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Rumsfeld and the Generals

Some observations on how the war in Iraq was prosecuted by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top military commanders, drawn from FRONTLINE's interviews with military leaders, analysts, journalists and historians.

Lawrence Kaplan
The New Republic

photo of kaplan

…You said, I think in one of your pieces, Rumsfeld was actually fighting the next war. Tell me what you mean by that.

The general notion is that Rumsfeld entered office in 2001 in many ways really entranced by this notion of a revolution in military technology. The idea was that air and naval power and technology was really somehow going to be a solution to the problems that America faces in 21st century military conflicts.

Now, in that regard, the Marines and the Army may retain some utility, as say a constabulary force in the Balkans. But really, they were to be relegated in the background. The new focus under Rumsfeld is, how do you think about the next big war, a war with China, perhaps even a war with Iran? And the answer really, the magic bullet I think in Rumsfeld's telling, is technology. So this, I think, inclines him to really, to almost view the Army and the Marines and boots on the ground as somehow quaint, as you know a relic of the mid-20th century, something that will never be used again. ...

Basically, what he wants is to get out [of Iraq] and get it over with.

I think that is right. I think the impulse that drives Rumsfeld, up until the day of his resignation really, is how to extricate the United States from Iraq, (a) because it is interfering with some of his own cherished dogma and beliefs about the efficacy of military technology, but (b) I think on a more practical level, is he recognizes that the war has become a disaster. And I think Iraq will really be hung around his neck in much the way, the same way that Vietnam was hung around the neck of McNamara.

Col. H.R. McMaster
Commander, Tal Afar 2005-'06

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... In the 1990s a lot of momentum grew behind some fundamentally flawed concepts that there were associated with this amorphous movement toward defense transformation. There was an effort in the 1990s to define war as we would like it to be, rather than the way war is.

And the way war was defined is that you can wage war based primarily on technological overmatch: surveillance capabilities combined with information technology, combined with precision-guided munitions. These sorts of capabilities held promise for rapid, decisive operations -- or sort of a shock-and-awe campaign -- that would achieve your objectives very quickly, at low cost, efficiently and from a great distance. ...

Of course this vision of war neglected the human, the psychological, the cultural dimension of conflict. It divorced war from the political objectives that military force was intended to achieve. So in many ways I think our experiences in Afghanistan and in Iraq have administered a corrective to what was an unrealistic definition of the nature of war that developed in the 1990s.

Philip Zelikow
Counselor, State Department

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…Secretary Rumsfeld may have been part of the problem, but I think not in the way it's commonly perceived. ... After the invasion in 2003, the pattern that seems more apparent to me, at least from what I could see, is not that Rumsfeld's running roughshod over his generals. It's that the secretary's actually relatively passive, and the office of the secretary of defense is relatively passive. And that the dominating role is held by the generals, ... and even the joint staff back in Washington is playing only a very modest role in developing overall strategy for Iraq.

So the job has been contracted out, delegated almost completely to the field. And they're looking to Baghdad to not just execute the strategy, but to write the strategy, and to form the policy, and then to tell Washington what the strategy is and what its requirements are. And so the basic dynamic between Baghdad and Washington is, in meeting after meeting, scores and scores of meetings, Baghdad briefs, Washington listens.

Col Douglas Macgregor (Ret.)
Military strategist

[W]here was Rumsfeld from, let's say, Abu Ghraib, with all those calls for his resignation that summer, until we find ourselves in the summer of '06? Was he running the show? If you went over to the Pentagon and walked around and talked to the guy who is in charge, was that Don Rumsfeld?

Well, you know, that's an excellent question because the generals, retired and active, ... are anxious to shift responsibility for everything that is wrong to Rumsfeld. In fact, I think they are a little worried now because he is gone and people are beginning to look at them. The truth is that I think Rumsfeld thought he was in charge, but I'm not sure that he ever was.

