Gen. George Casey

From June 2004 to January 2007, Gen. Casey was top commander in Iraq, heading the Multinational Task Force. Replaced by Gen. David Petraeus, Casey was then appointed Army chief of staff. Here, military strategists, historians and others discuss his conduct of the war.

Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.)
Defense Department consultant

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What do we know about Casey when he gets the job?

… He is very low-key, very low-profile. [He] comes into the position from the Pentagon, where he is serving as the Army's vice chief of staff. Again, not a particularly well-noted figure in Washington. So George Casey comes into this assignment, and the good news is that his predecessors are widely viewed as having messed things up by Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez. There's all sorts of problems to deal with. … You're coming in after a particularly bad performance, so you're going to look good by comparison.

The bad news is this is a very difficult situation. It's not at all clear that there's a well-defined path to victory. So George Casey really has a challenge on his hands. …

What sort of predispositions does he bring? …

I can give you an indirect answer and it involves me connecting two personal data points. … In September of 2004 I get a call from the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. Its commander, Gen. [Julian H.] Burns, is having a general officers commanders' conference. Would I come down and give them my views on how the war is going in Iraq? …

I said: "I don't see any strategy at work here, nor do I see the search-and-destroy approach. … I don't see any coherency here. I see this being a brigade commander's war." … [A]s I gave the presentation to the generals, there were no objections. No one rose up to say: "Sorry, Krepinevich, you just don't understand. Here's what the strategy is." … So that is the perspective that I see in the fall of '04. …

[What did that meeting tell you about Casey?]

It's not clear to me that Casey has arrived on the scene with a well-thought-through strategy. There certainly doesn't seem to have been one. When I meet with [Amb. Zalmay] Khalilzad four or five months later, and he's saying, "Help me work up a strategy," he doesn't say, "And this is the one we have in Iraq."

Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.)
Strategy adviser to Gen. Casey

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… Do you think [Casey] understood that there was an insurgency and he knew what to do about it, or was he going to get on the ground and then deal with it?

The questions that he asked as soon as he arrived indicated that he was just beginning to learn about the situation that he was facing; the kind of organization that he was trying to establish, which was very flexible and grew and changed as he was in charge of it; and the kind of information that he kept trying to draw to himself so he could come to an understanding of what he was facing.

Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.)
Army vice chief of staff, 1999-'04

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Phil Zelikow [said to us] rather strongly: "The biggest problem in the whole thing is there's no overarching military strategy and that it was a Baghdad-driven policy and that the White House was letting the generals kind of do their own thing." Is that what was happening?

I think it's a little bit of an overstatement about there being no strategy. But in terms of the influence of the generals, I think that's probably a fair statement.

The way I look at it, in '03, from the time we took the regime down to about the time Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez left in the summer of '04, by and large our military strategy, was wrapped around killing and capturing the insurgents, the thugs, the killers who were attacking us and beginning to think about transitioning to and the growth of the Iraqi military. … But there was no unified campaign plan. …

Enter George Casey, and to his credit, in the summer of '04, after he arrived, he put together a campaign plan to get everybody on the same page. The centerpiece to that was that we were going to transition to the Iraqi security forces; that was the centerpiece of military strategy. The political strategy was to stand up a representative democracy, a representative government, as quickly as possible.

When you look back on that and analyze it, it's a short-war strategy. It's designed to get to a political objective, representative government, as quickly as possible, and secondly, transition to the Iraqi security forces so that they can cope with the insurgency. Nowhere in there is a plan to defeat the insurgency, so we had no military strategy to defeat the insurgency.

We were resting on a political strategy that would hopefully stem the violence because the Sunnis would come into the political process and therefore seek a political solution to the confrontation, no longer an armed solution. We overrelied on that. And then there was no forcing function, because we were not defeating the insurgents.

Philip Zelikow
Counselor, State Department

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… Do you think Casey was being hamstrung, or was he doing what he wanted to do?

I don't think he was being hamstrung in any strong, overt way. Therefore, if you fault his strategy proposals, I don't think it's fair to lay that off on the secretary of defense. I think the commanding general had certain obligations, and he was obliged to present his best proposals, regardless of body language or tone. I was not privy to many, many discussions between the secretary of defense and Gen. Casey, but I just could not see any obvious evidence that the general was hamstrung. …

And by the way, I don't think any such constraints were coming from the president. By 2006 the president's going out of his way to make it clear he's not putting on such constraints; that he wants an honest strategy. Even so, you would still then need to write a strategy document that had some of the requisites of spelling out operational objectives, ways of achieving them and the force requirements that went with those objectives and those strategies, that spelled that out in a way that we didn't see. And then at least that would force up the trade-offs, so if even the military commanders felt hamstrung, I think it was their obligation to develop a strategy that exposed the trade-offs and the strategic choices, that they were being made, because then that would expose those choices for policy decision. …

Casey is having a target painted on his back. What do you think of that? Is it deserved? Is the strategy now declared as failed? Or is that fair?

