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A Question of Competence
By Tim Louise Macaluso and Krestia DeGeorge

A retired general speaks out on Donald Rumsfeld

 

Hanging on the wall in retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste’s office is a framed sheet of paper asking: “Who Needs to Know This?” Batiste is president of Klein Steel, a Rochester company he joined in November 2005. And the phrase, which he says is one of his favorites, is a typical management slogan. But it is sharply relevant to another new role he has assumed: outspoken critic of Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense.

Batiste, who joined the Army in 1974, served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm as well as in Bosnia and Kosovo. His final assignment was as commanding general of the First Infantry Division from August 2002 to June 2005, serving in Iraq from February 2004 to February 2005.

He walked away from his military career last year specifically in objection to Rumsfeld’s handling of the war in Iraq. And he is one of six retired generals who called recently for Rumsfeld’s resignation.

Batiste declines to clarify whether he supported the decision to go to war in Iraq. We’re there now, he says, and with enough troops, the war could have been won. Insurgents could have been overwhelmed. And he believes that the United States must continue the fight in Iraq, that it can not walk away, that it must win the peace and set Iraq on a road toward stability.

Batiste is a straight-talker, and as he put it in recent interviews with City Newspaper of Rochester, he’s “a little pissed.” What could have been an immediate success, he says, will now be a protracted involvement—lasting 10 years or longer. And one man is to blame, he says: Donald Rumsfeld.

He disagrees with Rumsfeld supporters who say many of the war’s problems couldn’t have been predicted. A possible war with Iraq and every scenario imaginable had been planned and reviewed for more than a decade, he says. That’s what the Defense Department does. He says, for example, that the insurgency was completely predictable and reminds us that the first American soldier was killed by a boy.

But the larger concern raised by Batiste and the other generals is with the United States’ leadership, its competency and trustworthiness in a time of war.

Batiste is proud of the military and says he doesn’t want to see servicemen and women blamed for a failure they didn’t create. And he’s convinced that the military is succeeding at “changing attitudes in Iraq and giving people alternatives to the insurgency.”

Batiste makes it clear that the only way he could speak out was by leaving the military. In doing so, it’s unlikely that the lucrative defense-contractor jobs typically offered to ex-military officers will come his way, though he says he wasn’t interested in them anyway.

Batiste will soon be moving into his new home in Brighton with his wife and two of his five children. His three oldest children are away at college.

In his interviews with City, Batiste discussed his concerns about Rumsfeld and his decision to speak out, which he calls “the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever done.”

The following is an edited version of that interview.

Q: Describe your responsibilities in Iraq.

Batiste: I was in Iraq commanding the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division, about 22,000 soldiers, from February ’04 to February ’05. About half of the division combat team was from the Reserve components, and I should just mention right at the outset that one of those great battalions was the Second Battalion of the 108th Infantry of the New York National Guard. They were in the town of Dujail [where Saddam Hussein is accused of having men and boys tortured and executed]. Those soldiers were in a tough situation and they did a good job, and they have my profound respect. A lot of them are from the Rochester area. I commanded a number of these National Guard battalions from all over the country, and the best one was from upstate New York.

The division was in northeast Iraq in an area about the size of the state of West Virginia. We were northeast of Baghdad. My headquarters was in Tikrit, and my area went all the way north to Kirkuk and the Iranian border and all the way around Barqubah—a big area, and an area that included all of the Iraqi challenges: Arab, Kurd, Sunni and Shiite and any number of large tribes. It really defined the complexity of the Iraqi society.

You know, Iraq has never been a nation, really. The Brits tried this in the last century, and they lost thousands of soldiers and killed tens of thousands of Arabs and Kurds. And they put a king in place. They drew a boundary around a bunch of different folks, a boundary without regard to ethnic makeup. Same thing we did in Yugoslavia, and it all started after World War I. It created the problems of this century and the last part of the last century.

So here we’ve got this country, and they don’t think of themselves in terms of a national identity. They don’t think of themselves as Iraqis. They think of themselves first as a member of a tribe. Then they think of themselves as an Arab or a Kurd. And then they’ve got their religion. So it’s an incredibly complex society. And it could only be ruled by a strong man like Saddam. The Brits put the king in, and three coups later, they got Saddam.

I say all of that to make a point: When you go into a country like that, you better have your act together. You better have gone through the very detailed military planning needed to accomplish the mission, which includes not only taking down the regime, but also building the peace. Colin Powell once said, “If you break it, you own it.” You may have heard me say that we took down the regime, but we didn’t plan to build the peace. My point is: What an incredibly stupid thing. How naive to think that there wouldn’t be an insurgency. Of course there was going to be an insurgency. It started on the first day of the war.

What specifically are your criticisms of Secretary Rumsfeld?