Rumsfeld sits in Washington much as Lyndon Baines Johnson and McNamara sat in Washington: looking at statistics; receiving reports; surrounded by sycophantic yes men, generals who are happy to be there, happy to tell them what they want to hear. They go forward to look at something and they are presented with the usual Army dog-and-pony show. The soldiers and marines with whom they speak are carefully selected. The same thing happens for all of the Congressmen. So getting at the truth is extremely difficult. But also remember, there was a pre-disposition to want to hear certain things. [CENTCOM commander Gen. John] Abizaid understood that, and he told them, for the most part, what they wanted to hear. ...

So I don't think that Rumsfeld was ever really completely in charge at all, and in reality, what was happening on the ground was always very different from what he thought in the Pentagon. In other words, the gap between reality and imagination was always substantial. It was far larger than he ever understood, and I think he was as much a victim of that as anything else. As much as the American population has been a victim of that sort of thing.

Thomas Ricks
The Washington Post

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…My sense in '04/'05 is the overarching story of what happens in Washington is it's the transition time from being deeply in denial and thinking that things in Iraq are going well, and slowly coming to recognize by the end of '05 that things are not going that well. Remember, end of '05 is when the president gives a series of speeches about how he's recognized the problems in Iraq. He's going to do much better.

Rumsfeld during this time, I have the sense that he's detached from it, that Iraq is somebody else's problem in his view. I was always struck that he talked about transformation. People were saying, "How do you want to be remembered as secretary of defense? You've been in this job now five or six years." He talked about transformation.

Rumsfeld, I think, will be remembered for one thing and one thing only, which is Iraq. And to think that he's going to be remembered for that would be like McNamara thinking he's going to be remembered for the EF-111, which is an aircraft he spent a lot of time working on during his time.

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

photo of krepinevich Read his full interview

… I think [this] is the issue that historians will be pouring over and young people will be writing their doctoral dissertations on for sometime to come: How could such a talented team, one of the most experienced that we've had in terms of war experience and so on, how could they have gotten it so wrong in terms of anticipating what would happen?

And what does Dr. Andrew Krepinevich believe?

I'm not on the inside -- but certainly from what you see, there was a fundamental flaw in the planning. The planning assumed that things would go a lot better than we had perhaps a right to expect. But certainly in any kind of plan you have to plan for things going wrong. There's Murphy's law: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. There's SNAFU -- situation [normal], all fouled up -- which is a military term. So you may plan for the best, but you have to expect the worst, or at least have to expect to be able to operate in a tough environment. Evidently that planning just simply did not exist in any detailed level. ...

How much of where we find ourselves in, let's say, July of 2004 can be laid at the civilian authorities at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld and others, in terms of this kind of willful optimism that they seem to bring to the enterprise? ...

I think the way I would answer that would be to say that we as humans have a tendency to think that all things considered, that tomorrow is kind of going to look like today. And there's a charge that's often leveled at the military that they prepare for the last war. If you look at the second Gulf War, the military prepares, in a sense, the way it prepared for the first Gulf War: "We'll go in; we'll defeat the main enemy forces. That achieved victory back in 1991. We'll do that again." And they do, and they do it spectacularly well.

There's also a sense that yes, there's going to be some messiness afterward, but there was messiness in Bosnia back in the late 1990s; there was messiness in Afghanistan after 9/11. But that pretty quickly calmed down. We did not have to deploy large numbers of troops, and really, things worked out. We were able to put into place a new government in Afghanistan, a very ethnically diverse country. ... So why not have this happen again?

And of course by the fall of 2003, even though some of his commanders are starting to use the word "insurgency" and Secretary Rumsfeld calls them "dead-enders" and "Saddamists" and so on, he writes this memo that's leaked to the press, and it's a bit of an eye-opener. ... In the memo there's a phrase: This war is going to be "a long, hard slog." So Rumsfeld, even back in the fall of '03, I think, has a very good sense that this isn't something that's going to be wrapped up quickly now. ...

So fairly quickly they think, to give him his credit, he begins to see that there are going to be problems here. Now, the question is, what's the strategy to deal with it? How are you going to approach the situation now that the rosy scenario hasn't played out and you're confronted with this very messy situation?