I've been critical of Gen. Casey on some points, but he had an enormously difficult, tough job. If people weren't satisfied with the job he was doing, it was their job to remove him and put him in another job, all right? So they left him in place to do the job that he was doing. Having performed that service honorably, he should be treated honorably when he leaves it.

I'm not sure that [being appointed afterward] chief of staff of the Army was the right choice. But my own qualm about that decision was that the Army needs to be able to have an open, unhindered, free examination of its own performance in Iraq, and it will be harder for the Army to examine its own performance in Iraq if the person who led that performance is the chief of staff of the Army controlling the promotions of all of its senior officers.

Col. Douglas Macgregor (Ret.)
Military strategist

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… He's the sort of personality like many of the generals who will work their staffs to death. And officers who spend very much time around him are usually quite exhausted, working essentially seven days a week, 12 to 18 hours a day. And, of course, part of that is because General Casey, like many of his peers, doesn't really know what he wants. And he hopes that at some point the right answer will surface if he works everyone around him to death.

What is it Rumsfeld would have seen in him that he would have liked?

I think Secretary Rumsfeld liked that attribute very much: He will work his staff to death; he will do whatever you say; and he will execute vigorously, even if it makes absolutely no sense. He's not the sort of person to walk into the room and say, "Mr. Secretary, you know, with all due respect, that's a really bad idea. You know, we probably ought to do something different."

Like most of the generals, he's not a tactician per se. … This is not an adaptive mind. This is not someone who's well read and studies his profession. This is someone who knew how to get promoted, did that very well, and that's most of that you've got running the general officer corps in the Army. …

The first thing he does is [when he gets to Iraq], quote, "Make the trains run on time." … Get control of what is there and try to make it work better. In other words, this is not someone who marches in with the intention to make sweeping changes. There is nothing that would prepare him to do that. He spent his career moving from position to position, taking over something and then trying to make what he found work, better, not change anything.

You can see this because … we see no evidence for any change in the operational paradigm. In other words, the big base strategy, which has cost us billions of dollars, this continues. … And if you bring them into the forts two things happen. First of all, you reduce the numbers of casualties because remember, the crisis that emerges in the spring of 2004 emerges because Congress is up in arms. Why is Congress up in arms? Because their constituents are calling and complaining of the fact that their friends and relatives are being killed and wounded by the dozen in the spring of 2004 when the rebellion breaks out.

So the big base strategy is tied to the notion that you've got to reduce casualties. Unfortunately, the big base strategy also cedes the initiative to the enemy. Because once you move into these bases, you lock yourself into these places. … You make yourself into this static, ponderous, large, garrison force, which is the antithesis of what you want to be if you really think you want to defeat a fluid, mobile enemy, which is really what you are dealing with. …

What he then does is he underwrites the notion that we should conduct large, conventional sweeps into areas where we think the enemy is living and operating. So we move across Anbar province. We go into towns and villages. We go out to the border and we take brigade-size units, large battalions, lots of firepower. We end up, ultimately, making far more enemies than we kill because we go into these areas and we kill lots of innocent people. We shoot them. We wound them. We destroy property. And in the meantime, because these are large, predictable operations, most of the enemy that you went in there to get is gone before you arrive, melts away. This is constantly repeated all through the end of 2004 and into 2005.

So those are clear and unambiguous, in my estimation, failures. In other words, you make the trains run on time, but if the train is still running to the wrong destination, what the hell is the point of making it run on time? … So the bottom line is that, truthfully, things get worse.

Now the one thing that we can say is by the fall of 2005, he returns to Washington to testify and he honestly says, "More troops won't be an asset." And the reason is very simple: The people hate us. In areas where we were welcomed in 2003, … we are now being routinely attacked. In other words, the population is absolutely supportive of the rebellion against us. Whatever they say to you publicly, what they are doing privately is something very different.

And he knows that, but he doesn't have any good answers and he doesn't understand that he has reinforced all the wrong things all the way along to make matters worse.

Lawrence Kaplan
The New Republic

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… To be fair, the strategy which Casey implements is directed from the White House, and particularly from the National Security Council as well as at the Pentagon and Rumsfeld. One of the big problems in Iraq, I think, is that there has always been a convoluted chain of command, particularly in the days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which technically was supposed to report the Pentagon but often reported to the White House.

