Evan Smith: Your memoir, Wiser in Battle, is bracingly candid. For somebody who spent 33 years in the Army, you’re fairly critical of many of the people you worked with and their prosecution of the war in Iraq.
Ricardo Sanchez: It was excruciatingly painful for me to write this book because of the value of loyalty that we embrace as warriors in service to our country, but in the end it was about precisely that issue, loyalty, and where those loyalties lie. I felt my loyalty had to rest with the country, with what was best for America. In the military we tell ourselves that we learn while we’re fighting so we can protect our soldiers. As I look back, it’s clear to me that we do not, as a nation and as an Army, really understand the political and military decisions that led us to the point where we are today or the strategic mistakes we made. We have refused to address the occupation [of Iraq by U.S.-led forces] with any sense of objectivity.
ES: Tell me what those strategic mistakes were. What should we have done differently before the invasion?
RS: We should have ensured that we were planning with the totality of national power. We were embarking on a regime-change mission in Iraq, and history tells us clearly that when you occupy a country in the aftermath of those types of military operations, you’re going to have a very significant requirement to rebuild governments, businesses, security forces.
ES: So this was a manpower issue.
RS: Not just manpower but resources and dollars and coalitions that had to be built. We didn’t understand how big of a task it was going to be, and we went into it with a fractured government effort. We placed the entire responsibility for planning on the Department of Defense, and then it fractured internally. The military didn’t have responsibility for all of the phases of the campaign.
ES: Then it was a leadership issue.
RS: Yes. It starts at the very top. The development of an overall strategy at the national level that could synchronize the power of the different Cabinet departments—State, Justice, and so on—never occurred. That has been probably the biggest failure in being able to bring security and stability back to Iraq.
ES: Who should have been in charge?
RS: The National Security Council. That’s how it’s been since 1948. That’s the only body that has the authority, given by the president, to bring together all of the Cabinet members and lead us through the execution of a national strategy.
ES: Why didn’t it happen in this case?
RS: What happened here—and this is pretty well established in the reviews that have taken place—is that the responsibility was assigned to the Department of Defense, and Defense did not go out and synchronize everyone else. Within Defense, the fracture that occurred was because of Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld’s involvement in the planning. Eventually an agreement was reached in which General [Tommy] Franks [the commander of U.S. Central Command] would have no responsibility for the post-major-combat-operations phase. [Franks] literally shut off all planning, and when the ground war was over, everyone believed that the war had ended. He issued orders to withdraw forces immediately and to provide only very minimal support to [retired general Jay] Garner’s organization [the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq], which had the responsibility for rebuilding the country after we’d torn it down. Garner didn’t have the resources.
ES: As a result, pandemonium breaks out.
RS: Exactly. The first economic coalition effort, where we tried to go to different countries and have a donors’ conference, wasn’t until the late fall of 2003—six or seven months after we’d been in Iraq. And we didn’t get supplemental financial resources into the country until 2004.
ES: As I listen to you talk about how we inadequately prepared for this early part of the war, the name that keeps coming to mind is Eric Shinseki. As the Army’s chief of staff, General Shinseki was critical of the administration in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee for not providing enough manpower to the war effort, and he suddenly found himself out of a job. Was he right all along?
RS: I did not have any problems with the estimates he was making. I was a two-star division commander, but I was well aware of the challenges that our nation had in Bosnia and in Kosovo. I was well aware of what we deployed because I had fought in Desert Storm. Everything that I understood about the military judgment that had been applied to our war-fighting plans was consistent with what he was saying. So, yeah, I believe he was right.
ES: Why didn’t more people speak up at the time? Why didn’t you speak up?
RS: There’s civilian control of the military, okay? Any military officer, especially a general, is bound by his oath, where he swears to support and defend the Constitution and to obey the orders of the president. There may be a debate that we as a nation want to get into, in which we would consider having officers speak out publicly and oppose the decisions of our civilian leadership, but if you allow that to happen, you’re eroding the foundations of our democracy.
ES: Did General Shinseki erode the foundations of our democracy?
RS: No, absolutely not. He answered a question he was obligated to answer by the oath he took when he became chief of staff of the Army. Senator [Carl] Levin [of Michigan, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee] asked him to provide his best judgment, and he did.
ES: And yet he spoke against his superiors.
RS: The challenge you have as a senior leader—at any rank and especially at the rank of general—is to employ the mechanisms established to provide input. You do it within procedures and chains of command. Then, when our political leaders decide, as long as the decision