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Top military leaders: new strategy is desperately needed
Real Cities.com/McClatchy Newspapers
Joe Galloway
September 6, 2006

Debating issues of war and peace and America's role in the world aren't off limits in this fourth year of war in Iraq, and they aren't a sign of anything but the health and vibrancy of our democracy, however much President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld might wish otherwise in a tough election season.

In hopes of furthering that debate, this week I asked more than a dozen top Army and Marine Corps generals - active duty and retired, dissidents and administration loyalists - to address what we should do now in Iraq.

All of them agreed that America's strategy and tactics in Iraq have failed, and that President Bush's policy of "staying the course" in Iraq isn't likely to produce anything but more frustration, more and greater problems for the United States in a dangerous world, and more and bloodier surprises for the 135,000 American troops in Iraq.

"Lack of security and lack of governance have pushed Iraq into the rise of a civil war," said one retired senior general. "The message is clear: We have a failed strategy, and we need new leadership and a new strategy to secure (our) interests in the region." The U.S. has important issues in the Middle East - not least of them Iran, he said, "but we cannot do much while bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"The problem thus far, as you know, has been lack of serious planning, poor selection of people in charge ... screwed-up assessments and assumptions, no building of international and regional cooperation, trust in non-credible exiles and too much spin and ad hoc-ery," said retired Marine Gen. Tony Zinni, who formerly headed the U.S. Central Command, with responsibility for 32 nations, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

Zinni, who was among those who counseled continued containment of Saddam Hussein's Iraq rather than war and regime-change, continued: "The current bankrupt course we are staying is focused only, or almost only, on security and is not complete even in that area."

"Until we back up and assess what we have gotten ourselves into, I fear we will see a repeat of the war in Vietnam," said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, who recently called for firing Rumsfeld. "Our military will again fight a series of battles and engagements in Iraq without the overall purpose that a good campaign plan provides."

The need for change, all the officers agreed, is urgent if the U.S. to avoid a catastrophe whose ripple effects would cripple American influence in the Middle East and worldwide, leaving us a superpower in name only, and a beleaguered superpower at that.

Though it's far more difficult today because of lost opportunities, Zinni said, if the administration acted fast, a better outcome could be pulled out of the flames. To get Iraq right, he said, would take five to seven years, "and it means a much more comprehensive and well-planned set of programs to build political, economic, social and security institutions."

Even retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Gen. Colin Powell at the State Department in President Bush's first term and now an outspoken critic of the administration's policies in Iraq, said there's still a way to succeed.

"First, you have to think big," Wilkerson said. "Not stupid big, the way Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld do, but smart big the way Teddy Roosevelt used to do."

Some retired officers such as Wilkerson and Zinni spoke on the record; others, including all still on active duty, would speak only on background for obvious reasons. But there was a broad consensus among them that a new U.S. strategy is desperately needed in Iraq, and on the outlines of one:

-Review America's military options.

None of the officers I interviewed recommended an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and a few suggested sending more U.S. troops to Iraq. "You have to be willing to let the GIs on the ground continue to do what they have been doing recently, fighting smart rather than dumb ... doing counter-insurgency and not fighting on the northern plains of Europe," Wilkerson said.

Most of the officers, however, agreed that the administration has relied too heavily on the military and shortchanged economic and political efforts in Iraq.

One senior general who's still on active duty and has broad experience in the Middle East argued that the United States should announce that it wants no permanent, long-term American bases in Iraq; that we aren't planning to stay forever. "By pouring concrete and building these huge bases, we are reinforcing what the insurgents are telling the people," he said.

Some, like retired Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, who resigned as the director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, said the time has come to begin discussing withdrawing U.S. troops.

Newbold said that he takes what he called a "distinctly minority view" that the administration should set a general timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, declaring success in the most important goals - the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the institution of a Middle East-style democracy and the removal of any near-term threat that Iraq will threaten its neighbors. Any such timeline should be made conditional on the general security situation in Iraq, he said.

We'll inevitably publish a timeline for a U.S. withdrawal, anyway, Newbold said, but doing so now would weaken one of the prime motivating forces of the insurgency - the continued presence of American troops as an occupying force.

"Our national strategy must include policies that assist our cause, not those of the insurgents and terrorists by reinforcing their exaggerated views of American behavior and intentions," Newbold said.

A retired Army senior general said it's time for the national debate to focus on how we get out of Iraq and how we do so in such a way that we return to a more normal role and secure our vital interests in the region.

He said that an exit strategy is the venue we need to work - "not cut and run but focusing the national debate on what next and our role in the region for the long term ... an exit from what we are doing currently to get us to a more normal role securing our vital interests in the region."

-Bolster the effort to train and equip Iraqi military and security forces that can take over from U.S. troops.

Newbold said that the time for adding more U.S. forces on the ground has passed, if only for political reasons, and that the best military option now is to reinforce the efforts of Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, to stand up a capable Iraqi army to take over security.

If we're serious about standing up a capable and effective Iraqi army to take responsibility for security, said a serving senior general, "then we need to get serious about it now" and make certain that only the best American Army and Marine officers and NCOs are assigned to the Military Transition Teams. Without that, he said, "we will be there forever."

