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General Richard Myers

July 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now to our Newsmaker interview with Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s been the principal military advisor to the president and the secretary of defense since one month after 9/11. He will leave office at the end of September, ending a 40-year military career that began as a fighter pilot.

General, welcome.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Jim, good to be here, thank you.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the job you’ve done the last four years?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: It’s been very fulfilling in many ways, as you can imagine. And I think what I feel best about is I think the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the advice that we provided to the president, the secretary of defense, I think has been the best independent military advice that we could provide.

And I think we’ve done a credible job of making sure that those folks that we’ve sent in harm’s way are prepared for the challenges that they had to face, and a daunting task because we’ve got a very challenging adversary, a thinking adversary, but I think we’ve done a fairly decent job of that.

JIM LEHRER: Fairly decent job. Do you consider Iraq a success from your point of view?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I do now, I do. I mean I don’t know why I said now. I do, absolutely; I think it’s a success. And I think if you look at the big trends, take the political front, we’ve had several congressional delegations visit here recently. One of them came back very impressed with how the Sunni leadership is now wanting to get involved in the political process, they came back very hopeful and that was encouraging to us.

I follow very closely how the Iraqi security forces are building up over time. And they’re becoming more and more capable. You know, we haven’t had a major unit defect or fall apart since the elections, and if you remember before that we had some issues with unit integrity and people leaving prematurely, tough situations.

But we haven’t had that since elections, and it’s due to good leadership, the proper equipment, the proper training, the mentorship that all the coalition forces, in particular the United States, is deeply involved in, so on the security front I think we’re doing very well.

Infrastructure, some pluses and minuses; we’re still not going to meet the demand for electricity, given that it’s basically a free good. There’s always going to be more of a demand than there is supply, but that infrastructure was a lot worse than I think anybody thought, so it’ll take more time to build that up. But politically, security-wise, infrastructure-wise, the economy is doing well.

JIM LEHRER: You say everything is fine security-wise. Sixty people died over there on the weekend —

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I didn’t mean to say it was all fine, but I think we are proceeding on the path that it’s going to take to create a free and stable Iraq. Part of that is security. Part of that is political progress, which I talked about, part of that is economic progress which I discussed as well. And all of that is coming along.

Now, are there going to be challenges, sure. I mean, the adversary over there, at least a large part of the adversary and a lot of the people you see getting killed are killed by murderers — psychopaths is a good word for them. I think terrorist is way too kind to them. They indiscriminately go after men, women and children, a lot of them giving their lives in the cause. So it’s going to be a difficult fight, but we’re going to be successful in this fight.

JIM LEHRER: But was this difficult fight anticipated correctly by you and the other military planners going in?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I think if you look at major combat, we planned for major combat to — the strategy was to be quick, to minimize damage to the infrastructure and to minimize civilian casualties, and I think we were very, very successful in that. If you look at the first year after major combat, there was very little hint of an insurgency the likes of which we see now.

So things change. The battlefield changes; foreign fighters come to the fight for all sorts of motivations. And have you to deal with the situation you’re given. So I think we’ve done a very good job of adapting. I think we did a pretty good job of predicting. But, you know, this is — you have to base all your planning on the intelligence and so forth, and intelligence is not a perfect art.

JIM LEHRER: As I’m sure you know, former secretary of the Army, Tom White has said that very little planning went into the post-war; the assumption was, as you laid out, quick operation, get in and get out. And it didn’t work, and there was very little planning for the postwar operation. Is he right about that?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Well, there was a lot of planning done for the postwar environment, I will say that. There was an awful lot of planning that was done for that, every possible contingency was thought about and there were plans laid for it. It was thought, because we thought the security situation would be better than it turned out to be, that we had to be flexible in adapting those plans. But, no, there was a great deal of actual planning that went into that.

JIM LEHRER: So Secretary White is just wrong. He said it was something like months went into the military operation planning, just a few day, 30 days, less than 30 days was used to plan what was going to happen after the military operation.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: No, I think that’s wrong.

JIM LEHRER: You think that’s wrong?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I think that’s wrong. Now, a lot of that planning was done on the civilian side of the House, not necessarily the military side of the House, but central command knew they were going to be responsible for the phase of operations; we call it Phase 4, and had done good planning in that regard, too.

