War Stories

Beware Rumsfeld’s Snow Job

The former defense secretary’s revisionist op-ed.

Donald Rumsfeld 

Donald Rumsfeld is writing his memoirs, and if his op-ed in the Nov. 23 New York Times is any preview, it should be a classic of self-serving revisionism.

On the surface, the former defense secretary’s piece seems to be a warning—sound, if unoriginal—that merely sending more troops to Afghanistan won’t fix that country’s problems or win the war.

But his real intent is clearly to justify his own policies on the war in Iraq, to refute the (properly) widespread idea that he committed serious errors, and even more to deny that he held the views that he actually did hold.

The first eyebrow-raiser comes in the second paragraph, in which he writes, almost in passing, “As one who is occasionally—and incorrectly—portrayed as an opponent of the surge in Iraq. …”

Let’s stop right there.

From beginning to end—from the preparations for the invasion in the summer and fall of 2002 until his (forced) resignation was announced in November 2006—Rumsfeld consistently opposed all proposals to send more troops to Iraq.

The quarrels between Rumsfeld and the generals over how many troops to send at the outset of the war have been well-documented. It turned out that Rumsfeld was right about how few troops would be needed to overthrow Saddam Hussein—and very wrong about how many would be needed to impose order afterward.

That is to say, he understood (as many of the Army’s senior officers did not) that the new GPS-guided “smart bombs”—which could destroy enemy tanks and troop formations from the air with extreme accuracy—meant that massive artillery units, with their heavy weapons and long logistical lines, were no longer necessary. However, he did not understand (as those officers did) that when it comes to postwar “stability operations,” the key ingredient is boots on the ground—and lots of them.

Rumsfeld saw the Iraq war primarily as a showcase for a new style of warfare known as “military transformation”—the idea that, in the post-Cold War world, America could project power and topple rogue regimes with a small number of troops (backed by high-tech air forces) and that, therefore, we could do so repeatedly, anytime, anywhere, at low cost and with little effort. The Pentagon laid out no official plans for post-Saddam Iraq because Rumsfeld wasn’t interested in the subject. To him, Iraq wasn’t what the war was about.

He felt confident in his views because of the lightning victory in Afghanistan, where a very small contingent of Special Operations forces, backed by smart bombs and indigenous guerrilla fighters, ousted the Taliban regime from Kabul in a matter of weeks—much more rapidly than the year or two that many Army generals guessed it would take. But Rumsfeld erred here, too. He thought that the war was over when Kabul fell and the Taliban retreated. At that point, according to Sean Naylor’s excellent book Not a Good Day To Die, he issued orders that no more ground forces could be deployed to Afghanistan—not even an individual soldier or Marine, much less a battalion or brigade—without his explicit approval. It was a few months after this decision that U.S. forces fought their toughest battle, in Operation Anaconda (made all the tougher because they were so short on troops), and when Osama Bin Laden escaped into the mountains.

In his memoirs, Rumsfeld will no doubt reprint a memo that he wrote in November 2006 in which he supported the surge in Iraq. (A former official who took part in these deliberations tells me that such a memo does exist.) However, it is worth noting that he wrote the memo after the midterm elections—that is, after President George W. Bush forced him to resign. The policy was moving in the direction of a surge and Bush was about to sign on, so Rumsfeld went there, too. This isn’t necessarily a cynical interpretation; he may have supported the surge not so much to give the appearance that he was on “the right side” as simply to support the president’s policy. In any case, two points should be kept in mind: He did so without enthusiasm, and the policy went totally against the spirit and substance of his positions up until then.

Later in the Times op-ed, Rumsfeld argues that the surge was a matter of timing—that had he sent more troops sooner, they would not have accomplished anything. The implication is that Rumsfeld was right when he decided not to send more troops—and he was right toward the end, when he had no choice and signed on.

Rumsfeld notes that the surge improved Iraq’s security only because it coincided with other developments. These included the “Anbar Awakening,” in which Sunni insurgents formed alliances with U.S. troops against the larger enemy of al-Qaida in Iraq; the improvement of Iraq’s own security forces; and the cease-fire called by Shiite militia leader Muqtada Sadr. The surge wouldn’t have worked earlier, he writes, “because large segments of the Sunni population were still providing sanctuary to insurgents, and Iraq’s security forces were not sufficiently capable or large enough.”

He’s right, but the real meaning of what he’s saying—though he wouldn’t put it so starkly—is that an earlier surge wouldn’t have had much effect because the U.S. military (i.e., Secretary Rumsfeld) had no counterinsurgency strategy to go with it. In fact, until very late in the game, Rumsfeld refused even to call the enemy “insurgents”—because if he did, he would have had to mount a counterinsurgency strategy, which would have required more troops, and he had no interest in that.

A few field officers pursued a strategy on their own, to the extent they could. Early in the occupation, David Petraeus, who was then a lieutenant general commanding the 101st Airborne Division, carried out such a strategy in Mosul, facilitated in large part by a huge stash of Saddam’s cash, which Petraeus and other commanders were permitted to spend on restoring basic services and paying off tribal leaders who cooperated. (When the money ran out, Mosul started to fall apart.) H.R. McMaster, who was then a colonel commanding the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, ran a similar, more comprehensive strategy in Tal Afar.

The problem was not that Iraq wasn’t ready for a surge before 2007; it was that Rumsfeld and his top generals at the time weren’t doing anything that might make Iraq ready. They were very slow and unimaginative at training the Iraqi army. And they had no ideas about how to convince the Sunnis to stop sheltering insurgents, besides banging down doors and shooting people without thinking first—a practice that created more insurgents than it killed.

Another misleading claim in Rumsfeld’s op-ed: “During my last weeks in office, I recommended to President Bush that he consider Gen. David Petraeus as commander of coalition forces in Iraq.”

This may be true. Again, Rumsfeld has no doubt rustled up a memo in which he said just that. However, note that he writes that he made this recommendation “during my last weeks in office.” He left the job, and Robert Gates took his place, on Dec. 18, 2006. The timing is unclear, but it may well be that by the time Rumsfeld “recommended” him, Petraeus was already the all-but-certain pick.

One thing is clear: In November, just a month earlier, in one of his final official acts, Rumsfeld blocked Bush’s chief of staff Josh Bolten from appointing Petraeus to chair a White House review of Iraq policy. “Rumsfeld loathed Petraeus,” one officer who worked high up in the Pentagon at the time recalled in a phone conversation this week.

Is Rumsfeld lying in this op-ed? No. He did support the surge—after (or perhaps just before) Bush put it in motion and after firmly opposing anything like it for the previous three years. He did recommend Petraeus to be commander of multinational forces in Iraq—after the appointment was in the cards and after blocking him from a crucial position on Iraq a few weeks earlier.

During his six years as defense secretary, Rumsfeld famously wrote hundreds, maybe thousands, of memos to subordinates—they fell so rapidly from on high that his aides called them “snowflakes.” According to several officials, many of these snowflakes contradicted one another; he seemed to be staking out several positions on key issues so that he could later claim that he’d taken the right side. In his forthcoming memoirs, he will no doubt quote chapter and verse from just the right snowflakes. Readers, be forewarned—he’s blotting out the full storm.