Interview with Army General Michel Roquejeoffre, former commander of the French forces in the Gulf War, 1990-91.
Sir, how did it come about that you commanded the French force that was sent to Saudi Arabia?
- When the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2 1990, the U.S. sent the 82nd Airborne Division three days later to defend Saudi territory. In France, under the orders of the EMA (joint services command), the joint staff of the Rapid Action Force (FAR), which I commanded, started planning operations. The idea was to compose an air-mobile force made from the 6th Light Armoured Division (DLB) and 4th Helicopter assault Division (DAM), with a logistic component, reinforced by around twenty combat aircraft. The work took the entire month of August, whilst we waited for a political decision. This occurred when the Iraqis invaded and ransacked the French Embassy in Kuwait City, on September 14. The next day, President Mitterrand decided to launch Operation Daguet - 6000 men, light tanks, helicopters and fighter jets to be deployed in Saudi Arabia - and called on the UN’s Security Council. The nature and mission had still to be defined, but we left on the basis of FAR’s preparations.
This force needed to be commanded by a general of a sufficiently senior ranking to be able to discuss with his Saudi counterparts, as this was then a bilateral engagement. This is why, even if the force was only 6000 men at the outset (15,000 men after reinforcements), a General of Army Corps was appointed to head of this political-military mission. It was I who was appointed simply because the force was made up by over 80 percent of FAR troops and that for the first time in France, it was considered appropriate to send a leader with his troops.
So I was appointed on 17 September and on the 19th I flew to Saudi Arabia. And there again, a first: I left without troops ... We were a small advance party of a dozen people sent to work out on the ground where the French military should be located, what their mission should be, and to see whether reinforcements were needed. I went with my chief of staff, two airmen, a logistics man, an intelligence officer, interpreters and secretaries.
Why was FAR chosen, and not an armoured mechanized unit, which would have been more powerful against an over-equipped Iraqi army?
- The explanation is simple. The political decision was taken to send only those who were committed, and these professionals were then grouped within the FAR. In August, we had lengthy discussions with General Maurice Schmitt, Chief of Defence Staff, and we agreed it was better to send seasoned troops as we didn’t know what we were going to face. I had real confidence from General Schmitt, whom I had come to know through our parachute activities, which helped me a lot. He had set a strict rule: "I alone command you, you account to me alone."
- We were met by the French military mission, headed by an admiral in charge of French arms exports. With his help, we immediately made an appointment with Khaled bin Sultan, son of Prince Sultan, the Defence Minister, who had been appointed commander of the coalition Arab troops.
(Photo left: the general with Prince Sultan and KBS.)
I was very well received by him – something not to be taken for granted, as we arrived well after the Americans. But they were acting a bit like in a conquered country and, afterwards, the Saudis noticed that by contrast, the French "came across well."
Did you have the resources you needed for the deployment?
- We took it the other way round. We asked ourselves this question: what could we do with the means at our disposal. We were given a defensive sector North of KKMC (King Khalid Military City), where we began to deploy troops as they arrived under the command of General Mouscardès. We were sent to the West of the territory. But the situation was totally defensive: the Saudis had buried their tanks, guns pointed at Iraq. But the FAR was a mobile force, not a defensive force. We explained to the Saudis that our vocation was to be a mobile resource across the zone, and not trapped in a small area. It was not easy to make them understand what the FAR was about. We managed, by dint of discussions, to persuade them that we should not be restricted. By October, they had understood well that we were most useful in rapid-reaction, counter-attack, on a broader front. But I also had to ask for reinforcements ... For the air component, we needed an air base, and to discuss this with Saudi officials. The Defence Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, did not want the French to be installed on the Dhahran base, surrounded by Americans.
And how you were you received by the Americans?
Upon my arrival, I asked via General Schmitt for a meeting with General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. troops. Our meeting was very pleasant, very fraternal even. He's someone who is very open - as a young man, he travelled extensively with his father who was a military attaché - very understanding and very interested in the French army, notably the Foreign Legion. Our first meeting was therefore very good.
He asked me: “What are you contributing on the ground, what is FAR?” He was in charge of the Central Command. Americans and French structures and units were of a comparable nature. I explained: "We have a highly mobile force that in defensive counter-attacks, and in offensive action, is capable of launching in-depth, informed and flank guard actions, under the motto of the FAR: ‘fast, strong and far’." The Americans didn’t have an equivalent. Schwarzkopf immediately noticed the qualitative edge that removes any quantitative insufficiency. In comparison, the British had a large armoured force while the French brought a mobile and rapid-reaction force that was relatively powerful. Until the offensive planning, I saw him on average twice a week.
