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A General’s View: General Anthony Zinni

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former head of U.S. Central Command, reflects on the pre-war and postwar planning for the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now the Iraq perspective of retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni. He commanded Central Command from 1997 to the year 2000. That command is responsible for conducting U.S. military operations in the Middle East, including in Iraq. General, welcome.

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Thank you, Jim.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    There's been an increased amount of criticism of the president's national security team over Iraq. Should they — do they deserve it?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    I think there was definitely a lack of planning for the aftermath. I think the conduct of the war went superbly well. And certainly my hat is off to Tommy Franks in the way he handled that. But I think it was clear they underestimated what they were going to face in the aftermath of the war. They didn't have sufficient planning for some of the problems they would face in major reconstruction of a country so centrally controlled and dominated by one figure and also had control of the institutions.

    I also think the case that was made to the American people for going in was exaggerated. And I think that's dangerous. We've been down that road before. If it was to take down Saddam because he is bad and evil, if it was to improve things in the region, if it was a strategic decision based on some strategic assessment, it should have run on its own merits.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    The weapon of mass destruction issue was the thing that was exaggerated?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Yes, I believe that it was clear to all of us that had obviously that had responsibilities for this region of the world that Saddam had the framework for a program. It was clear to us that he had the scientists, the documentation, the dual use facilities, programs he was allowed to have like the Al-Samoud system that he could do experimentation, research and development He was fooling around with UAV's, unmanned aerial vehicles possibly, and they were really at rudimentary stages of development. And it was clear he wanted a clean bill of health from Richard Butler and his predecessor Rolf Ekeus and even Hans Blix.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    These are U.N. weapons inspectors.

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Yeah, the inspectors that headed the teams. I think he saw the possibility if they could not find a quote smoking gun — he had the framework of the program to start it up. But I think the inspectors — certainly Richard Butler in my time and Rolf Ekeus and I believe Hans Blix were on to him. But to make the case that there was, you know the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud or that there's 48 hours that he could launch a missile, I think was really exaggerated.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Exaggerated intentionally, exaggerated as a result of poor intelligence? Why?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    I don't know and I wouldn't speculate. But I think if it's poor intelligence something is drastically wrong with the intelligence product that our leadership receives. If it was exaggerated to make the case easier to the American people or those that would support it, then I think that's wrong. If it was a strategic decision, if there was a sincere feeling that taking down Saddam and reconstructing Iraq would be better for the region and for our own security, it should have been just stated on its own merits.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    It's a serious matter, general, isn't it?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    It clearly is a serious matter. You can't politicize intelligence, if that's what happened. If the intelligence has mis-delivered the product and assessment, then I think we need to look at the intelligence agencies. We have a number of them.

    It was clear before the war there were disagreements in the intelligence community. The Department of Defense created its own intelligence organization. There was rumors of disagreements between the agency and DOD based on sources or other matters. The president and national security team need solid intelligence, they need accurate analyses of what goes on. If that was not received, then I think we need to look into that, as I know that Congress has.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What is your reading of job Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has done?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Well, I'm disappointed in the planning for this operation. I'm disappointed in what was advertised as transformation of the military. I have yet to see it; I don't understand it. I see a military that's very strained, that could reach the breaking point.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    The breaking point?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Well, certain elements like the guard and reserve worry me. We have gone to that well many times. I'm not sure how many more times we can go to it. Now, I do understand that 9/11 and some of the other requirements that came about were not anticipated, but I do feel that management of our armed forces, the structure of our armed forces, whatever we're going to transform them to, has not become clear and maybe is not realistic in looking at the situations we face in the world.

    It's wonderful to pursue technology. It's wonderful to pursue precision munitions and to believe you can conduct operations without ground forces. We are now seeing that that is not the case. The Kosovos, the Haitis, the Somalias, the Iraqs, the Afghanistans, show you you need boots on the ground. We've been trying to avoid that conclusion for a long time.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    I read a speech you made a couple weeks ago where you said, not only boots on the ground, it's what the boots on the ground must do that's changing as well, is it not? It isn't just, as you say, breaking things and killing people.