A senior Army officer who's served multiple tours in Iraq and studied the situation more closely than most said the U.S. should undertake reforms of the security sectors in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior, train and install stronger leaders at every level in the Iraqi Army and police, establish a reconciliation program that permits more participation by former Saddam regime officials and disarm the private militias that are responsible for much of the sectarian violence.

-Devote greater energy to rebuilding Iraq's economy and political system.

"You have to pour on the resources, not cut back," Wilkerson said. "A billion a month for reconstruction ... and these dollars do not go to American contractors. They go to Iraqi contractors who are overseen by Americans and British and others."

Newbold agreed that the United States must focus its primary effort in the economic and political realms in Iraq, and he said that so far the other agencies of the U.S. government haven't come close to the intensity and commitment of the military engagement. "To borrow a phrase: It's the economy, Stupid!" he said.

The State Department and other agencies need to stop staffing the U.S. Embassy and U.S. advisory teams to the Iraqi government ministries with inexperienced, short-term Generation X staffers, agreed a senior general. Stop making duty in Baghdad strictly a volunteer affair, he said: Assign your best and most experienced staffers to this vital work.

The senior officer who's served multiple tours in Iraq said one goal should be to establish an Iraqi rule of law (police, judges/courts, prisons) with a degree of due process appropriate to the security situation. He said the United States also should empower local governments, giving them the capability to provide basic services and address local grievances.

-Revive American diplomacy in the Middle East.

"Everything we are doing brings Iran and Syria closer together when we ought to be doing everything we can to split them apart," said the senior general. "We need a U.S. ambassador in Syria. (The Bush administration recalled the U.S. ambassador, who hasn't returned.) It would help in Iraq and have spin-off benefits in Lebanon. You can't exert influence if you are not there. We need to be talking to the Syrians. Hell, we need to be talking to the Iranians. This whole axis of evil thing is bull! All it did was drive our enemies closer together."

Wilkerson said the administration should "bring in the surrounding states, not just Iran, though it is the most important one, and get them to share the load money-wise and diplomatically. The Bedouins have got to stop putting their money on all sides, hoping that one will win. They must put their money exclusively on the government in Baghdad. They have to understand that the U.S. is not leaving until the situation is stable."

Wilkerson said the United States also has to start a "rational dialogue" with Iran that encompasses everything from the MEK guerrillas to al Qaida to nuclear weapons to Hezbollah, Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

He said the administration also should start negotiations to settle, once and for all, the Israel-Palestinian situation, including talks with Syria on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, with Lebanon and with the Palestinians themselves.

"The U.S. must be an honest broker in all of these talks - not Israel's lawyer," Wilkerson said. "The U.S. must be willing to bang heads, all of them if necessary."

Finally, Wilkerson argued that the United States must ask international institutions such as the United Nations to help. "You have to cajole and wheedle and coerce your allies to do likewise. If this means eating a little crow, you just ask for the pepper and the cayenne," he said.

Van Riper said the United States lacks a global strategy for fighting a global war against a global Islamist insurgency. He contrasted what we've witnessed from today's war president with the way America and its leaders prepared and planned the campaigns in World War II, and how President Franklin D. Roosevelt explained the strategy and the campaigns to educate the public and ensure support for the war.

"Our current leadership has failed us in these most basic of obligations," he said.

One general who's led troops in combat since 9/11 said the administration's civilian leaders must explain why we're still militarily engaged in Iraq. "Or as most Americans would ask: What does it mean to win in Iraq? Or ... how much U.S. blood and treasure should Americans be asked to sacrifice for Iraq and why?"

"Iraqis, as well as Muslims, know that someday - a year, two years, 10 years - the U.S. military will be gone from their country," he added. "Then what? Will civil war erupt? Will Iraq's regional neighbors stand on the sidelines, or is there too much at stake for them? Should the U.S. find a way to get them involved now in the process? Is that even feasible? What level of potential internal chaos can the U.S. allow? Perhaps unanswerable questions, but our national leaders need to have this conversation both privately and with the American public, because without it the U.S. will continue to react to events instead of establishing a pro-active foreign policy for the region. And support from the American people will continue to evaporate."

None of these officers, however, was optimistic that the administration will alter a course that they all fear will lead America to defeat and disaster.

"All of this will take concentration on the part of the leadership of this country, as well as extraordinary diplomatic skills, thus it won't likely happen," Wilkerson. "The Bushites are too terribly inept."

"Unfortunately, I do not believe that the current Pentagon military and civilian leadership is capable of designing an effective plan," Van Riper said.

If these distinguished military officers are correct that it's not too late to change course in Iraq, then we should all hope that they're wrong in fearing that the Bush administration is too ignorant, too inept, too proud or too political to do so.

As we mark the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it's time for both parties to check their politics at the door and begin a vigorous public debate on how to chart a course that's worthy of the sacrifices that our troops, our firefighters, our police and others have already made.


Joseph L. Galloway is former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Readers may write to him at: P.O. Box 399, Bayside, Texas 78340; e-mail: jlgalloway2@cs.com.

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