Rumsfeld’s Attempts to Rewrite Himself on the Right Side of History Are Laughable

By Gary Brecher |

The failed defense secretary pens a historical cover-up on Iraq and reveals more wild stupidity with his advice on Afghanistan.

I’ve been following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from Go to Oh-No, and by far the biggest surprise has been how many whopping lies you can get away with. The biggest whoppers I’ve seen lately were in a Nov. 23 op-ed piece by Donald Rumsfeld for the New York Times, “One surge Does Not Fit All.

Rumsfeld’s main point is that the “surge” that supposedly worked so well in Iraq might not work in Afghanistan. But Rumsfeld spends most of the essay talking about what he did, or didn’t do, in Iraq. He claims he’s been “…occasionally — and incorrectly — portrayed as an opponent of the surge in Iraq.” This is a classic example of Rumsfeld in full denial mode. For proof that he was in fact opposed to the surge, here’s Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard saying outright that Rumsfeld opposed the surge:

“In September [2006], Rumsfeld had rejected the idea of a surge when retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army and a member of the advisory Defense Policy Review Board, met with him and [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter] Pace. Keane insisted the “train-and-leave” strategy, as Bush referred to it, was failing. He proposed a counterinsurgency strategy, the addition of five to eight Army brigades, and a primary focus on taking back Baghdad. Rumsfeld was unconvinced.”

You may not be surprised that Rumsfeld is changing his story to cover himself; after all, that’s what ex-cabinet types generally do in these articles. They didn’t oppose the surge because they grudged a few more troops, a few billion more taxpayer dollars. The Bush administration was never known for being either squeamish or penny-pinching. Their problem was pure denial: The people at the top, Rumsfeld among them, were too cowardly to admit that a big chunk of the Iraqi people we had “liberated” weren’t grateful but were out for our blood.

The key phrase in that quote from the Weekly Standard is the distinction between two kinds of strategy: the “train-and-leave” favored by Bush and Rumsfeld, and the “counterinsurgency strategy” the Army was desperately trying to get the administration to adopt. Letting U.S. forces in Iraq implement a counterinsurgency strategy meant admitting that there was an insurgency. That was the problem, not finding enough troops or money.

I’ve studied war all my life, but I can’t think of another example where one side refused to admit it was in a war at all. And when you won’t admit you’re in a war, you’re not likely to win. Rumsfeld was part of that chorus of denial, but the prize for most advanced case has to go to Vice President Dick Cheney, who said in May 2005 that the Iraqi insurgency was “… in the last throes, if you will.” In May 2005, 80 American soldiers died in Iraq, a rate of three dead (and dozens wounded) every day.

For the whole of 2005, American losses were horrific: 846 dead. American dead for 2004 had been almost the same number, 849. At the end of the year, President Bush summed it all up as only he could: “2005 was a fascinating year [in Iraq].” That was the official story from the Bush administration, and they gave absolute priority to maintaining it. That’s why Rumsfeld wouldn’t listen to any talk about adopting counterinsurgency tactics, rather than sticking with the fantasy that we were only there to “train” the local forces and then “leave.”

Rumsfeld purposely misses this point when he claims that there had been earlier “surges” before Gen. David Petraeus’ 2006 surge:

“In 2005, troop levels in Iraq were increased to numbers nearly equal to the 2007 surge — twice. But the effects were not as durable, 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.”

It didn’t work because the problem was strategy, not troop numbers. Rumsfeld wasn’t alone in refusing to think about counterinsurgency. Most of the Army officer corps associated “counterinsurgency” with Vietnam and wanted nothing to do with it, as Lt. Col. John A. Nagl acknowledges: “It is not unfair to say that in 2003 most Army officers knew more about the U.S. Civil War than they did about counterinsurgency.” Counterinsurgency tactics are the exact opposite of the “shock-and-awe” strategy Rumsfeld had been pushing in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s notion of war involves maximum firepower; counterinsurgency warfare stresses getting to know the locals instead of firing blindly every time a patrol is ambushed. Counterinsurgency is slow, people-centered and low tech.

Naturally Rumsfeld, a lifelong advocate of high-tech, airpower-based warfare, opposed it until 2007, when the situation was so bad Petraeus finally got his chance.

When Petraeus finally took command, most of his moves were counterinsurgency basics that would have been put in place years ago by any other occupying army in history. One of the first moves was starting neighborhood census programs so troops could start sorting out who was who, who was new, who didn’t belong in the area. The worst of it is that Rumsfeld isn’t content to skew the Iraq story in his own favor. His essay in the Times shows he’s still pushing denial as a way of dealing with Afghanistan, by insisting we can’t talk to the Taliban: “The current suggestion of ‘opening negotiations’ with the Taliban may well win over some low- and midlevel supporters, but if history is any guide, offering the hand of peace to hardened fanatics is not likely to prove successful.”

I remember when I was a kid, the same argument was used to prove we can never talk to “Red China”: they’re evil fanatics! You can’t talk to them! So the United States pretended there was no China for decades, and dealt with Taiwan as if it was a little island in the middle of nowhere.

Then Nixon, a guy nobody ever accused of naïveté, changed everything by pointing out, while on his way to shake Mao’s hand, that evil or not, those “evil” Red Chinese controlled a fourth of the world’s population and weren’t going to go away. 

Denial didn’t work then, didn’t work in Iraq and won’t work in Afghanistan. Whether the Taliban are “evil” or not I have no idea, but the fact is that they represent most of the Pashtun in Afghanistan. Sure, the Pashtun have some strange ideas, but if we’re going to call them “evil” I guess it’s time to wipe them out. If we’re not going to do that — and obviously we’re not — then sooner or later, we’re going to have to talk to them.

Rumsfeld’s giant blind spot about counterinsurgency warfare keeps him from seeing this. Conventional warfare, the kind he understands, is binary: either you’re at war, or you’re at peace. Counterinsurgency warfare is a lot murkier. It always comes down to negotiating with some faction of locals, but that doesn’t mean “offering the hand of peace.” It’s more about bribing the greedy, provoking the paranoid and making a deal with the rest. That’s what we’ve done in the Sunni Triangle: bribed some Sunni factions, and encouraged the hostility that other local factions had developed toward the foreign fighters in al-Qaida to flare into open war between Iraqis and foreign jihadists.

Beyond that, the surge worked, if you can say it worked at all, because the Shiites used American protection to finish the job of ethnic cleansing, especially in Baghdad. Baghdad’s a Shiite city now, with a few Sunni enclaves. The killing has declined because the boundaries have been set, at least for now. It’s not a pretty picture, close up, and it has nothing to do with the silly dreams Bush and Rumsfeld were pushing when they persuaded us to go to war.

And even the slight improvement that the surge managed came with Rumsfeld kicking and screaming, resisting the change all the way, because the man is in complete denial about counterinsurgency warfare, about the fact that we aren’t beloved liberators in Iraq and Afghanistan, and about the notion that the world doesn’t divide neatly into good people that we can talk to and bad people we pretend aren’t there. So whatever needs to be done in Afghanistan, you can be absolutely sure of one thing: It won’t have anything to do with whatever Donald Rumsfeld recommends.