I will tell you that, I mean, military planning is not a prediction of what’s going to happen. It’s planning that tries to cover as many contingencies as you can think of. And I think we did a good job of doing that. We know that a plan never survives the first contact with the enemy; that’s classic. And we understand that. And so we need to be measured on not only how well we planned, how well we anticipated, but how well we adapted to the situation we found.

JIM LEHRER: As you know from the very beginning, members of the United States Senate, people who supported going to war in the first place, and many, many others have questioned the decision that you and others made on the troop strength that went in there.

In other words the troop strength was based on assumptions that were not accurate. In other words you might have been able to have toppled Saddam Hussein and you did, but you weren’t able to secure the territory afterwards. There were just not enough troops on the ground. Is that a fair criticism?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: As we’ve tried to explain many times, and I think it’s crucial to this argument, this is not conventional warfare. This is, it’s much, much different, the kind of conflict that we’re fighting in Afghanistan, the one that we’re fighting currently in Iraq. It’s not force on force. It’s a much different and much more complex equation that we try to solve.

We do know that the mere presence of coalition forces inside Iraq, from the beginning through today, incites some to violence. We also know you need a certain level of forces to provide the security so you can have political development and economic development. That is a fine, fine balance.

We went in there, also you might recall, not wanting to be an occupying force. And it’s an important thing to get the political focus on the politics of Iraq and not on the fact that there’s a force in there so large that it’s viewed as an occupying force.

So it’s a balance we’ve struck. I will tell you this, and we’ve said this before many times, that the combatant commanders are the ones who make those judgments. Tommy Franks, General Franks, General Abizaid after him, General Casey who is now in Baghdad, has been in Baghdad for over a year, the division commanders that have served there, those are the ones that we look to, to say how many forces do we need.

During elections, excuse me, Jim, during elections we plused up to 160,000 U.S. forces. We’re back down to 130,000. Of course we’re looking forward to the constitutional referendum in October and elections in either December or January the following — we’ll have to see what the troop strengths are.

JIM LEHRER: You as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as I’ve said in introducing you, you are the chief military advisor to the secretary of defense and to the president.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Right, and the National Security Council.

JIM LEHRER: And the National Security Council. Okay. Was there ever a time when the military people, in other words the other generals and the other forces, either members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or commanders in the field or whatever, said we need more, we need more troops, we need more equipment, we need more of anything, and you went to the secretary of defense or the president or the National Security Council and you didn’t get it?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: There was never a time like that. And one of my responsibilities, of course, is to work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to get the best military advice. I mean, I have my background; the chief staff of the army has his background. General Pace, the vice chairman, has his background; the rest of them. My job is to help pull that together and then provide the best military advice.

And by law if one of the chiefs don’t agree with the advice I’m giving, I have to state what that advice would be to the president or secretary of defense. But there was never a time when the Joint Chiefs weren’t in full agreement on the way forward.

JIM LEHRER: On the insurgency, there’s been a lot of recent and conflicting statements about the strength of the insurgency now. What is your view?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: My view is that it’s hard to describe an insurgency, not conventional warfare, an insurgency in terms of numbers. Numbers aren’t all that important.

Why? Well, we know there are criminal elements that are participating in this insurgency; we know that are many fence sitters that as the political system in Iraq develops and becomes more mature, that more folks will join that and stop fighting the coalition. We know as coalition forces eventually are drawn down that there will be less incentives to fight the foreign occupying power, as some portray the coalition in there right now.

It’s still a very dangerous insurgency. I think we’re seeing about the level of efforts that they’re capable of. We’re having pretty good success against pieces of this. Just yesterday on the battlefield, we picked up Zarqawi’s main leader in Baghdad, they call him the Amir of Baghdad, Abu Abd al-Aziz and that’s going to hurt that operation of Zarqawi’s pretty significantly.

JIM LEHRER: But would you understand, General, why people would be a little skeptical?

