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Gen. Casey Faces Criticism in Senate Confirmation Hearing

February 1, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The Senate Armed Services Committee focused on Gen. George Casey’s two-and-a-half years in Iraq, as they considered his nomination to be Army chief of staff. Casey responded only occasionally, as Republican senators dominated the proceedings with their concerns about the president’s troop increase plan and their attacks on Casey for the deteriorating situation in Iraq.

Among the chief critics was Arizona Republican John McCain, a supporter of the president’s troop buildup.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: While I do not in any way question your honor, your patriotism, or your service to our country, I do question some of the decisions and judgments you’ve made over the past two-and-a-half years as commander of multinational forces in Iraq.

During that time, things have gotten markedly and progressively worse, and the situation in Iraq can now best be described as dire and deteriorating. I regret that our window of opportunity to reverse momentum may be closing.

RAY SUAREZ: In response to McCain’s recitation of numerous optimistic statements Casey had made about Iraq in the past, the general defended his assessments and insisted the fight was not lost.

GEN. GEORGE CASEY, U.S. Army: What we and the Iraqis are doing in Iraq is hard, tough business. Fighting this type of campaign while rebuilding a dilapidated infrastructure, building a representative government where none existed before, and reconciling ethnic and sectarian differences makes it even more difficult and complex. The struggle in Iraq is winnable, but it will, as I have said before to this committee, take patience and will.

RAY SUAREZ: On the issue of troop increases, Casey explained that, back in November 2006, he had requested two brigades, between 6,000 and 10,000 troops, but that request was separate from the president’s plan announced last month.

Casey said his widely reported opposition to troop increases was misconstrued and that he supports the new Bush plan. Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan asked what had changed his view.

GEORGE CASEY: What has changed, senator, are several things: one, the development of a plan, a new plan, that was conceived by the Iraqis, in working in concert with us. So there was a plan that laid out requirements for those forces.

So just to say “Do you need more forces?” is one thing; to say “Do you need more forces to execute this plan?” is quite another.

RAY SUAREZ: McCain bored in on Casey’s opinion of the troop increase and on Casey’s view that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was not a failure.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Do you believe that the new job can be done with less than five brigades that Gen. Petraeus says he needs?

GEORGE CASEY: I believe that the job in Baghdad, as it’s designed now, can be done with less than that. But having the flexibility to have the other three brigades on a deployment cycle gives us and gives Gen. Petraeus great flexibility.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: And this is a time when almost all of us major concern and military experts’ major concern is whether five brigades are enough. And a very short time ago, you simply asked for two brigades.

We just have a fundamental disagreement, Gen. Casey, with facts on the ground and with what has happened in Iraq, over now one of the longest wars in our history, and where we are today. I question seriously the judgment that was employed in your execution of your responsibilities in Iraq.

And we have paid a very, very heavy price in American blood and treasure because of what is now agreed to by literally everyone as a failed policy.

RAY SUAREZ: Later, under questioning from Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner, Casey explained why he had originally made the smaller troop request.

GEORGE CASEY: I did not want to bring one more American soldier into Iraq than was necessary to accomplish the mission. And so what I asked for was the two brigades and the ability to maintain a reserve in Kuwait, in case I needed additional flexibility.

RAY SUAREZ: Warner is the author of a bipartisan resolution expressing concern over the troop increase, which has opened divisions within the Republican caucus. He took pains to absolve Casey of responsibility for the situation in Iraq.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: I know full well how, under our Constitution, ever since George Washington, civilians are in charge of our military. They devise the policy; they issue the orders.

And our military individuals carry out those orders or, at times, I’ve seen senior officers respectfully disagree and, frankly, resign rather than carry out a policy which they feel is wrong.

I judge that the policy and the orders that you carried out were consistent with those traditions and that you were given orders.

Divisions within Republican ranks

Sen. Lindsey Graham
To all of my colleagues who believe we can't lose in Iraq, this is our last chance. The public is going to break against us big time. The Army is broken.

RAY SUAREZ: Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions came back to the troop issue and acknowledged divisions within Republican ranks.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Gen. Abizaid explained to me his personal belief as to why we ought not to bring in more troops than necessary to do the job. There's a real tension there, and you've touched it.

And I don't know; maybe Sen. McCain is right. I don't know. But I've always adhered to his view, and I think you shared it, that we want to keep the pressure on the Iraqis to step up their capability so it's their country and their nation that they're defending.

And if you bring in too much support, it could erode or lessen the pressure on them to assume responsibility. Is that part of your analysis?

GEORGE CASEY: That's exactly right.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: What about the "Lawrence of Arabia" quote? What's that? Can you recall that for us, that many...

GEORGE CASEY: "Better they do it imperfectly with their own hands than you do it perfectly with yours."

RAY SUAREZ: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said the problem from the outset was not enough troops.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: To all of my colleagues who believe we can't lose in Iraq, this is our last chance. The public is going to break against us big time. The Army is broken. You've asked for more troops to clean out Fallujah, and Fallujah got reoccupied. Could I go downtown to Fallujah tomorrow as a senator?

