a profound effect all the way up the chain of command. Some of the initial damage was done by planes from the carrier USS Ranger-and the Navy pilots' briefing reports were quickly forwarded to Schwarzkopf's headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and on to Washington. Those who now criticize the cease-fire decision think these early reports were given too much emphasis and that Powell and the White House paid too little attention to the more complex picture on the ground. "The attacks on those convoys were militarily irrelevant," said one senior Army source. Another senior source says Washington-Powell and the White House--overreacted. "The word was: 'My God, we're slaughtering them', " this source says. "If they didn't like slaughtering the Iraqis pouring out of Kuwait City, all they had to do was stop it. They could have called off those airstrikes but left the ground campaign to run. But they panicked."

Panicked or not, the White House and Powell were increasingly concerned by the potential impact of the slaughter along Highway 6 on public opinion. Given the history of Vietnam and the fragility of the international coalition against Iraq, it is hard to say this concern was misplaced. But it is still a fact that Powell warned Schwarzkopf as early as Monday, Feb. 25, that the mood was shifting toward an early end to the fighting, and that Powell repeated the warning on Tuesday, Feb. 26, and Wednesday, Feb. 27. Schwarzkopf, according to his supporters, argued each time that he needed more time to close the loop around the Iraqi forces. But he, too, saw the handwriting on the wall, and he put out the word in Riyadh to prepare to shut down the offensive.

Senior military sources say Schwarzkopf knew that the roads out of Basra (map) had not been blocked and that he told Powell this was so. But on Wednesday, Feb. 27, Schwarzkopf apparently did not make this crucial fact clear in a lengthy phone discussion with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. The chiefs, believing the enemy forces in Basra were in fact cut off, approved an early cease-fire on the condition that the Iraqis would not be allowed to take their equipment--especially the tanks and helicopters-when they marched north in defeat. A Pentagon source blames Powell for the confusion. "What Powell forgot was that in a cease-fire, position is everything," this source says. "The bottom line is that our forces were not where they should have been."

The Gang of Eight assembled in the Oval Office at midday on Feb. 27, Powell told them that the Iraqi Army was so thoroughly dismembered that allied intelligence "can't find divisions, can't find brigades, can't find battalions. It's all just shattered." Bush asked, "Do you want another day?" No, Powell replied, "by tonight there really won't be an enemy there. If you go another day, you're basically just fighting stragglers. " To this day, senior White House officials say they agree with Powell's analysis. "When Colin said we had accomplished our military objectives, no one questioned his judgment. Most of the others in the room wanted out of the war for other reasons. They were happy to hear Colin say it was time to stop." The lone dissenter, NEWSWEEK has learned, was Quayle, who initially questioned whether the war might be ending too soon. But the vice president backed down when Powell and Cheney insisted there were no more military objectives to be accomplished.

The finale came when Powell and Bush called Schwarzkopf from the Oval Office to discuss the exact timing of the cease-fire. Powell talked first, during the midday meeting of the Gang of Eight. But "Powell had already told [Schwarzkopf] ahead of time that the president was going to stop the war," a Pentagon source claims. "The way Powell presented it to Schwarzkopf, how could he object?" Bush then got on the phone to see if Stormin' Norman had any objections. Schwarzkopf, evidently trying to be a good soldier, voiced no protest of the cease-fire or its timing to the commander in chief. The cease-fire was now scheduled for midnight, or 8 a.m. Feb. 28, Riyadh time.

Douglas Hurd, Britain's foreign secretary, arrived in Washington that day, Feb. 27, for a previously scheduled meeting with Bush. Hurd cautiously probed for assurance that the Iraqis were completely encircled and that the job was done. According to British sources, the president used the word slaughter and repeatedly referred to Powell. When Hurd said the information reaching London indicated that the land campaign was not completely wrapped up, Bush said, "That's not what Colin tells me." Case closed. "We were philosophical about it," says Charles Powell, the chief foreign-policy aide to Prime Minister John Major. "The United States was the biggest partner in the coalition, and it was in the best position to judge." A Saudi diplomat, similarly, says his government deferred to the president to make the right decision. "Look, we were the junior partners," this diplomat said. "[King Fahd] would never have presumed to substitute his military judgment for the president's. This ultimately was Bush's war to prosecute."

The unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) question is just how much difference it all made. Given the wholesale destruction of the Iraqi war machine during the wider war for Kuwait, it is unlikely that the capture of only two divisions at Basra would have spelled certain doom for Saddam Hussein. It is further arguable that Powell, Bush and the others were ultimately correct in fearing the political consequences of the bloodbath along Highway 6, and that Schwarzkopf and his allies at the Pentagon were naive about the potential for political harm. "If you looked at pictures of that highway up there and the masses of destroyed vehicles-one more day of that and you had trouble," a White House official says. "What we would be accused of doing was engaging in a turkey shoot of people who were no longer fighting, but just trying to get out."

But the possibility remains that the failure was critical to Saddam's survival and therefore to the dismal outcome of the war within Iraq. The Republican Guard units at Basra, together with their tanks and helicopters, in fact were instrumental in the brutal suppression of the Shiite rebellion that erupted around the city shortly after the cease-fire. Some of Powell's critics now suggest that Saddam Hussein might well have been toppled by the combination of the Shiite rebellion in the south and the simultaneous uprising by the Kurds in northern Iraq. If that is so, the Basra blunder was a small snafu with very large consequences-and it was surely disastrous for the Shiite rebels. "I had a friend with the Second Armored Cav. who was on our side of the line watching [the helicopters] strafing Shiite civilians," Lt. Col. Douglas Tystad recalls. "He had the missiles to shoot them down, so he called back for permission to fire and was told 'absolutely not.' I'm glad I wasn't where he was."

Such brutal ironies, it can be said, are the inevitable price of war. Tystad is probably typical of those who fought in the Persian Gulf in having mixed feelings about the slaughter on Highway 6. He is certain that his tank battalion could have gone on to Basra if they had been ordered to, and like everyone else, he has sometimes wondered whether they should have gone all the way to Baghdad. The right answer, he believes, is no. "Our mission was to free Kuwait and restore its legitimate government," he says. "If we had driven into Iraq we would have lost the moral high ground, and in the eyes of the rest of the world we would have gone from being liberators to invaders. When it ended as it did, we felt we had triumphed in a righteous cause. A year later, I still feel that way."

Some critics say the Feb. 28 cease-fire was premature, allowing Saddam's troops to escape north with enough tanks and artillery to start rebuilding the Iraqi Army.

146 U.S. troops killed in action 159 U.S. troops dead outside combat 244 allied troops killed in action

70,000-115,000 military killed before the cease-fire 2,500-3,000 civilians killed during the air war

(ground-war death statistics not available) 100,000-120,000 civilians dead after the cease-fire from civil unrest or war-related ailments 703 tanks remaining, 15% of prewar total 1,430 armored personnel carriers remaining, 50% of prewar total 340 artillery remaining, 10% of prewar total SOURCES: DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND, U.S. INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES, GREENPEACE USA