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U.S.: General Franks Retires After Directing Afghan, Iraqi Wars

  • Charles Recknagel

General Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, retired from service this week amid widespread praise of his military record. At a ceremony yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called Franks a "soldier's soldier" and one of the country's best military leaders. But it remains unclear why Franks, age 57, decided to retire now rather than assume the U.S. Army's top position as chief of staff.

Prague, 8 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. General Tommy Franks is retiring from the army at his moment of greatest success.

As the head of the U.S. Central Command he oversaw U.S. troops in a region that encompasses 25 countries in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Since he assumed that position in July 2000, he fought successful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, winning widespread praise both as a military leader and an innovative strategist.

At a retirement ceremony at Central Command's headquarters in Tampa, Florida, yesterday, Franks said farewell to his troops and thanked them for fighting battles he called essential to the U.S.-led war on terror.

"Men and women in uniform, we are so proud of your service around the world -- in Afghanistan and in Iraq, perhaps in places yet unknown [in] the global war on terrorism. Indeed, we will go the miles. Patriots and soldiers will pay the price. And as we are today, we will be ever in their debt," Franks said.

Franks, 57, turned over his command to his deputy, General John Abizaid, a Middle East expert of Lebanese descent who speaks Arabic. The retiring general gave no indication of what he would do after stepping down, but is considered to be well-positioned to receive top offers from defense-related businesses. He has said publicly only that he is retiring to be able to spend more time with his wife and family.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called Franks a "soldier's soldier" -- that is, a man beloved by his troops and who embodies the traits they most respect: courage, loyalty, and perseverance. Speaking at the ceremony, he praised Franks as one of the army's most able leaders.

"Each day, our troops -- young men and women -- risk their lives voluntarily across the globe to defend us from terror. They deserve our country's best leadership. They have had the best leadership in General Tom Franks and his superb team. And they will have the best under General John Abizai," Rumsfeld said.

But as Franks -- who spent 36 years in uniform -- retires, it remains unclear why he decided to step down at the height of his military career rather than pursue the U.S. Army's top job as chief of staff. Franks first signaled in May that he planned to retire, precisely at the time he was widely considered to be the top candidate for that post.

Franks' decision to retire came as the vice chief of staff, General John Keane, also opted to leave the army rather than move up to the top job in the service. Rumsfeld last month selected a retired general, Peter Shoomaker, for the post.

Franks told reporters asking him about his decision in May that the job of chief of staff sounded "very interesting" but was "not on my scope" -- in other words, not in his plans.

Associates have told reporters privately that the general makes no secret of his dislike for the political power struggles and intrigue that dominate official life in Washington and would consume much of any chief of staff's time.

As Franks retires, he leaves behind a Pentagon where tensions are often reported to be high between military officers and top civilian administrator Rumsfeld. The secretary of defense has sought to transform the military into a smaller, more high-technology fighting force over the objections of many generals, who believe campaigns are more certainly won with overwhelming force based on large numbers of ground troops.

The issue of how many troops to use against Baghdad dominated the run-up to the Iraq war, with Rumsfeld reportedly sending back Franks' initial battle plan several times with demands to cut down the numbers of soldiers involved.

"The Boston Globe" reported at the time that Franks asked for 250,000 troops while Rumsfeld initially wanted no more than 100,000. The secretary of defense was also reported to want to use more special forces and a short air campaign to disable Iraqi defenses, while Franks favored 10 to 14 days of bombardment to thoroughly destroy them before the infantry invaded.

In the end, Franks and Rumsfeld agreed on a plan that combined elements from both their strategies, launching the ground invasion almost immediately after the air campaign began and using an invasion force of some 150,000 soldiers. The quick success of the war -- Baghdad fell in three weeks -- has since been cited both by Rumsfeld's camp and the military generals as support for their contrasting positions.

Despite such disputes over strategy, Franks is reported to have a good working relationship with Rumsfeld that many other top army generals do not share. Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" reported when Franks announced his decision to retire that his departure "leaves Rumsfeld without a key ally in his long-running, and often bitter, campaign to reshape the U.S. Army."

Rumsfeld made his personal appreciation of Franks clear at yesterday's ceremony when he lauded him as a key partner in transforming the U.S. military.

"The team in Operation Iraqi Freedom developed joint war fighting in ways that will change how our forces train and fight for many years to come. So General Franks may be leaving the service, but his service will have lasting impact on the U.S. armed forces for many decades," he said.

Franks leaves the army after a storybook career that saw him rise from an unpromising start to become one of the country's most powerful generals. Born in Oklahoma, he dropped out of college to enlist in the army as a private in 1965. He became an artillery officer two years later and distinguished himself in Vietnam, where he was wounded three times. Later he earned two academic degrees and won rapid promotions as he served as a staff officer to various generals, culminating in his appointment to head the Central Command three years ago.