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10-31-06, 12:13 PM
Generals get frank
By Sean D. Naylor
Staff writer

The more sober tone adopted recently by generals regarding events in Iraq has raised eyebrows in Washington, with military and congressional sources saying the blunt rhetoric reflects frustration among military leaders at the worsening situation, as well as their desire to preserve their credibility and insulate themselves from blame if the Iraq war ends in disaster.

Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, senior spokesman for Multi-National Force-Iraq, made headlines Oct. 19 when he remarked at the start of his regularly scheduled press conference in Baghdad that the increased violence over the previous several weeks was "disheartening."

He noted that despite efforts by U.S. and Iraqi forces to reduce the sectarian warfare raging in Baghdad - an operation dubbed "Together Forward" - attacks had risen by 22 percent in the first three weeks of Ramadan, compared with the three weeks prior to the Muslim holy month.

"In Baghdad, Operation Together Forward has made a difference in the focus areas but has not met our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence," Caldwell said.

His comments were the latest example of what military and congressional sources said was a recent tendency on the part of the generals most closely associated with the war in Iraq to speak more bluntly about the conflict.

The shift in tone first became evident Aug. 3, they said, when Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the level of violence in Iraq made significant U.S. troop reductions unlikely before the end of this year.

"I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war," Abizaid said.

Marine Maj. Matt McLaughlin, a Central Command spokesman, disagreed with the notion that Abizaid had changed his tone in recent months.

"In my time here, he has been exceedingly realistic and understanding that we will continue to see spikes in violence and that should be our normal expectation," said McLaughlin, who has been at Central Command for almost three years.

McLaughlin cited a series of public comments by Abizaid to back up his comments.

"One of the things we have wanted to do is temper the upside expectation that the American public has that this thing is going to be solved by a few simple answers, and as we try to explain that, we take every opportunity we can to do a degree of management of the public's expectation that this thing is going to be ... easy and over shortly," McLaughlin said. "Certainly, within the last month or so, you've seen a different tone coming out of Baghdad."

But, he added, the change in tone related specifically to "expectations that were not met in Together Forward" - not to any larger issues.

However, retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg said the change in tone was the result of the Bush administration trying to shift responsibility for the war onto the shoulders of the generals.

"The administration has pushed it to them," said Kellogg, a former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division who retired in October 2003 as the J-6 of the Joint Staff, and who served in Baghdad as chief operating officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority from November 2004 to April 2005.

Until recently, Army leaders had played "the good soldiers," he said. "Now they're saying, 'Hey, if my name is going to be associated with this, and the good name of the United States Army is going to be associated with this, and the future of the Army is going to be associated with this, and the trust and confidence of the U.S. people in our Army is going to be associated with this, then by God, I'm going to have a say in it.'"

The generals were attempting to insulate themselves from future criticism that they tried to sugarcoat events in Iraq, he said.

All the generals were familiar with "Dereliction of Duty," the book by now-Col. H.R. McMaster that criticizes the senior military leaders of the Vietnam era for not speaking out as the U.S. slipped into war in Southeast Asia.

They are trying to avoid being written about in the same way, Kellogg said.

Another retired Army leader went further, saying the generals were speaking out because they could sense disaster. "They can smell failure," he said.

But he added that military leadership was partly to blame.

"We've never had a strategy to defeat the insurgency. Our military strategy is essentially to transition to the Iraqi security forces so they can do it. And we've relied heavily on the political strategy of establishing an effective government," Kellogg said.

But the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been a disappointment, particularly in its failure to reach out to Iraq's Sunni minority, the retired senior Army leader said.

"When they did not enfranchise the Sunnis - in fact, they disenfranchised them - the Sunnis and al-Qaida provoked this violence that we see in Baghdad," he said. "What that's done is it's sparked the sectarian violence, and I think it also exposes the fact that we over-relied on the political process."