How did you move to the offensive phase?
- On 23 November, the political decision was made to end our defensive posture. France had chosen to put its contingent under Operational Control (OpCon) of the coalition and not under the operational command: the troops were under the control of the coalition force but their leader remained under national command. So we took an offensive mission, to penetrate to the West of the American 18th CA - and this way we were in furthest west position, west of the 82nd Airborne.
In planning the ground offensive, the Ground Day, two units would go ahead leading the position, to the West, the Daguet Division, commanded by General Janvier (shown right) with logistical support, and the 101st U.S. Air Assault on the Euphrates. And it was only once the division had secured two key points including the large village of Al Salman (airport and road junction), that the 82nd Airborne and the 7th U.S. Army Corps should go on the offensive, while the Daguet division would deploy on the flank, edge facing West after taking Al Salman ...
This mission was developed through air-land planning with the 18th U.S. CA. We managed to convince the Americans that this was an opportunity for the division. It was all done in very good faith and Schwarzkopf consistently supported us. I submitted this plan to General Schmitt, who validated it.
An alternative plan had also been discussed with our American allies: we had planned to give two missions to the Daguet division: seize Al-Salman with a land component, and simultaneously seize bridges over the Euphrates and Nasiriyah with an airmobile component. The idea interested Schwarzkopf who would have been able to re-use the 101st Air Assault, whose initial objective was Nasiriyah, and strengthen his own efforts towards Basra. But we lacked, among other things, a paratrooper battalion, which could not be provided by the 11th DP that had been engaged and programmed for other theatres of operations.
In this period, how did you manage the complex relationship with the many journalists present on the ground? It was said that the minister, reluctant to commit, did not encourage the mediatisation of the presence of French troops.
- There has been much speculation about this, but in fact the mishaps were purely technical. The press officers on site reported directly to SIRPA, which gave much more detailed press briefings in Paris than what we could give reporters in Riyadh. They were furious and took it up with me, accusing me of depriving them of information. I got angry with my counterparts in Paris and the minister's office - Pierre Joxe had just succeeded Chevenement - decided that information should be given first and foremost to those on the ground, to the special envoys there. I was given a deputy General in charge of communication, capable of giving press briefings in English, which he did regularly.
Before the start of the air offensive on January 17, journalists were indeed upset because we didn’t take them to see the Daguet units on the ground. But this was because there had been a massive redeployment movement from KKMC westward into the Rafah area, a distance of 300 km. It was absolutely crucial that the Iraqis didn’t get to know about it, hence the blackout imposed on journalists. I told reporters in Riyadh: you are free to visit the field units if the Saudis do not prevent this, but Saddam Hussein would pay dearly for this information. I ask you not to disclose positions, not to give tactical intelligence.
That's what they did, and our relations were of loyal cooperation. Ideally, I would have had a military-media interface. We innovated, it was a real laboratory. Then, after the Gulf War, we built a communication unit at FAR, mixing active and reserve press officers. It was the next logical step, and after this conflict, operational communication has been progressively structured, and has since then been entrusted to the operational commander ...
Was the French system ready for the offensive after this deployment?
- President Mitterrand came on Oct. 4. I presented our positions, our conditions and the lack of adequate resources for a defensive mission. I made him understand that this was not enough, because if we had to face the Iraqi Republican Guard, we would have been outclassed.
We then received reinforcements: one artillery regiment, the 11th RAMa, a second regiment of attack helicopters (the 5th was relieved by the 3rd, and was joined by the 1st RHC) and a number of armoured light (two regiments equipped with AMX-1O RC –the REC and the 1st Spahis - were increased from 3 to 4 squadrons), a regiment of AMX 30 B2 (4th Dragons), and finally a group of commandos of the 1st RPIMa- because we lacked elements to enlighten and shock, which I had been requesting for a long time. These reinforcements arrived progressively until January and then we were ready for the offensive.
What was the role of the air component?
