Gates: Bush Screwed Up the War on Terror

In one devastating passage of his memoir, the former Defense secretary confirms the worst.

ARLINGTON, VA - JANUARY 6: (AFP OUT) U.S. President George W. Bush (C) stands by Robert Gates (R), Secretary of Defense, right, and Admiral Michael Mullens, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Military Appreciation Parade at Fort Myer January 6, 2009 in Arlington, Virginia. Bush was awarded the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service during the parade.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Jan. 8, 2014, 8:54 a.m.

Most of the fal­lout from Robert Gates’s as­ton­ish­ingly frank and of­ten bit­ter mem­oir has landed squarely on the stal­warts of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing the pres­id­ent him­self, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, and former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton. But, based on the ex­cerpts re­leased so far, the former De­fense sec­ret­ary ap­pears to re­serve his fiercest cri­ti­cism for Obama’s pre­de­cessor, George W. Bush, even though it is fairly im­pli­cit.

In one dev­ast­at­ing pas­sage of Duty: Mem­oirs of a Sec­ret­ary at War, Gates writes that the op­tion­al war that Bush chose to launch in 2003 — the in­va­sion of Ir­aq — ser­i­ously un­der­mined the con­duct of the ne­ces­sary war in Afgh­anistan, the con­clu­sion of which still be­dev­ils U.S. for­eign policy today:

Pres­id­ent Bush al­ways de­tested the no­tion, but our later chal­lenges in Afgh­anistan — es­pe­cially the re­turn of the Taliban in force by the time I re­por­ted for duty — were, I be­lieve, sig­ni­fic­antly com­poun­ded by the in­va­sion of Ir­aq. Re­sources and seni­or-level at­ten­tion were di­ver­ted from Afgh­anistan. U.S. goals in Afgh­anistan — a prop­erly sized, com­pet­ent Afghan na­tion­al army and po­lice, a work­ing demo­cracy with at least a min­im­ally ef­fect­ive and less cor­rupt cent­ral gov­ern­ment — were em­bar­rass­ingly am­bi­tious and his­tor­ic­ally na­ive com­pared with the mea­ger hu­man and fin­an­cial re­sources com­mit­ted to the task, at least be­fore 2009.

In a single para­graph Gates ef­fect­ively sums up and val­id­ates the chief cri­ti­cisms of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s con­duct of the so-called war on ter­ror: 1) that Ir­aq was a ser­i­ous di­ver­sion from the on­go­ing sta­bil­iz­a­tion of Afgh­anistan, where the ac­tu­al cul­prits of 9/11 were hid­ing out; and 2) that the ef­fort to des­troy al-Qaida and round up Osama bin Laden and his lead­er­ship team was ser­i­ously un­der­fun­ded and suffered from far too little at­ten­tion, es­pe­cially by the time the Taliban began to re­group in a ma­jor way in the mid-2000s.

Gates’s as­sess­ment dir­ectly con­tra­dicts that of George W. Bush and lead­ing of­fi­cials of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, such as Gates’s pre­de­cessor, Don­ald Rums­feld, who have con­sist­ently denied that the cam­paign in Ir­aq was in any way a dis­trac­tion from Afgh­anistan. Rums­feld, who in one of his less-noted but most cata­stroph­ic de­cisions re­jec­ted in­ter­na­tion­al peace­keep­ing troops bey­ond Ka­bul in 2002, has nev­er ac­know­ledged his fail­ures to com­plete the task in Afgh­anistan. On the con­trary, even as the Taliban began re­group­ing in 2005-06, Rums­feld was giv­ing speeches ex­tolling the trans­form­a­tion of Afgh­anistan un­der Amer­ica’s “mod­est foot­print.” In Oc­to­ber of 2006, after my col­leagues at New­s­week and I au­thored a fea­ture story about the re­turn of the Taliban called “The Rise of Ji­hadis­tan,” Rums­feld dir­ec­ted his aide, Matt Latimer, to is­sue a pub­lic re­but­tal to it.

But some of Rums­feld’s own aides in the field, in­clud­ing Jim Dob­bins — who today is Obama’s spe­cial rep­res­ent­at­ive for Afgh­anistan and Pakistan — were say­ing at the time that Afgh­anistan was be­ing neg­lected. Dob­bins, Bush’s former spe­cial en­voy to Ka­bul who also led the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­build­ing ef­forts in Bos­nia, Kosovo, Haiti, and Somalia, told me in an in­ter­view in 2006 that Afgh­anistan was the “most un­der-re­sourced na­tion-build­ing ef­fort in his­tory.” In its 2003 budget pro­pos­al, the ad­min­is­tra­tion in­cluded no ci­vil­ian aid money for Afgh­anistan at all. Mitch Daniels, then Bush’s budget dir­ect­or, later quietly slashed a con­gres­sion­al pro­pos­al for ag­ri­cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al as­sist­ance to Afgh­anistan from $150 mil­lion to $40 mil­lion. Ac­cord­ing to a study done later by the U.S. In­sti­tute of Peace, aid in the early years of the oc­cu­pa­tion amoun­ted to just $67 a year per Afghan, far less than pre­vi­ous na­tion-build­ing ex­er­cises such as Bos­nia ($249) and East Timor ($256).

At the same time, wor­ried U.S. mil­it­ary of­fi­cials were be­gin­ning to real­ize that the Taliban’s gradu­al re­sur­gence could be traced to the ab­rupt di­ver­sion of so many re­sources to Ir­aq, in­clud­ing Pred­at­or aer­i­al vehicles, in a crit­ic­al peri­od be­gin­ning in 2002. In Feb­ru­ary and March of 2002, the Ar­ab­ic-speak­ing Fifth Spe­cial Forces Group — the teams that were mostly cred­ited with top­pling the Taliban in the swift war that began Oct. 7, 2001 and ended by Decem­ber of that year — were largely pulled out to be re­deployed in the Mideast. They were re­placed by less ex­per­i­enced teams such as the Sev­enth Group, whose fo­cus was Lat­in Amer­ica.

Former Sen. Bob Gra­ham, D-Fla., who was then chair­man of the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, told me in an in­ter­view in 2011, on the 10th an­niversary of 9/11, that none oth­er than the U.S. com­mand­er, Gen. Tommy Franks, had com­plained to him about this di­ver­sion of at­ten­tion and re­sources. “In Feb­ru­ary of 2002, I had a brief­ing at Cent­ral Com­mand in Tampa,” Gra­ham said. “After the brief­ing, Franks took me aside and said he wanted to talk to me per­son­ally. He said in his opin­ion we had stopped fight­ing the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban and were get­ting ready to fight a yet-un­declared war in Ir­aq. He talked about things like the trans­fer of mil­it­ary per­son­nel and equip­ment in­to Ir­aq.”

In an in­ter­view that same year, be­fore he be­came De­fense sec­ret­ary, Chuck Hagel blamed the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “mad, wild dash in­to Ir­aq” on “the lack of any clear stra­tegic crit­ic­al think­ing” about the causes of 9/11. “I think when his­tory is writ­ten of this 10-year peri­od, it will re­cord the folly of great-power over­reach.” Hagel ad­ded: “We’ll be liv­ing with the con­sequences for a long time.”

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