GEORGE CASEY: You could.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, I asked to go and they wouldn't let me.

GEORGE CASEY: I've actually took Sen. Robb down there. If you'd have asked me, I would have...

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I asked to go to Ramadi, and they wouldn't let me.

GEORGE CASEY: Ramadi is a little tougher, senator.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, the point I'm trying to make is, it's clear to me that we've never had the force levels to be claiming we've been fighting a counterinsurgency. What percentage of the population is contained in the four provinces that are out of control in Iraq?

GEORGE CASEY: I wouldn't characterize the provinces as out of control in Iraq. Baghdad and Anbar are very difficult. Diyala and Salahuddin are not out of control, but...

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: What percentage of the country would it be possible for an American to walk down the street without being afraid of getting shot at or killed?

GEORGE CASEY: Probably about half, actually, senator.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, here we are, two-and-a-half years later, half the country no American can walk down the street. We're talking about sending 21,500 more as our last best chance. And I ask, why 21,500? I've been told that's all we've got, that, if we wanted to send 50,000, we couldn't get them. Is that true?

GEORGE CASEY: I don't know that to be true, senator. I've not heard that.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, I've been -- well, that's something we need to know from the chief of staff of the Army. I believe that's all we got. The reason we're not sending 31,500, we just can't get them.

RAY SUAREZ: The committee is expected to approve Casey's nomination, but it's still not clear if any Republican senators will vote against him.

Gen. Casey's responsibility

Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.)
U.S. Army
To assume that military operations by themselves would resolve the situation in Iraq is a bad beginning to any debate on this matter. But that Gen. Casey had worked to improve the military situation in Iraq is the actual fact here.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Gen. Casey's record and nomination, we get two views. Retired Army Colonel Kalev Sepp was a member of Gen. Casey's strategy team from 2004 to 2006 and was on the staff of the Iraq Study Group. He's now an assistant professor at the Navy Post Graduate School.

And retired Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor is an author of two books on Army transformation. He's now an independent businessman.

And, Col. MacGregor, as the long-time commander there, is Gen. Casey responsible for the current condition of Iraq?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.), U.S. Army: Absolutely. He shares in the responsibility for the disaster that's Iraq.

When he came in, in 2004, he found a disaster -- we were already in the midst of a rebellion against our occupation -- but he did not fundamentally redefine the strategic objective. In fact, what he did was reinforce the strategy we already had.

He reinforced the strategy of the big base building, the Maginot Line forts that we built in the cities and towns across the country, which were symbols of humiliation for the Arabs themselves.

He then launched these large-scale conventional sweeps that always made far more enemies than we killed. And then, finally, the cost of all of this went through the roof so that we were spending many, many times what we were spending when he first took over. So by any measure his tenure has been a failure.

RAY SUAREZ: Col. Sepp, let me ask you the same question. And he's still the titular commander there in Iraq. Is Gen. Casey responsible for the condition of the country today?

COL. KALEV SEPP (Ret.), U.S. Army: To assume that military operations by themselves would resolve the situation in Iraq is a bad beginning to any debate on this matter. But that Gen. Casey had worked to improve the military situation in Iraq is the actual fact here.

On his arrival, he imposed order on what had been a very disorganized, almost chaotic military headquarters organization. He created a strategy where there had been none. There was no extending from another strategy.

And the other thing that he did that was particularly notable was that he took a field army, particularly the American Army, that was organized for conventional warfare, and reoriented it to counterinsurgency warfare. So the claims that he was responsible for doing all of these things are simply not based in fact.

The situation he inherited

Col. Douglas MacGregor (Ret.)
U.S. Army
If you look at all the so-called rules of how you conduct counterinsurgency operations, none of them call for these large, conventional sweeps that we conducted under Gen. Casey.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Col. Sepp, both you and Col. MacGregor have talked about the bad situation he inherited. Take us back to mid-2004. What are you both referring to? What was the bad situation back then?

COL. KALEV SEPP: Well, what Gen. Casey found on arrival was a completely fractured political military organization. The outgoing commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and the departing U.S. ambassador, Jerry Bremer, weren't even on speaking terms with each other.

The Abu Ghraib situation was breaking at that time. The failure of having any kind of post-war plan or lack of a reconstruction plan was becoming very, very evident at that time. There was no plan of any sort in place for conduct of continuing operations; this is what Gen. Casey inherited when he arrived.

RAY SUAREZ: And you're saying, Col. Sepp, that he grew on the job and did bring some order out of that situation?

COL. KALEV SEPP: Absolutely. He had to impose a discipline on the headquarters there to -- and that's where he had to start. And then he became educated on the war, you know, which is a very complex situation, and then had to, over his two-and-a-half years, train up his own subordinate staff and commanders who, by the way, constantly rotated in and out of country.

So he had a continuing education challenge, so much so that he eventually had to establish his own counterinsurgency academy inside Iraq, because he wasn't receiving the kind of support at that time that he needed from the main base back in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Col. MacGregor, what do you say to that version?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR: Well, I think the description that we got of what the situation was like when Gen. Casey arrived is absolutely on target. It was a catastrophe. Abizaid and Sanchez presided over chaos. There was no coherent strategy of any kind.

