Ricardo Sanchez

On what happened at Abu Ghraib.

July 2008By Comments

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 is not illegal or immoral, you’re obligated to comply. A senior leader, a soldier, a warrior is going to comply. This is the whole essence of warfare. It’s what we want as a democracy.

ES: How much of the blame rests with Secretary Rumsfeld?

RS: Every step of the way, in the problems we encountered, it wasn’t a single person’s decisions. [Rumsfeld] fought to get control over the conduct of the whole war from the president, and then he failed to properly plan and to supply the necessary resources. He bears a pretty large responsibility from the military command perspective. But, in fact, there were collateral decisions that were made, both higher and lower, that contributed to this.

ES: Talk to me about some of those.

RS: Our interrogation approaches, for example. There was a decision made at the national level, and then subordinate to that within the Department of Defense, not to issue instructions or training or updated procedures, even though we knew that the entire foundation of our interrogation policies had been completely eliminated.

ES: What you’re talking about here, in the more common parlance, is torture.

RS: Yeah. To give you another example, there were decisions made not to build any Iraqi leadership on a national level or any police or military at the local level [in the earliest months of the war]. It finally happened in April 2004, almost a year later, and by then it was too late for us to adequately train them before the transfer of sovereignty. So they went into being a sovereign nation with a totally inefficient and incapable command-and-control structure.

ES: You’ve given a couple of examples of failures of leadership below Secretary Rumsfeld, but you’ve also alluded to some above Secretary Rumsfeld. That can only mean the president.

RS: Well, there’s the National Security Council also. But let me address the president. The president has the right focus.

ES: You’re talking about not just any president but this specific president.

RS: I’m talking about this president. In the meetings I participated in, he was absolutely supportive. He was very aware of the challenges we were facing. He was asking the right questions. Probably the one thing I would fault him on is that he didn’t impose his will, even though he knew what needed to be done.

ES: Give me an example.

RS: The engagement of the Sunnis. When we went in there, the concept for developing democracy was very idealistic. It was very Western. We were looking to establish a U.S. type of democracy, but we recognized quickly that the tribes had to be engaged because they were big players in that society. And yet there was a refusal or an unwillingness to engage in any kinds of talks with the tribes. The military—[Franks’ successor, John] Abizaid and I—established an engagement strategy, and we communicated that back to Washington. History showed, as we looked at the experience of the Brits in the 1920’s, that engagement of the tribes was going to be crucial. The president understood it, and throughout the occupation period, he questioned how we were doing with the engagement strategy. Finally, in January of 2004, he was told we had an initiative: two people who had been assigned to engage with the Sunnis. Which was a totally inadequate solution, though he had been asking about it repeatedly.

ES: Let me ask you about Abu Ghraib, which obviously you were in the middle of—

RS: Probably responsible for that.

ES: People have said, point-blank, that it was a failure of leadership on your part. It must be difficult to have your entire career summed up in that one horrifying incident.

RS: Well, it has been. Let’s not mistake for a second that it was anything other than grotesque and unacceptable. But I think we need to look at the facts that tell us how our nation started down a slippery slope in 2002, when the lifting of the Geneva Conventions occurred. The military issued that guidance almost verbatim to our fighting forces in the field. More importantly, we failed to convey the instructions and safeguards and training that might have kept us from going down that slippery slope to abuse and torture. We failed to respond to pleas for guidance from soldiers and leaders in the field, when it was crystal clear to everybody, because of the investigations that were conducted in November and December of 2002, that we had significant problems in detention and interrogation. Then we compounded things by bringing into Iraq units that had been in Afghanistan, operating in a totally unconstrained interrogation world. In a conventional force, that creates significant confusion.

ES: I imagine so.