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    That's right. The military probably since Vietnam, maybe before, became more and more saddled with conflict resolution — strange conflict resolution — peacekeeping, humanitarian efforts, nation building. The military has resisted this. They don't like it. They're not trained for it. But there's no one else to do it and it continues to be the mission that confronts us.

    Now either we legitimatize it for the military, which means we would revamp civil affairs, have a large and more powerful, more robust capabilities, psychological operations, we would have the ability to reconstruct economies, reconstruct the political systems or we find other agencies of government to pick up that slack. It can't be dumped on a military that is not trained, equipped or organized for that mission.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You said the military is reluctant to do — doesn't want this job. Why not? Why don't they want it?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    It's not what they are trained for. I mean, the military basically has the mission to fight the country's wars. To defend the nation — to take military action as defined by — as their role in combat. That takes a lot in this day and age. It takes a lot of time; it takes a lot of training. It's very sophisticated. It's highly technical. If you are going to saddle those units that have that responsibility with these other missions, you draw them away from that training, from that proficiency that they have to maintain. Their skills can atrophy. You put a unit in the desert in the Sinai — the multinational force – you put a unit in Somalia for a long period of time, in Haiti, in Kosovo, if it's an armor unit, an infantry unit, they are not doing the things that make them proficient in what they are organized, trained and equipped and given a mission to do.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    It is your feeling then, that the current leadership, the civilian leadership of the Defense Department and this administration hasn't figured this out yet?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Well, I don't know if they haven't figured it out or they are resisting making the changes necessary. I do think they have to come to grips with reality. We're going to face more of this in the future. Transformation is a strange term. No one seems to understand what it means. Certain elements of the military need to be reformed. I think we have an antiquated personnel system, an antiquated acquisition system. And in these areas there have been some changes and reforms taking place. That's not transformation, that's reform.

    In other areas we have wonderful capabilities that we need to continue to modernize and to improve on. But we're on the right track. We will dominate in those areas and in other areas we're deficient. We have a list that is called the high demand, low density list. Most commanders in the field will write into that where they have unit requirements that aren't being met by the current structure. Too much of it is in the reserve, or we have insufficient structure. This would not surprise anybody. It's intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance capabilities, it's civil affairs. It's logistics. It's the kinds of things you constantly see the short fallings – strategic lifts, and especially air lift.

    And I think if we're going to restructure the military, we need to own up to this. If we're going to stay in the business of nation building, of keeping the peace, of being the world's policemen in many areas, then we need to add capabilities. And the transformation may have to be an acknowledgment of all this.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And that acknowledgement has not come yet?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    I haven't seen it and it worries me. It worries me because I think we'll continue to pay the price in troops being required to do things they're not trained for, doing it in a manner that is counter productive in the long run and then being made to have the sacrifices in their resources, which should go for other things, which should go for their training and better equipment and put them in a position where they are strained, where the deployments are long lasting, where they're unable to have stability not only in their personal lives but in their progressive training that is required again in this complex, sophisticated world in the military.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you believe what is going on on the ground now postwar in Iraq could have been avoided?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    I think we could have done it better. I think many of the things we're confronting now could have been and should have been anticipated.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Like what?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Well, I think we should have anticipated that if you take down the government of an authoritarian centrally controlled organization like Saddam Hussein had and you pull it out, and you rip it out, if you dismantle the Army, if you tell all the businessmen that were ever quote Baathists this they can't do business again because they were Baathist. It's like telling communist businessmen in Russia they couldn't do business after the revolution.

    If you are going to take out the institutions and remove them, then you have to be prepared to restructure them from scratch. There was no secret as to the conditions that these institutions might be in once you ripped out the leadership, once you dismantled them. I think that should have been anticipated. I think the tensions in the Sunni triangle should have been anticipated. I think the potential for civil war, the potential for outsiders, Jihadis coming in to see this as a potential battlefield, seeing this as a place where if they can defeat us and make us fail, their stature in the region improves. That should have been seen clearly. I mean, those things were not something that you had to be [inaudible] to realize.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Who should have seen it, who blew it?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    I think the planners.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Are you talking about Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Wolfowitz, those folks?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    I think those responsible for planning in the Pentagon should have seen this. I mean, whether they're wearing uniforms, or they're civilians; they owe our troops on the ground the very best in planning, just like the generals on the battlefield: Tommy Franks delivered an excellent plan and it was well executed by our soldiers, sailors, airmen marines on the ground and we're all tremendously proud of what they did. We owe them the same kind of planning that Tommy gave the troops, we owe from the Pentagon to those troops in the aftermath of this war.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Was it Tommy Franks' responsibility to come up with an additional plan or are you saying this should be all one plan? You fight it, you also have the peace afterwards.