I think Casey is burdened with having to report both to the White House and the National Security Council, as well as to the Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Now Rumsfeld, of course, has a very unique approach and a unique interpretation of the Iraq war. I think in the view of many, Rumsfeld spends the first two years of the war essentially entertaining himself with these tantalizing notions of an emerging revolution in military technology. And this revolution really assigns foot soldiers and ground power to the status of almost an unwanted stepchild.

So to escalate in Iraq, to really provide the combat power necessary to prevail is, in some sense, to contradict these deeply held notions by Rumsfeld. So I think in some sense Casey is constrained by Rumsfeld's theology. Being a good soldier, and I think also personally embracing the logic of handing over responsibility to the Iraqis, Casey pursues essentially a strategy of withdrawal.

Col. William Hix
Chief strategist to Gen. Casey

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… When General Casey arrived, what's the state of play in Iraq at that moment?

Well, you had a fledgling senior staff. The multinational force staff was officially created in mid-May of 2004. It was, in effect, a hodgepodge of officers from various nations. … They were still coming together, and they weren't necessarily organized for the mission as Gen. Casey saw it. So in terms of supporting him, he had a staff that still had a lot of forming to do.

He was working with a new embassy that stood up when the Coalitional Provisional Authority was stood down in June, with a new ambassador who he had had contact with in the United States before coming over, Ambassador Negroponte. And he had a very nascent Iraqi government under Ayad Allawi that had tenuous legitimacy. They were an appointed government. They really had no experience in governing. They had a very weak bureaucracy that was still being formed out of the ruins of Saddam's regime and the work that the CPA had done. … So it was quite a challenge.

And then you had at that time rising violence, really since the spring of 2004 when Fallujah and Moqtada al-Sadr's uprising in Najaf and in parts of southern Iraq had kicked off. The violence had escalated back up to a fairly high level, certainly as high or higher than it had been prior to April of '04. …

And he had, in effect, really two insurgencies he had to deal with. He had a Sunni insurgency, which at that time our assessment was the insurgency was predominantly driven by former regime elements. … And then you had this militia-based Shi'a insurgency under Moqtada al-Sadr and Jaish al-Mahdi, [also known as the Mahdi army] which, again, had uprisings in the fall of 2003, spring of 2004, had stood down. And then shortly after Gen. Casey's taking command in early August, we had another uprising in Najaf, which was really the first test of all of these newly formed organizations in a very inexperienced and small Iraqi security force at that time. …

Frederick Kagan
Military historian

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… By the time [of] Gen. Casey's arrival in Iraq … it really looked like a very, very bad situation … where the insurgents actually control territory. … When he got there, he found himself in the midst of this incredibly chaotic situation. …

By the end of 2004 things were looking up in the sense that the insurgents no longer controlled large cities. They were coming back into Tal Afar, but they didn't control Fallujah anymore; they didn't control Najaf; they didn't control Karbala; Sadr City wasn't exploding. So Gen. Casey could be forgiven for feeling like he'd accomplished something very significant, because he had, coming from a position where things had been.

But he remained very heavily focused on the two principles that Gen. Abizaid had been working on -- getting the Iraqis to do it for themselves and minimizing the American presence because it was thought to be an irritant. So he still did not take on responsibility for establishing and maintaining security for Iraq, which is one of the things that allowed the insurgency to continue to bubble and continue to grow.

So what some people in the press have said, and others have talked about -- that if [Casey] went with a strategy at all, what he went with or was instructed to have was a kind of exit strategy.

I do perceive that. I think that from the outset our emphasis was on getting out of Iraq as quickly as possible, and that had always been the president's strategy; it had always been Secretary Rumsfeld's approach, and it was the approach that Gen. Abizaid and Casey had. … The objective is to get Iraq under control at a basic level, train up Iraqi security forces, turn over responsibility to the government and leave.

Elaine Grossman
Inside the Pentagon

… Casey was actually criticized by some for not having told the American people and told the Iraqi people, "Look, this is how much we want to do by such and such date, and you can measure our progress and whether or not we've achieved or failed in obtaining those objectives."

But behind the scenes, those who were familiar with Casey's plan say that he actually did make progress through the course of 2005 through the fall of 2005 in attaining his sort of secret benchmarks. … That he and the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, were able to say publicly in October 2005, "We can imagine taking some significant troop reductions in the course of the coming year."

That ultimately never materialized, in large part because of the sectarian violence that began after the bombing of the Samarra mosque in February 2006.

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posted june 19, 2007

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