RS: When I identified that we had this unprecedented problem—we knew by May 2003 that it was way beyond anything we had ever faced—and we began to ask for help, there was no one within the Army or the Department of Defense who had any understanding of how to solve it. So we struggled and floundered and began to come up with solutions internally. Every time we got a notification of an abuse, we conducted an investigation. But there were well-known abuses that the whole world knew about—the one in which a warrant officer killed a general while he was interrogating him or the case of Iceman, as he was known, who died in the course of an investigation by the CIA and was dumped on my soldiers at Abu Ghraib. So there were two different agencies operating that were not under my command.

ES: One was the CIA.

RS: And the other one was the Special Operations Forces. To describe a little better what happened in Abu Ghraib, you had a coming together of my interrogators with the CIA—which came in and did what they do with no constraints on their rules—and the Special Operations Forces, who were operating under global-war-on-terror rules that were different from the rules that the Geneva Conventions applied to.

ES: There wasn’t a common standard among the three.

RS: No, absolutely not. The problem is that you had three different chains of command. Mine covered only the conventional forces. The Special Operations Forces reported back to Central Command. The CIA reported back to the CIA.

ES: So you feel like you were unfairly held responsible for the actions of people not in your command?

RS: What happened to me is that everything was seen as the responsibility of the commander on the ground. In fact, when one looks at the reality, it is very clear that incidents that occurred and abuses and allegations were outside of my command authority.

ES: But to the extent that you’re responsible only for your folks, it was indeed folks in your command, like Lynndie England, who also committed pretty horrific abuses. That’s been documented.

RS: Yeah, clearly. There were some abuses that occurred as we fought the war. But they were not condoned. We actually charged and court-martialed soldiers. We were very aggressive in investigating instances of abuse and taking actions against those people responsible.

ES: And yet, in the end, you were relieved of your command.

RS: I wasn’t relieved of my command. I rotated out of there after fourteen months. But there was an effort to make it appear that I was being relieved. That’s correct.

ES: The implication was you were paying a price for the embarrassment that the U.S. suffered over Abu Ghraib.

RS: Yes, no question.

ES: You believe that it was an unfair assessment of your tenure in that position.

RS: When you get to those levels of command, you have to look at what our leadership does in light of all the factors they’re considering. It becomes almost untenable for the administration to do anything else, to do anything other than tell me to retire, because it is in the best interest of the Department of Defense and the Army.

ES: But this is your career! Surely this can’t be something you look back on and say, “Oh, well, that’s life.”

RS: No, no. It’s a very disappointing time in my life.

ES: Who do you blame?

RS: I’m not sure. Do I blame a single individual? Do I blame the nation for the mistakes we made that led us to Abu Ghraib and the abuses that occurred as a result of the actions we took? Do I blame the military or the Department of Defense for trying to contain this extremely embarrassing period in our history? I think when you look at it, what happened to me is that I got caught in a perfect storm.

ES: Let’s look ahead to what happens next in Iraq. You have the luxury of having watched the war from up close and from afar. If the next president, Democrat or Republican, called on you to offer your point of view on what we should do, what would you say?

RS: The thing that we have to do is sustain the capability of our military forces there while we’re applying and surging our political, economic, and diplomatic power. This is where, in fact, we have struggled as a nation. It has never been about surging military forces, because our military has repeatedly, over the past few years, provided windows of opportunity for these other elements to bring about progress.

ES: And it hasn’t happened.

RS: And it hasn’t happened. The difficulty we have today is that we are dealing with a sovereign country.

ES: We’ve been talking about—to borrow the president’s phrase—the Iraqi government standing up so that we can stand down for so many years now that it no longer seems possible that they’ll do it.

RS: Exactly. That’s a result of our having handed off these problems on June 28, 2004, when we transferred sovereignty.

ES: So would you support some kind of a phased withdrawal? Or are you in the camp that believes, as Colin Powell said, “We broke it, we bought it”?

RS: Because we were occupiers, we have a moral and a legal obligation to ensure that Iraq is a stable and secure country that can provide for its own internal and external security and can be a productive, friendly nation within the region and the world. That is a responsibility that we carry with us, and it’s one that we can’t walk away from.

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