But I think what we have to do is look at the current operations and look at what's happened in the intervening period. You can establish a counterinsurgency academy, and that can make absolutely no difference to what actually happens on the ground.

The situation today in Iraq is worse than it was two, three years ago. Now, you can argue that he inherited a bad situation, but the notion that you set up this counterinsurgency academy and suddenly the force is transformed simply doesn't hold up to closer scrutiny.

If you look at this big base strategy, the very act of establishing these fortresses in these towns in the faces of the Iraqi people sends a terrible message. The visual impact of your force is enormous.

If you look at all the so-called rules of how you conduct counterinsurgency operations, none of them call for these large, conventional sweeps that we conducted under Gen. Casey.

In terms of killing, wounding, incarcerating thousands of people, this sort of thing produced and continues to produce enormous quantities of enemies, people that hate the United States of America.

We can talk endlessly about this, but the bottom line is: Things have not gotten better; they've gotten worse. And there just isn't tremendous evidence for a sudden transformation in a change in strategy. It's not there.

RAY SUAREZ: Col. Sepp?

COL. KALEV SEPP: These points simply aren't correct. Gen. Casey had to work continuously against the tendency that the American military has in preparing to fight for conventional war to centralize, to build big bases.

He forced -- he tried to force continuously decentralized operations, decentralizing authority and responsibility down to the lowest level, because this is what is necessary to contend with the kind of enemies, the many enemies that we fight in Iraq.

He understood that. But he had to continuously deal with a larger institution that didn't. And it took much longer to understand the nature of the war there than he did. As far as...

Casey 'on the griddle'

Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.)
U.S. Army
Gen. Casey will serve the field Army in Iraq in the best possible way, by being the chief of staff in the Army back in the United States, where he knows what is needed for the Army in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Col. Sepp -- sorry, we heard a big excerpt from the hearings earlier. And some of the senators were quite upset at the situation in Iraq and were reading back to Gen. Casey his own quotes from 2005 and 2006.

What they were trying to tell him was that either he wasn't giving them the straight dope then or he isn't now. Did he sound to you like a man who understood he was on the griddle today?

COL. KALEV SEPP: The points that were raised that I heard from Sen. Jack Reed, Sen. John Warner, Sen. John McCain are valid in and of themselves. But the point that Sen. Warner in particular made is very correct, which is that the military strategy is only one part of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. And all of that is subordinate to a national policy for the country.

And in trying to pursue that policy, Gen. Casey has had to contend, as he has pointed out, with three different Iraqi governments that have changed during his tenure as commander there.

And since insurgencies are inherently political struggles, the necessity for a sound and functioning Iraqi government is one of the first and foremost things that has to be established. He's had to contend with that while trying to conduct security operations at the same time.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Col. MacGregor, you've heard Col. Sepp lay out a fairly daunting list of aggravating factors that would have made it a pretty steep mountain to climb for almost anybody who was taking over in Iraq.

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR: We've had problems with unity of command before; we certainly had those in Vietnam. But Gen. Casey went in under rather unusual circumstances with the personal backing of the secretary of defense and the president.

If you are in command under those circumstances, your chief responsibility is to make your presence felt. If you're dealing with people inside that institution who are resisting your guidance, are putting up resistance to what you want to do, then you fire them. You relieve them.

He had many general officers under his command. If there was that much resistance to all of the good ideas that Col. Sepp is imputing to Gen. Casey, where are all the general officers that he removed from command and replaced with other officers who were more able and more capable?

RAY SUAREZ: Did he do that, colonel?

COL. KALEV SEPP: What I would say is that, having served on a strategy team under Gen. Casey in 2004 and 2005 and 2006, is that the comprehension of the situation in Iraq was one of the most difficult things that the military organization and the U.S. embassy was trying to get a handle on during that entire time.

You can't have a plan unless you understand what you're up against. It's very easy to indicate that, you know, sort of by dictate of memo or hard orders that instant results -- that, if instant results aren't achieved, that the responsible officer should be relieved.

But this is not the kind of conventional war where, if you're not making ground and seizing enemy objectives, and you have these very visible metrics of success, where you can weigh commanders. This is a slow, grinding insurgency. Most of these take 10 years to resolve. We're in the fourth year of the war right now.

Gen. Casey has taken -- was presented with a particularly difficult situation on arrival and has shaped the force to a point where the president's strategy is not a departure from what he had in place but is an extension of it.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me ask a very quick question to close and get hopefully a very, very quick answer. Col. MacGregor, is the Iraq Gen. Casey is handing on to Gen. Petraeus a credential that qualifies him for the Army's top job?


RAY SUAREZ: Col. Sepp?

COL. KALEV SEPP: Gen. Casey will serve the field Army in Iraq in the best possible way, by being the chief of staff in the Army back in the United States, where he knows what is needed for the Army in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both.