- We were deployed on the small air base of al-Ahsa, initially with a dozen fighter jets, 50 after reinforcement. It was a small airfield that we transformed into a military base, including with small hangars. I tip my hat to the Saudis who quickly made this field a truly operational air base, capable of accommodating around 50 Jaguar and Mirage. Larger aircraft such as AWACS and the C-135F tanker were stationed on Riyadh air base. Although the minister had initially prevented us from being integrated to the Americans in Dhahran, we couldn’t be too far away, hence the choice of al-Ahsa, because our aircrafts were supported by the Saudi-American air traffic control as soon as they took off.
Our integration was real, because from the very first wave of the air offensive, there were 12 French Jaguar. Not the Mirage F1, because the Iraqis had the same and ours risked being attacked by the coalition on their return from Iraq mission. In fact we were able to fly them after the first three days of the air offensive, once the Iraqi F1 had been neutralized.
Our aircrafts took off with the others at dawn on January 17. But on the way back, about six o'clock in the morning, two of our aircrafts were missing. We've had some very, very tense moments. One of two aircraft returned much later because the pilot was wounded by a bullet penetrating his helmet and he had a stricken reactor, but still managed to bring his plane to al-Ahsa; the other aircraft, with two reactors in flames, was forced to land on a small piece of ground, a few kilometres past the border. Our Jaguars were old, but the pilots were excellent and equipped with a very good weapons system: they could fire laser-guided AS30missiles. This was a higher degree of accuracy than the Americans, who had only laser guided bombs, no laser missiles. That is why the French were given missions of precision destruction, for example bridges and buildings, to benefit from the precision of our weapons. Our 50 combat aircraft completed nearly 1,400 combat missions, proportionately as much as other air contingents. Our air force performed at the highest level and the Americans have readily acknowledged that we played an essential role in this first phase.
It is the success of the air offensive which determined the timing of the ground offensive, launched on the night of February 23 to 24?
- The schedule was very tight because we needed to "treat" a sufficient number of targets in the air offensive to undermine the Iraqi system, so two to three weeks, which led us to mid-February. But we also needed around three weeks for all ground operations, the time we thought we needed to free the territory of the emirate of Kuwait. But we had to be careful to finish before the start of Ramadan, which was to begin in mid-March. So the margin was very narrow.
The operations took place much faster than expected?
- Instead of taking three weeks to reach Al Salman, we got there in 48 hours! The Daguet division was structured into two groups: in the west, the 1st Spahis Regiment, the 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment with the 2nd REI, and in the East, the 4th Dragons and the 3rd RIMa, supported by the Gazelle Hots. We were surprised, but only because we didn’t have all the elements to make an assessment. To evaluate an opponent, you need to know their number, equipment and psychological state. Through detection techniques (satellites, aircraft, SIGINT), we had a quantitatively detailed vision of the situation, but qualitatively we didn’t know enough about the moral condition of Iraqi people. We had deliberately given up the human intelligence in our sector because we didn’t want the Iraqis guessing that we were there.
When we entered Iraq, we came across soldiers abandoned by the majority of their superiors - there were very few officers made prisoners - exhausted by the Iraq-Iran war which lasted eight years, demotivated, mainly Shiites and none had any desire to fight. So we were surprised to be able to move so fast. It was so quick that it was I who announced to Schwarzkopf, in the War Room to which I had daily access, that we had reached the Rochambeau position on the first night. He said, "so we must not leave you alone, we must trigger the second wave!” And turned out to be a problem for the boss of the 7th U.S. AC who replied: "It's not planned like that, we're not ready! "
It was the French who shook up the action, which won us the commendation of General Schwarzkopf. "Few people know that at the end of the first day of the ground attack, having made their fantastic breakthrough, French forces found themselves in the most Northerly and most Westerly positions. It was they who had most deeply penetrated in Iraq. They have successfully completely the tasks they were assigned and in a formidable way. " Quick, strong and far, true to the motto of the FAR ...
Outside of your sector, have French forces intervened in Kuwait?
- In Riyadh, I had prepared a role for France in the restoration of the Kuwaiti royal family because we couldn’t be absent from the liberation of Kuwait City. At my suggestion, Paris decided that our forces would go to reoccupy our embassy at the same time that Americans and Britons would reoccupy theirs. This was done on February 28 by a detachment of a hundred men transported by air by the Daguet force, accompanied by our ambassador. This detachment, reinforced by de-miners from the 17th RGP sent from France and Marine Commandos Trepel and Hubert, would undertake a dangerous job of security and clearance: more than 14,000 mines were neutralized, and 430 tons of munitions cleared, which enabled us to hand over miles of beach and city centre to the Kuwaitis that was free of danger, and to allow normal traffic back onto the streets.