We’ve heard this before, Zarqawi’s right hand man, Zarqawi’s number three, this number of people, and the thing we keep hearing, all the insurgency has been broken, it’s just a bunch of dead-enders, they’re in the throes of whatever, and then 60 people die.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: You never heard Dick Myers ever say the insurgency has been broken. This — insurgencies take time to break. They’re broken by the political process. It’s my view that the driver now is the political process and the success that Iraq has in developing its constitution, referendum and then elections; that’s what’s going to beat the insurgency.

In the meantime our job is to go after the insurgents, particularly those that have worldwide connections, Zarqawi being in al-Qaida, and we know he has instructions to work outside of Iraq, a very dangerous individual with very dangerous murdering associates.

JIM LEHRER: So in the simplest of terms, if I’m hearing you correctly, we could put 500,000, 750,000 troops on the ground in there and it’s not going to stop the insurgency?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I think the judgment of the people on the ground is that this is not a matter of troop strength. And by the way, we have many hundreds of thousands when you look at the Iraqi battalions that are a part of this now that we didn’t have a year ago, the coalition force strength and so forth, that we have a lot of folks on the ground.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, let’s talk about this British memo, which came out over the weekend and it said that U.S. and U.K., it was reported in the News Summary, you’re very familiar with it; they said that you all are considering, the United States and the U.K. is considering cutting in half U.S. troop strength or total troop strength within a year, back down to 66,000, and that the majority of the provinces could be made secure by Iraqi forces, is that true?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I’ve read the memo.

JIM LEHRER: So it does exist?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Well, I’ve read what’s purported to be the memo, I don’t know if it exists or not. I don’t know if it’s a true memo. The document that I read would be a normal sort of document that we might get from our secretary that says let’s look out, let’s try to look out around the corner and let’s start, you know, let’s continue our planning for our troop levels.

We plan for troop levels in Iraq, and in Afghanistan for that matter, all the time. We do that continually. And we continually iterate that with the commanders in the field. That’s one of the things that we do, it’s one of our most important jobs. And we have on ramps and off ramps.

JIM LEHRER: What does that mean?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: We can add more troops —

JIM LEHRER: Or you can take them off?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Or we can take them off, given events on the ground. I can guarantee you, there is no date and troop levels certain written down anywhere. This is all going to be driven by the events on the ground, by the political process and how it develops, the whole thing again, economic progress.

JIM LEHRER: So there’s no plan to move these troops out, to cut the troop strength in a year?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: We’re always looking at —

JIM LEHRER: At a possibility but not a plan, is that right?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: That’s correct. I think that’s a good way to phrase it, actually.

JIM LEHRER: All right. You mentioned Afghanistan. From a military standpoint, forget the politics, from a military standpoint, General, do you regret that the U.S. didn’t send more troops in there and do — truly destroy the Taliban and the al-Qaida before it moved onto Iraq?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Do I regret that, no. I think the success that we had, Kabul fell a month after we went in, I mean, it was about a week after we were hearing about quagmire again. So no, I think, again, I think every situation is different. Every operational, every tactical situation is different. The al-Qaida was dispatched very quickly in Afghanistan and is not a major factor in there today. There are remnants of the Taliban, by the way, very good fighters, that are still left but marginalized, for the most part. U.S. forces with some —

JIM LEHRER: We have 38,000 U.S. troops in there?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I think we have 18,000?


GEN. RICHARD MYERS: And there’s another six or seven thousand NATO forces —

JIM LEHRER: All right. Are we going to send more troops in there for the elections in Afghanistan?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: We are going to look at plusing up for the elections, both NATO and the United States.

JIM LEHRER: In a major way?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Not in a major way, but pretty much analogous to what we did for the presidential elections, we’ll do the same thing for the parliamentary elections.

JIM LEHRER: Well, to put it in simplistic terms again, which is my tendency, General, as you know, here again, four years ago, we go into Afghanistan and as you say, Taliban was hurt badly, al-Qaida was hurt badly. And yet the Taliban is still there, al-Qaida is still functioning and Americans are still dying as well as Afghanis.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: You know, I think our tendency is to look at the last event and say, gee, we’re either doing well or we’re doing poorly. That’s not how I look at things. Obviously we had a big tragedy in Afghanistan, losing the three people on the ground and the 16 people in the helicopter, a huge, huge tragedy. Before that I think we lost three or four people this whole year, maybe five, I can’t remember the exact number right now, in Afghanistan.