Michael Gordon
The New York Times

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…I think Rumsfeld came to the conclusion that it would be a very long slog indeed, and one that the Iraqis should properly fight and that our role should be a secondary one. He saw the effects it was having on the American military. He understood it was a drain on resources. ... It potentially raised the problem that other adversaries might conclude that the United States was unable to exert influence on other parts of the world because it was bogged down in Iraq. I think Rumsfeld's prescription for dealing with this problem of being strategically fixed was to reduce the footprint, not to step up our efforts to win.

Is that [different from the views of] the president and [then-National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice and others at the National Security Council? ...

You had with Rumsfeld, Abizaid and Casey three individuals who basically thought that it was not advisable to greatly enlarge the American military footprint in Iraq, except maybe episodically for tactical reasons: There's an election; you beef up to provide added security through that period. But basically their view was, we're going to try to phase down and put the onus on the Iraqis and get them to step up and fight this insurgency, which is likely to go on for a very long period.

Initially the White House went along with this. If you read the so-called [National] Strategy for Victory [in Iraq] that the president put out, much of the testimony that was given to the Congress during this period, it internalized a lot of this thinking. The way the White House put it and the president put it was, "As the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down." That was very consistent with the concept of Gen. Casey that we're going to increase the size of the Iraqi security forces, and as that happens, we'll begin to draw down our own troops and shrink the number of bases in Iraq and hand over responsibility to them. The White House accepted this line, and in fact advertised it for quite a while.

Also it's an election year. It's not about getting deeper and deeper; it's about light footprint, and soon we'll be gone.

I think they believed it. They looked at the situation in Iraq, and they saw, well, they were having elections. And in Washington, I think that created more hope than it did in Baghdad and in Iraq, somewhat ironically, that the Iraqis were beginning to stand up a new government, a new constitutional process. The calculation was that gradually the Sunnis would be drawn into this process. There would be some insurgents, but you could negotiate with these insurgents and maybe bring them in the tent. You would develop the Iraqi security forces.

They would have these Pentagon briefings. They'd bring out these charts, and it would show this steady growth in the Iraqi security forces, army and police. This was intended to be some kind of barometer of Iraqi capability. In fact, it put the emphasis wrongly on ... the number of guys that we were training and equipping, not on quality -- the number of troops that are truly loyal to the government, willing to leave their home areas and actually go fight. That's only a portion of the actual Iraqi security forces.

But these kind[s] of assumptions were accepted at the White House. And remember, they have a four-star general coming in to brief them, telling them that it's all working.

Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.)
Gen. Casey strategy adviser

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…On several occasions I got to see what the military officers on the staff referred to as the "7,000-mile screwdriver," which is directives, essentially, that would arrive, usually from the Joint staff or the Army staff in the Pentagon, prescribing very specific actions that should be taken inside Iraq to solve the problem, ... very divorced from the reality of the war. Well-meaning, not without some validity in a broader sense, and there is something to be said for distance and perspective, but there is also something to be said for being where the action is and living these events every day. ... So the subordinate commanders were often left with trying to find ways to explain why these directives could not be followed. ...

When [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, 2005-2007, Zalmay] Khalilzad comes to town [in the summer of 2005] he has his red team that re-evaluates strategy. How did you guys view that? Was that in competition to what you and Casey were doing, or was that in addition? ...

Oh, Ambassador Khalilzad had used a red team before, when he took over in Afghanistan. I was working primarily with Col. Hix at this time in preparing presentations to the red team that had come in, but it was just meant to do a thorough review of all of the operations inside the U.S. Embassy and as they related also to Multi-National Force-Iraq operations. ... And what better way to do that? He's a new ambassador going into the most critical ambassadorial assignment on the planet, and the first thing he would need to do is make an assessment of what's happening.

And the Andrew Krepinevich idea he is walking around with, which we have all heard so much about, the oil-spot theory -- how does that feel to have that walked in? I mean, he has also got a kind of military strategy idea as well, yes?

