Criticism Mounts of U.S. Generals in Iraq

Top warmakers like Gen. John Abizaid have thus far escaped blame for the failures in Iraq. But that's starting to change.

The Bush administration's recent shift in strategy on the Iraq War — ending talk about "staying the course" and replacing it with a new emphasis on flexibility in response to changing conditions on the ground — may be a smart political tactic. But the implication of Bush's newfound candor, and his insistence that his decisions are being directed by advice from his generals on the ground, raises an unspoken question. If the generals are running the war and it is going so badly, shouldn't they share some of the blame?

Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the successful Iraq invasion in 2003, has come in for his share of criticism, for failing to plan sufficiently for the postwar phase. But the generals who replaced Franks in the summer of 2003 have largely escaped criticism. That, however, is starting to change. Chief among the targets is Gen. John Abizaid, who succeeded Franks as head of Central Command, the military region that covers most of the Middle East and includes Afghanistan and Iraq.

Senior and mid-level officers — all of whom either fought in Iraq or were involved in operations there, and none of whom were willing to be identified by name — are beginning to assert privately that Abizaid and other top generals must inevitably share responsibility for the setbacks in Iraq. Many of those officers have lost men on the battlefield in Iraq and saw their requests for more troops go unheeded. Others worked in positions where they saw the planning for Iraq or the execution of the war go wrong. "Iraq will go down as the greatest military and strategic blunder since Vietnam," says a former officer who dealt with Iraq planning. "And no one has ever been held accountable — including senior military leaders."

In a culture that values accountability and leadership, the military has been slow to look inward on Iraq. The fact that no senior officer has admitted to any serious mistakes, or been reprimanded or sidelined for tactical, operational or strategic errors, is troubling to many officers. In contrast, they point to the example of Israel, which had barely withdrawn all its troops from southern Lebanon before it launched investigations into the conduct of the war against Hizballah.

There have been previous suggestions of military missteps. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice touched a nerve in April when she said the U.S. had made "thousands of tactical errors" in Iraq. But many officers dismissed her comments as coming from a civilian politician. Others have criticized the military leaders for failing to dispute the flawed war plan set in motion by the President and his top advisers. "Flaws in our civilians are one thing; the failure of the Pentagon's military leaders is quite another," former Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold wrote in TIME last spring. "Those are men who know the hard consequences of war but, with few exceptions, acted timidly when their voices urgently needed to be heard."

But in the past few months, a growing number of officers have expanded their criticism to the way the generals have conducted the war. Gen. George Casey, who has been in command in Iraq for more than two years, has been the target of some of these complaints. But he came to Iraq when the situation had already degenerated into a complex insurgent fight. More criticism is being directed at Abizaid, who was a key military planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon before becoming Director of the Joint Staff, and then No. 2 at CENTCOM to Gen. Franks.

On paper, Abizaid was the right officer at the right moment. An Arab-American graduate of West Point, Abizaid studied in the Middle East, speaks some Arabic (though he is far from fluent) and commanded troops with distinction in Grenada and Gulf War I. Even today, many senior and retired officers speak of Abizaid with reverence; Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has praised him as an "outstanding officer"; and not even his harshest critics question his commitment to service.

It is his military judgment that has raised questions. As Franks' second in command, some officers say, Abizaid shares the blame for the failure to plan for what would happen after the initial rush to Baghdad. But his more serious missteps, in the view of his critics, began when Abizaid took over from Franks in July 2003, two months after the infamous "end of major combat operations" speech by President George Bush. Among those mistakes: failing to keep enough troops in Iraq in the fall of 2003 to establish basic security; allowing the disbanding of the Iraq Army and de-Baathificaition; missing the first signs of a growing insurgency; and failing to replace commanders who couldn't adapt to fight the insurgency, including Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former top ground commander in Iraq who was allowed to quietly retire this year.

Abizaid is also accused of mismanaging the campaign in Fallujah in April 2004. Following the gruesome killing of four contractors, he pressured the Marines — over their objections — to attack the town. Then he compounded the mistake, in the view of these officers, when, faced with complaints from the Iraqis and Arab media about high civilian casualties, he abruptly halted the attack, violating the usual practice of allowing commanders on the ground to control the tactical fight. Many analysts see it as a turning point that allowed the insurgency to expand and become more dangerous.

Abizaid is also drawing criticism for never asking, so far as anyone knows, for a significant increase in troops to impose security. Abizaid, says a former officer privy to details of miiltary operations, "never wanted to commit more troops to Iraq." Early on he said the U.S. was an "antibody" in the Iraqi body politic and supported early "off-ramps" from Iraq for our forces. Officers who served in Iraq say they asked for more forces several times, but those requests did not make it to the top. At least twice in meetings with President Bush in 2004 — once before the April 2004 Fallujah attack and again before another operation there in November — the President asked Abizaid if he had everything he needed and Abizaid said, "Yes sir."

Abizaid, says one critic, also failed to develop a successful strategy of clearing an area, then holding it with troops, and then rebuilding its social and economic institutions. He believed that the rebuilding ought to be left to the Iraqis, but he never ensured that the foundation of that strategy — the Iraqi Security Forces — were up to the job, this critic contends.

Even today, some officers say, Abizaid continues to speak in terms that don't match the fight on the ground in Iraq. "U.S. forces have never been defeated in a fight at platoon level or above and we never will," he told a military group last month. He's still missing the point, says one frustrated officer: "It's an irrelevant comparison because those types of encounters are rare or nonexistent in Iraq." Says another officer: "We're not fighting the Big Red Soviet Army here, we're dealing with hit-and-run guerrilla warfare."

Abizaid did not reply when asked by TIME to comment on the criticism.

Abizaid does get credit, in the view of his critics, for being more honest about the facts on the ground, in many cases, than his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In the summer of 2003, after Rumsfeld had denied Iraq was facing an insurgency, Abizaid made his first appearance in the Pentagon press briefing room and boldly countered that in fact the U.S. was facing a guerrilla war. And last August, before Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, it was Abizaid who said Iraq was "as bad as I've ever seen it," and that it may be on the verge of civil war.

But Abizaid has also been a smart politician. He has never challenged the assertion by senior civilian leaders that the war was being won. The Abu Ghraib scandal did not scar him. The fact that Osama Bin Laden is still at large in the middle of his region of responsibility never really lands on his shoulders.

He also has carefully escaped responsibility for the failures in Iraq. One retired senior army officer shook his head and said, "John has been unacceptably distant from the issue of Iraq." Abizaid has allowed Gen. George Casey, the Iraq commander, to take the heat as questions about strategy — over which he has the ultimate responsibility — are raised in Washington. As the Iraq war grinds on, senior officers who have served in Iraq are reaching their own conclusions about Abizaid's role. Said one Iraq veteran: "I don't think history will treat John Abizaid well."

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