So if we say, gee, we had this big loss, isn’t it all just going to heck in Afghanistan, that would be the wrong thing to draw from that. You’ve got to step back a little bit, you’ve got to look at — again, I mean, this is not just about Taliban, it’s not just about killing terrorists; this is about political development; it’s about economic development, it’s about a lot of other issues.

I would say the situation coming up on elections, there’s going to be an attempt to disturb them in a major way. They will not be any more successful this time than they were last time. The Taliban are confined to very remote areas, and don’t seem to have much impact beyond that. Afghan military forces have been participating in combat now for well over a year, and they’re taking the fight to the enemy.

JIM LEHRER: But back to my original question, from your perspective, it wouldn’t have mattered if we had put more troops into Afghanistan at the very beginning, we still have the same situation on the ground today that we had?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I think that’s correct. Again, this is not conventional war. This is not, you know, divisions against divisions. Witness the small patrol we had, I mean a lot —

JIM LEHRER: Those were four Navy Seals.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Right. A lot of the actions we take today are small unit movements, inside Iraq as well.

JIM LEHRER: General, how would you describe your relationship with Secretary Rumsfeld?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Very professional, and a very close professional relationship.

JIM LEHRER: Did he listen to you?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Absolutely. Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Did he take your advice?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I think it’s fair to say, I don’t know of any decision he’s made without asking for the advice from me, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the combatant commanders. I know General Pace and I spend, the vice chairman —

JIM LEHRER: Vice chairman; he’s going to replace you in October —

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Right. If and when he’s confirmed by the —

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me, I forgot about the Senate.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Still has to do what they do. But, yes, he relies on us very heavily. We spend an awful lot of time with him. And he asks a lot of hard questions and we provide him the best advice we can.

JIM LEHRER: General, I’m sure you’ve read the same stories I have about some of the military brass and the services, the brass that have put a bad rap on you, a tough rap on you, that you were too influenced by Rumsfeld, that you were not strong enough in pressing the military case for armored, you can just list various things. What’s your reaction to that kind of talk?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Well, I don’t know of anybody that’s ever personally said that to me. You occasionally hear that comment. My job and the job of the Joint Chiefs is to provide the best military advice we can to the secretary, the president, to the National Security Council. I’d be derelict in my duty if I don’t do that.

I’m not eligible for any more jobs in the Departments of Defense, I retire here in a couple of — there’s absolutely no incentive for me to do anything but to do the best. And that’s what the troops in the field deserve. They deserve for me to give the best advice that I can give, based on the inputs I get from the General Caseys of the world, the Abizaids of the world.

And I would say one other thing — people that criticize, I don’t think any of them have been in any meetings with the secretary of defense and with the senior military advisors. I mean, I don’t think — you couldn’t be in a meeting and not understand how this system works, and I think they ascribe a certain persona to the secretary of defense, but they don’t know how he works, they don’t know how he relies on the military for advice and they don’t know how he takes that advice.

JIM LEHRER: Was there ever an occasion in your four years when you felt your advice was not taken and you felt so strongly about it that you were tempted to go public or tempted to resign or do anything like that?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: No. But you bring up a good point. In our system of government, it’s the political leadership that makes the decisions, and the military carries out the orders of the political leadership. And so, unless it’s immoral or unethical or illegal, in our system you’re obligated to salute and carry on, after you provided your advice and hopefully provided that well.

And you can go down through history and you could look at other presidents and how they handled the military. Lincoln during the Civil War is a pretty good example, a lot of controversy there. But in the end, it’s the responsibility of our political leadership to make those decisions. It’s the responsibilities of the military to carry them out. Obviously, if there’s something that you can’t stand then you’re obligated to step aside.

JIM LEHRER: And that did not happen to you?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I never felt that way.

JIM LEHRER: Not even close?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Not even close.

JIM LEHRER: All right. General, thank you very much and good luck on, on Sept. 30, when you re-enter civilian life after 40 years serving your country.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Thank you, Jim.