I don't know that he did. This was part of an issue that was never resolved. And if you could find out Mr. Rumsfeld's role in this, because that's my suspicion, but I don't have one e-mail, one overheard conversation in this regard. But the way you conduct counterinsurgency like this is that you have to have unity of effort, decentralized execution, but you have to have centralized planning and vision, and that means one person is in charge and responsible for everything that is going on.

But throughout the campaign in Iraq, we've always had two. Initially it was Gen. Jay Garner, head of ORHA [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance], and then the American military commanders. Then it was Ambassador Jerry Bremer, [head of the CPA, 2003-2004], and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez; again, separate. Then it was Gen. Casey, Ambassador Khalilzad -- and I understand Khalilzad followed [John] Negroponte.

Particularly in the last case Gen. Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad got along extremely well, very cooperative. They drove their staffs to a combined effort. But it was still a co-directorship of the war in Iraq, no matter how you look at it, and that by itself debilitates the overall effort. ...

So why do you think Rumsfeld would do that?

Because if you are going to establish a U.S. ambassador in the country, he should be the director of the American effort and all the Americans, and then, hence, [all] the coalition would do in the country. The question would be, would Mr. Rumsfeld be willing to have one of his generals and a major portion of his military power subordinated to a State Department official?

Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies

photo of cordesman

…I think another problem, frankly, was simply Rumsfeld, who really, I think, has a horrifying resemblance in practice to Robert McNamara: arrogant, incapable of listening to advice, a terrible micromanager who cannot actually manage or make effective decisions but can often block them. Someone who doesn't want bad news or even reality to surface and creates almost insuperable problems for Casey. Coupled to a weak Joint Staff which, frankly, exhibited a level of cowardice in resisting Rumsfeld and raising issues which were quite clear at the command level. ...

One thing you cannot do is focus on the people in the theater; I think that they often tried to do the best they could. The problem really often was a combination of very poor political leadership -- particularly on the part of the vice president and the secretary of defense -- and a horrifying lack of effective leadership within the U.S. Army and within the Joint Staff. It was compounded, quite frankly, by an intimidated intelligence community which had been beaten up for effectively going along with political pressure to create estimates that justified the invasion of Iraq…

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

photo of keane Read his full interview

…In your personal opinion, General, should he have resigned before that?

It probably would have been better, I think, in the spring or early summer, maybe to -- once you realize that it's just not working, maybe the best thing to do is get a fresh set of eyes on this thing. After six years of the fatigue in exhausting positions, even in peacetime, those are demanding positions. In wartime, if you added emotional and psychological stress that goes with it, is pretty significant. ...

He's a man of great compassion, although he doesn't show it in a public way. But in a private, personal way, he's a very humane person, and I think that took its toll on him all the time, as you would expect after six years, and four years of that being at war. ... So yeah, the answer to that is yes. ...

To whose feet do you lay this strategy? How did we get to the short-war strategy? Is that White House-driven? Is that Rumsfeld-driven? Is that [CENTCOM Commander, 2003-2007, Gen. John] Abizaid-driven?

I think it's complex. It's a shared responsibility, let me say up front, between the national civilian leaders and senior military leaders. I think it's driven in part by my own failures when I was there as a senior military leader contributing to [CENTCOM Commander, 2000-2003] Gen. [Tommy] Franks' plan that we never even considered an insurgency as a reasonable option. We took down the regime and thought all we had to do then was occupy the country, stabilize it, and in a matter of a few months we could reduce the force, and then in a matter of a few years we should be able to be out of there.

Well, obviously that was wrong to begin with. And once members of the regime decided not to surrender and the insurgency began to grow, the strategy that evolved in '04 was a considerably more thoughtful strategy than the one we had in '03. It was a shared strategy among the generals who were participating -- Gen. Casey and Gen. Abizaid -- and obviously Secretary Rumsfeld.

Now, it's operating within an ideology ... that you use the minimal amount of force because you do not want the host nation to be overly dependent on you. ... So the administration, I think, had a role to play here with influencing the military leaders in terms of their ideology. But military leaders bear responsibility here as well in crafting a military strategy that turns out not to have worked.

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posted june 19, 2007

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