A retired field grade officer familiar with current operations in Iraq said this disappointment with the al-Maliki government is, in part, what has prompted the somber tone emanating from Baghdad.

"They have come to the realization that ... the Maliki government has let them down badly, and I think they have done a re-evaluation of where they are," he said. "The bottom line is they have recognized the fact that they were way too optimistic, based upon the fact that they were taking the word of a country that was ostensibly our ally in the fight, and now they've gone to the verify mode, they've found that things aren't as positive."

He added that U.S. officials have "completely underestimated the influence of the militias," particularly the degree to which the Maliki government is tied to the Shi'a and hard-line cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

"I think those realizations are coming home to roost," he said.

Part of the problem, the retired field grade officer said, was that senior leaders in Iraq, Central Command and the Pentagon let themselves be "seduced" by statistics that indicated more progress was being made than was actually the case. He cited the number of "trained and equipped" Iraqi troops as an example.

Some recent internal assessments by Central Command and others in the Defense Department, as well as the failure of Operation Together Forward to achieve its goals, have reinforced the gravity of the situation in Iraq to the Central Command leadership, he said.

"There have been some serious splashes of cold water put in some people's faces in the last 60 to 90 days," he said.

The difficulties encountered with Together Forward have "caused them to question all of their assumptions," he added.

However, he said, the generals are also "trying to set the tone" for what might happen at home if the Democrats win control of Congress in the November elections.

"They're trying to put the record straight [for] when the investigations begin," he said. "Part of that is going to be, 'You never told us the truth about the war.' The uniformed guys have been trying to say, 'Hey, this is an ugly war, it's going to be an ugly war, and don't tell us we didn't tell you that.'"

The shift in tone on the part of the generals is not completely consistent. While Caldwell said Oct. 19 that Together Forward had not met U.S. expectations in terms of a reduction of violence in Baghdad, Army Gen. George Casey, the MNF-I commander, said five days later in a joint press conference with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad that the additional U.S. brigades sent to Baghdad for the operation have had "a decisive effect."

"There are some people who have not taken the rose-colored glasses off," said the retired field grade officer. "Somebody was misinformed, and my money is on it not being Caldwell. ... Caldwell is genetically incapable of lying. Caldwell would only say it if he believed it."

"Casey and Khalilzad had a press conference because they were trying to correct the impression" that Caldwell created, a Senate staffer said. "I think Caldwell was pretty candid and expressing a frustration that these guys aren't doing what they ought to be doing."

A House staffer said the shift in tone by the military leaders had been noted in Congress, and that Caldwell's comments in particular had attracted attention because he made them "in such a public forum and [it was] obviously ... planned."

But he suggested lawmakers had been hearing similar assessments from military leaders in private. Caldwell's grim tone "is what they're used to getting sotto voce, behind closed doors," the House staffer said.

An active-duty Army general in the Washington area said Caldwell has a reputation as a "straight shooter ... but in that position, he's speaking for others. It is telling when someone in his position is as candid as he has been."

The general said he was aware of no formal or informal directive from the senior Army leadership that generals were freer to speak their minds about Iraq - but that would be unnecessary.

"It's certainly not something you can sugarcoat right now," he said. "We're down by a couple of touchdowns here."

But he said he does not think generals were speaking up out of fear the Army is in danger of breaking.

"The Army is a very resilient force," he said. "It's faced adversity before, it will face adversity again. I don't think it's in danger of being broken either morally or structurally. Clearly we're pushing pretty hard - that's no secret - but I don't see this breaking the way we broke the Army in Vietnam and had to totally rebuild it. I don't think we're anywhere close to that."

Kellogg agreed that the Army is "healthy," but he agreed with the retired senior Army leader that the military had not pursued a strategy for victory in Iraq, which was what put the Army's future at risk, he said.

"What's going to break the Army is if you don't decide on a strategy that's going to win," he said. "A strategy that's going to break the Army is if you go through all the sacrifice and you call it a draw."