We’ve got to finish what we started. We have no option. This is going to go on for years. There will be many future decisions, many tough decisions. And what we’ve got right now is a secretary of defense who has made a series of strategic mistakes. Why would we allow the architect of all these mistakes to continue to be the leader of this long protracted war, when it is anybody’s guess how many major decisions there are in the future?

It’s a matter of accountability and competence. Let me give you three examples. Number one: We went to war with the wrong war plan.

You know, within the Department of Defense there is a very deliberate war planning process. When you get into the business of war planning, it is very analytical and complex. You start with a series of assumptions. You learn all you can about the enemy’s situation. You figure out what the specified and implied tasks are. You look at the number of forces you need on the ground to accomplish the mission.

It is a cyclical process, and it goes on continuously. Every two years the plan is reviewed and approved by the secretary of defense. Since the Gulf War, there were multiple iterations of this planning process between U.S. Central Command and the Pentagon. And three successive prior secretaries of defense had reviewed and approved it.

So my question is, why then, in the run-up to the war, did we discount all of that good planning that required over 350,000 soldiers to complete the mission, that is, take down the regime and build the peace?

Why did we discount all of that and go in with about a third of what was required? How could we not take into account how hard it would be to build the peace?

To not take into account and ignore the realities of this incredible complex society—the tribal, ethnic, and religious components—and wish away the insurgency was irresponsible and wrong. To not pay attention to the lessons of history was criminal. The point is, you’ve got to have the full component of capability going in, because the hard work of rebuilding the country, to set it all back on its feet, starts the day after combat.

Two, I firmly believe that whole national disgrace of Abu Ghraib can be traced directly back to decisions the secretary of defense made. He personally changed the rules for prisoner handling, treatment, and interrogation. They became ambiguous. They were changed too often. It’s got to be black and white.

This business of prisoner abuse is totally avoidable. The other reason that it happened goes back to the first point: We didn’t have enough troops on the ground. So the commanders, who I have the utmost respect for, were consumed in managing shortages and not leading and planning and anticipating opportunities, which commanders have to do in this situation. I pin this right back on the secretary of defense.

The third example is his decision to stand down the Iraqi military. In this kind of operation, where you take down the regime and build the peace, the complexity is enormous. And one of the principles is, you don’t destroy all of the institutions in a country—certainly not the military. You have hundreds of thousands of these guys who are suddenly unemployed. So they take their guns and as much ammunition as they can carry, and they become a source of guns and military expertise for the insurgency. These boys want to feed their families, and they are going to do whatever they have to do.

When the military was stood down, the people of Iraq immediately began to tear down these institutions—I mean, brick by brick, for their own homes. In Iraq, the most significant infrastructure was the military: the barracks, runways, mess halls, swimming pools, and gyms. When we got there, all that was left was a cement slab in the desert. It all had to be rebuilt, and it’s still going on today.

Those three decisions made by our secretary of defense were strategic mistakes. And no one has held him accountable. Nobody. It’s all about accountability and competence.

I believe in the military. I don’t oppose the war. I have absolutely no political agenda. I have not written a book that I am trying to sell. I left the Army so I could speak with you today.

There’s a lot of confusion about that. And I have been fighting that on a bunch of different fronts. Within the military there is great debate, and we spoke up constantly—believe me, vigorously. Some of our meetings were knock-down, drag-’em-out, but in the military there comes a point where a guy like me has a couple of choices: You can salute and execute, or you can get out.

There’s a nuance here that a lot of people just don’t get. Inside the military, there is a culture. And if you step outside of it when you are in uniform—if I was still in uniform and we were having this conversation, I would be violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice and would probably be put in jail.

I feel I have a moral duty now to speak out, and I am doing it for the airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines and their families who are still in this fight. They deserve the best leadership.

If we had sent 350,000 troops into Iraq, would we have prevented the insurgency?

I am saying it would have been very different if we had gone in with the right troop level. Very different. And if we had not stood down the Iraqi military. We dispersed a fighting force back into the country without a job, without anything to do to support their families.

You’ve talked about Rumsfeld in terms of accountability, but we hear a lot about his personality. Which is the problem?

It’s both, because one clouds the other. I worked for men who were much tougher than Don Rumsfeld, much more aggressive. But the difference was, they understood leadership. They understood that respect was a two-way street, and they listened to people. The problem with Don Rumsfeld is he’s contemptuous, he’s dismissive, he’s arrogant and he doesn’t listen.

How widespread is this dissent?

I don’t want to speak for all those soldiers on active duty. I am speaking for myself. I can tell you that the negative feedback I’ve received I can count on one hand. Sadly, it’s all politicized now.

You and others have said that this is not a coordinated effort. How do you explain so many retired generals having come forward like this?

It is coincidence, but there is something there that is deeply frustrating, and because some people can’t speak out, others become their voice.

