Top Iraq War Commander Reveals Rift with Rumsfeld on Insurgents

Top Iraq War Commander Reveals Rift with Rumsfeld on Insurgents

Gareth Porter

A military assessment of the Iraqi insurgency in late 2004 concluded that it had the active support of millions of Sunnis who rejected the legitimacy of a U.S. installed government, according to Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who led all coalition forces in Iraq from January 2005 to January 2006.

That analysis conflicted with the view of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice Pres. Dick Cheney, who believed the insurgents represented only Saddam loyalists and foreign jihadists and could be defeated by a combination of force and free elections.

Vines’s revelation thus provides evidence of differences between top US generals and US policymakers in 2004-2005 over the nature of the insurgency and what to do about it.

In a speech at the Washington Institute Thursday, Gen. Vines recalled that an analysis on which he worked in fall 2004 had portrayed a three-tier insurgency, the largest element of which consisted of "Sunnis who rejected the authority of the interim government."

Vines said this element, which was called "Sunni Arab Rejectionists," included those Sunnis who "agreed that the transitional government could not be expected to protect their interests." It was "quite a large element," he said, numbering in the "millions."

Noting that Sunnis were 25 percent of the Iraqi population, Vines said the Sunni "rejectionists" were a "source of labor for the insurgency – an unlimited supply of blue collar thugs." Not all Sunnis were pro-insurgency, Vines said, but "a significant proportion were."

He described the other two tiers of the insurgency as being a "very small" contingent of foreign jihadists and some 30,000 loosely coordinated "former regime elements" with access to large amounts of cash from "Sunni sympathizers around the world."

Vines recalled that that he and others involved in the assessment "felt as long as the government was not regarded as legitimate by the Sunnis, the problem [of the insurgency] would not go away."

Vines strongly implied that he was a key figure in putting together the analysis. He referred to "the perceptions with which he we entered Iraq in January 2005" and repeated later that the views he was describing were "views I held."

Although he did not indicate what institution was primarily responsible for the analysis, the circumstantial evidence points to CENTCOM, the US Central Command, with which Vines had close ties. CENTCOM’s main function is to monitor and analyze developments in the 27 countries for which it is responsible.

Vines’s official biography does not show any assignment between October 2003 and his assumption of command in Iraq in January 2005. His prior command of coalition forces in Afghanistan from May to October 2003, however, suggests that he was still associated with CENTCOM, which is responsible for both Afghanistan and Iraq, during the time the study was undertaken.

The Vines assessment was completed in October 2004 just as the Pentagon was preparing for a major offensive in Fallujah that was based on a very different set of assumptions about the insurgency.

Rumsfeld revealed in an interview with pro-war Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland that the objective of the assault on Fallujah was to "dissuade Sunni townspeople from joining, supporting or tolerating the insurrection." The implication was that the price of such support in terms of destruction and death meted out to the city by the US air and ground attack would be too high for most civilians.

That approach to the insurgency, which did not require any accommodation to the interests of the Sunni community, was at odds with the analysis in the Vines assessment.

In late October 2004, senior officials in Washington and Baghdad leaked selected bits of information from the assessment to the New York Times and Washington Post. Both papers published details about the access of Ba’athist elements to financial support from abroad, for example.

But neither paper was given any hint of the extremely broad base of support among Sunnis for the insurgency that had been the main new analytical point of the analysis. Instead, the Post quoted the officials as saying the "dominant element of the insurgency" was "a "loose group referred to in US military documents as ‘Sunni Arab rejectionists,’ consisting largely of former members of Hussein’s government."

Thus senior officials arbitrarily redefined the category of "Sunni Arab rejectionists" to be consistent with their portrayal of the insurgency as small and isolated.

The Vines analysis was yet another skirmish in a battle between the administration and professional analysts over the nature of the insurgency that had begun in 2003. The key points in the analysis on support for the insurgency had already been stated in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq issued in October 2003 and reissued in June 2004, according to Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

White, now an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute, told IPS in a telephone interview that the NIE had portrayed the insurgency as having an enormous support base among Sunnis, because of a wide range of grievances, including unemployment, the arrest and killing of family members, and destruction of homes as well as opposition to foreign occupation.

The NIE had been requested by CENTCOM, according to unnamed officials quoted in a Feb. 28 Knight Ridder story by Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay.

The tension continued through much of 2005 between the top administration officials and the intelligence and military analysts over the size and motivation of Sunni support for the insurgency. After his arrival in Baghdad, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sided with CENTCOM and the intelligence community on the need to meet legitimate Sunni grievances.

Rumsfeld and Cheney then accepted the fact that the insurgency had significant Sunni support, but they began arguing that such support was motivated only by a desire to regain their old privileges.

The administration’s "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" released on Nov. 30, 2005 reflected the revised Rumsfeld-Cheney viewpoint. It defined the "rejectionists" as those Sunni Arabs "who have not embraced the shift from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to a democratically governed state" and who opposed "a new Iraq in which they are no longer the privileged elite."

Vines did not directly criticize the administration’s military policy in Iraq in his speech. "I don’t intend to get into the policy arena," he said. He also refused, as an active-duty officer, to comment on retired generals’ calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation, despite invitations by reporters at the speech to do so.

Nevertheless he pointedly observed in his speech, "The policy was directed by Washington," adding that the command in Iraq had merely carried it out.

And in choosing to focus attention on a previously unknown October 2004 analysis of the insurgency, Vines appears to have been encouraging comparison between that line of thinking and contrasting policy views of Rumsfeld and Cheney.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.