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    It has to one plan; it can't be separated, especially if you are going to ask the same people that fought it to administer it. That wasn't Tommy's responsibly; that was the responsibility of the Pentagon to provide that plan. They certainly advertised they were going to do the planning and they certainly fought and argued that it should be theirs and not any other agency of government. And they were responsible for testifying before Congress for openly stating they had a plan and they had a post Iraq or post Saddam administration that they were ready to put in place. It failed. And they had to obviously bring in Bremer.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you think heads should roll because of this?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Absolutely. Any time we lose lives, any time we have miscalculated, any time we have to go back to the American people and ask for more treasure, more sacrifice and it was not calculated and it should have been, then somebody should be held responsible. I grew up for 39 years in an institution, the United States Marine Corps and the United States military that hold people accountable. The first lesson I ever learned is if you are in charge, you are responsible. You were a Marine; you know the same thing. So if you're in charge, you're responsible.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    So what's happened here? Why are these people not being held responsible in your opinion?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    I don't understand it. And I don't understand why now when we definitely need international participation we are not admitting that we need that help and asking for it because right now we don't need more U.S. troops on the ground to be targets. We need to share the burden. We need those on the ground that maybe would be more acceptable, would not have the target painted on their back. We need to get the Iraqi institutions up and functioning very rapidly. There's no excuse for us to be undermanned in the CPA –there's no excuse —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    CPA —

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    The Coalition Provisional Authority, Ambassador Bremer's group in Baghdad. There's excuse for relationships between the military and the civilians on the ground to be strained or not coordinated very well – you know, there's a complaint that the good news isn't painted by the media as it should be. And I agree with that. I think there's a lot of good news there; there's a lot of good news with the schools, there's a lot of good news with the police and the military. More resources are needed but there's an acknowledgment that there's a hell of a lot of bad news here.

    You just covered some of it in the opening piece of this segment; that bad news needs to go down. If two months from now we're here and we're seeing the same bleeding going on, if we're seeing the same level of crime in the streets, the same number of Jihadis coming in, the potential for civil war happening, the ex-Baathists and Fedayeen still running around with explosive devices causing problems, then we are going to have a long term problem here.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    General Zinni, you remained silent in your criticism until recently about what was going on in Iraq. What caused you to speak up finally?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Well, first of all, I wasn't silent before. I was called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and I gave my piece. I voiced my concern in several venues here in this town and they were concerns that I wasn't the lone voice, there were other generals — former commanders and chiefs of CENTCOM and other general officers — once the shooting started, I was supporting those troops that were in the field. They didn't need some general back here commenting on the war or in some way Monday morning quarterbacking defense that went on. Now that part of it is over. Now our troops are stuck.

    I'm hoping we can come out of this. I definitely don't think it's too late. I do not believe this is a quagmire. We're not at that stage yet. But I do think we can't do business as usual. We can't just stay the course and keep doing the same things. We're going to have to take some dramatic action to internationalize this effort to put qualified, highly trained Iraqi security forces in the field, to generate an economy and a level of business that gets jobs on the street.

    Unfortunately it's going to cost us $87 billion and probably more down the road. But time can run against us in this and it has to be executed more quickly. I would like to see more people on the ground. I think you need a Bremer and a Bremer-like team at every provincial level, maybe 18 teams down to the grassroots level. You can't leave it to a battalion commander to run the local school or to the run the local city council or village council. You need a political, economic, security, humanitarian piece at every level.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Anybody listening to you, general?

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Just you.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    A couple of others listening with us tonight. Thank you very much.

  • GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.):

    Thank you, Jim.