Are there almost two different worlds in operation here—what the general public is seeing, hearing, reading, and believing about Iraq versus what is actually happening on the ground?

Yes. In fact, I’ve always thought that. We were frustrated that it was hard to get the press to go out and see what was going on. They tended to stay in Baghdad.

The response to that has been that it is too dangerous.

And there is some truth to that. It is dangerous, very dangerous. A lot of reporters have been killed or injured trying to cover this war.

What mechanisms protect the military from retribution?

Well, the answer for me was I had to put up the uniform. In putting up my uniform, I in no way relinquished my American citizenship. There are those who say that I shouldn’t be speaking out as a retired officer, and my response is: nonsense. If I don’t speak out, who will? There ought to be other folks who speak out. This is the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever done. It’s the result of a whole lot of contemplation and thought. I spent a lot of nights pacing around the house.

Can you help put us there during those nights? What was the tipping point?

A couple of things. One was the book Cobra II [an account of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, written by New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon and retired Marine Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor]. The other was Secretary [of State Condoleeza] Rice making the comment that there were thousands of tactical errors made in Iraq. Well, I understand that she really didn’t mean that, but to a guy like me, when you hear the word tactical, that means errors on the ground in Iraq.

There are three kinds of decisions in my world: tactical, operational, and strategic. And my view is that operationally and tactically, our great servicemen and women and their families are absolutely being successful in Iraq despite the strategic mistakes being made at the highest level.

You mentioned citizenship. As citizens, what role have we played in co-facilitating some of this? We’re being told to go about our business as if everything is normal.

You know, there’s an expectation that you trust your government, and people in Rochester or anywhere else should be able to trust their government. But in order to do that, there has to be a level of accountability.

You’ve stated that you supported the war.

Whether I supported the war or not really doesn’t make any difference. I certainly saluted and executed. In the three years I commanded the First Infantry Division, the Big Red One, the division spent 14 months in Kosovo, four months in Turkey opening up the northern route—which didn’t happen, because the Turks stopped us—and then a good year in Iraq. So I have been focused on executing this global war on terrorism. That was my job.

What do you see as a favorable outcome?

We’ve got to be successful.

But what does that mean?

It means we can’t walk away from Iraq. We have to set the conditions for self reliance in Iraq. We have a moral obligation to finish what we started. As an American citizen, I would like to see a secretary of defense in place that I trust, someone who has the instincts to make the right decisions that are coming up.

What types of decisions are you referring to?

Well, we’ve got Iran right around the corner. This is going to continue.

What do you mean? There’s a lot of buzz right now that we are planning an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Is that what you’re referring to?

As we proceed with the War on Terror, there will be more decisions to be made. It could be a decision involving Iran; I don’t know. But my point is, I am not comfortable with the secretary of defense making that decision, based on his track record.

On that point, how is the war in Iraq going to affect other countries in that region? The Bush administration’s vision was that success in Iraq would lead to the spread of democracy throughout the region.

It will have an incredible effect. The people in the region would rather have some form of government as long as it’s stable. Whether it’s democracy. . . You see, I don’t think it’s democracy that we’re trying to establish in Iraq. I think it is some form of representative government that none of us would recognize. But it has to take into account the tribal, ethnic, and religious complexities of that country. Every time I hear the word “democracy” used in the context of Iraq, I think: Boy, that’s a naive statement. That isn’t going to happen.

When you hear the word “insurgency,” what does that mean to you? Who are the insurgents?

It means any number of things. It was a small number of foreign fighters, a large number of disgruntled Sunnis; it’s any number of militias, often times the Shiites. It’s criminals. It’s mafia gangs. You name it.

What do you think would be the impact of capturing Osama bin Laden?

Very little, really. There are many people willing to take his place.

Discuss Rumsfeld’s vision of the new military. What is the new military?

The military was transforming before he ever stepped foot in the Pentagon. His vision is to spend all the money on very expensive, high-technology missile defense and space defense systems. You do that at the expense of the maneuver forces, so his view was to take the Army and other services down to the lowest level possible. The war interrupted him. And the Army is still undersourced over there. I agree that you need the high-technology capability, but you need both. You can’t have one without the other.

Talk about the importance of the military-civilian divide.

Civilian control of the military is fundamental. I don’t question that for a moment. This is not about supremacy of the military. We need a secretary of defense that reports to the president, period. I just question the secretary’s leadership qualities, his instincts and motivations. It is time to get a new leader.

You’ve said that when you were making the decision to speak out, you had some sleepless nights. Do you still have those nights?

No. I feel absolutely that it is my duty and moral obligation to keep speaking. And I’m not through.

Tim Louise Macaluso and Krestia DeGeorge are editorial staffers at City Newspaper of Rochester, where this interview first appeared.


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