Yes, afterwards people said you did not fight a war, it was too easy ...
- I heard those comments, it gives me the creeps as always. We had a mission that was to liberate Kuwait, we met with the minimum possible losses: surely we shouldn’t be blamed for that! I would like to pay tribute to our dead and our wounded, their sacrifice showed that it was a real war, where we played a major role and we were clearly not just there to make up the numbers!
In fact with such a pace, could you have continued, could the coalition have gone on to Baghdad?
- There was never any question. All that Schwarzkopf had asked for was one more day to take Basra to stop a regiment of the Iraqi Republican Guard crossing the Euphrates. But the offensive was stopped on President Bush's decision because the UN mandate had been fulfilled. Moreover, continued fighting would have faced three major obstacles: first it would have required a new explicit mandate - and that would have taken time with no indication that we would have got such a mandate; secondly Americans, British and French would have been alone entering Iraq – the other coalition members did not want to and would not have followed us, so the coalition would have broken apart; and finally it would have taken time to get to Baghdad – it would have been much longer and we had no end game plan: it would have been like what happened to the Americans in 2003 during the second Gulf War.
I would like to stress that Schwarzkopf was closely associated with France and Britain during the operation and the final settlement of the conflict: General Sir Peter de la Billiere, commander of British forces, and myself were the only ones with access to the War Room.
(from left: Roquejeoffre, General Sir Peter de La Billiere, Khaled bin Sultan).
When it came to arrange the cease-fire, on March 3 at Safwan, Schwarzkopf told us both: "I am alone at the signing table with the Saudi commander in chief Khaled bin Sultan, against the Iraqis - it is not possible to seat all members of the coalition. But I will not decide anything without consulting you both. " This is exactly what he did. Our role has been fully recognized, France played a major role in the liberation of Kuwait and the stability of the Gulf.
(Above, the General receiving the American Legion of Merit with the rank of Chief Commander from President Bush)
For the FAR, this operation was a success?
- Yes, this force was created in a war pitting NATO against the Warsaw Pact, in order to be able to look far ahead and quickly, lead a contra-offensive using mobility and firepower. The concept was validated in the Gulf. The human factor also played a key role in our success, with the quality of our men and the perfect cohesion between the men and their leaders. Cohesion like that is not acquired in ten months of service, but was built up by these soldiers through experience, particularly in Africa. Their collective success is now recognized by the award of the word "Kuwait 1990-91" on the flags and banners of 17 units of the Army and Air Force (see box).
(Above, President Mitterrand awarding the insignia of Commander of Legion of Honor).
What are your personal conclusions?
- My personal conclusion is that I was a satisfied joint commander. Honoured to have been named to such a post, proud of being the leader of so brave and competent men, I was happy to bring success to our forces. Operation Daguet completed its mission in an exemplary manner. The division was able to do so, because its soldiers were highly trained and able to get the most out of high-tech equipment they used, but mainly because they were ready to fight with pugnacity and selflessness for the restoration of law, formidably supported by the French people. It was the first time since 1945 that professional forces had the whole country behind them!
And how do you see this process today?
- Twenty years have passed, our forces have been involved in many overseas operations, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cambodia, Somalia, Central Africa, Afghanistan. Always with the same availability, whatever the conditions. One operation follows another, none resembles the previous, but France always lives up to its international responsibilities and its role as permanent member of the Security Council. One thing is certain: the situation in Afghanistan does not allow us today to mark the twenty years of Daguet with a commemoration of great magnitude, regardless of the legitimacy and success of this operation, which now belongs to history.
The inscription "Kuwait 1990-91" will be inscribed on the flags and banners and training of the armed services below:
2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment
1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment
6th Foreign Engineering Regiment
3rd Marine Infantry Regiment
1st Marine Parachute regiment
11th Marine Artillery Regiment
4th Regiment of Dragoons
1st Regiment of Spahis
6th Regiment of Command and Support
Light aircraft of Army (ALAT)
1st Combat Helicopter Regiment
3rd Combat Helicopter Regiment
Air Force Formations
5th Fighter Wing
7th Fighter Wing
11th Fighter Wing
33rd Reconnaissance Wing
61st Transport Squadron
6th Transport Squadron