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U.S.: Analysts Say Rumsfeld Memo Suggests Shift In War On Terror

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a man usually brimming with confidence and a driving force behind the Iraq war, appears to have acknowledged for the first time that Washington may be fighting its war on terrorism in the wrong way.

Washington, 23 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Are we winning or losing the global war on terror?" That's the key question that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asks in an uncharacteristically gloomy memo he recently sent to his closest Pentagon advisers. And the answer, it seems, is far from clear.

In the memo, which appeared in yesterday's (22 October) issue of "USA Today," Rumsfeld asks top aides like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz - who is seen as a chief architect of the Iraq policy -- to think of new ways to fight the war on terror. He says Washington will eventually win its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that it will be a "long, hard slog."

But Rumsfeld also appears to suggest -- for the first time that the United States may be fighting its war on terrorism in the wrong way, by focusing too much on military operations and not enough on diplomatic efforts and other forms of pressure. He also wonders if the Pentagon can be reshaped fast enough to meet the terrorist threat.

Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Rumsfeld appears to have had an "epiphany," adding that while Rumsfeld may not yet have shifted policy, the memo is "the first bit of introspection that I've even whiffed coming out of the Defense Department."

Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, a Washington policy-research group, summed up the tone of the memo for RFE/RL: "[The] most striking feature is the pervasive pessimism. I think that struck many observers as surprising. And certainly, the secretary seems now more aware both of the difficulties of the war on terrorism and the postwar occupation in Iraq than he was a few months ago," he said.

In the memo, Rumsfeld says the U.S. has no way of measuring its success in the war on terrorism. He says Washington has had only "mixed results" so far battling Al-Qaeda, which killed 3,000 people with a multiple strike on America in September 2001.

And while the Pentagon chief notes "reasonable" progress has been made in capturing top former members of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, he cites "somewhat slower progress" in tracking down former leaders of Afghanistan's Taliban.

Rumsfeld also refers at least three times in the memo to the Islamic madrassah schools of Pakistan that teach anti-American hatred and incite some students to terrorism. He wonders whether a private foundation should be formed to entice the schools to adopt a more moderate curriculum.

Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters yesterday in Washington, elaborated on his memo, saying its thrust was to point out that fighting terror involves a lot more than the military. "It's going to take time and it's going to require the use of all elements of national power to deal with the global war on terror," he said. "It's not simply a Defense Department matter; it's a matter for the Treasury Department, dealing with their finances, dealing with the education of people who are being trained to be terrorists. That was the thrust of [the memo]."

Critics have long argued that the Bush administration relies too heavily on the military and that the war on terror requires a different touch, combining effective diplomacy, police, and intelligence work with helpful social policies.

Those criticisms have become louder in recent weeks as the campaign for next year's presidential elections gets under way and the U.S. public faces mounting casualties, chaos, and costs in rebuilding Iraq.

Retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, a Democratic presidential candidate, said, "Secretary Rumsfeld is only now acknowledging what we've known for some time -- that this administration has no plan for Iraq and no long-term strategy for fighting terrorism."

The surfacing of the memo also comes after recent media reports accused the Pentagon, which -- until this month's creation of the Iraq Stabilization Group led by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice - was responsible for managing postwar Iraq, of ignoring a major yearlong study by the State Department that accurately predicated many of the country's postwar problems, including violence and resistance to the U.S.-led occupation.

Mahnaz Ispahani is a Pakistani-born scholar of U.S. foreign policy and South Asia with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. She told RFE/RL that she was struck by the fact that Rumsfeld appears to have embraced ideas, such as reforming madrassahs, which have been long espoused by the State Department.

"I do think this is a shift for him. He's worrying about how much the use of force is actually delivering for the United States in the war on terror, and asking are there alternatives. So this is clearly a shift for him and for [the Department of Defense], that has been so focused on using one resource that the United States has, which is the use of force," Ispahani said.

Many independent experts, as well as European governments, argued before the Iraq war that a U.S. military campaign would only help Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups to attract and recruit more members. The Pentagon largely dismissed those concerns. But those critics now say that the terrorism and violence that plague postwar Iraq proves that they were right.

Rumsfeld yesterday also appeared to give fresh emphasis to the war against Al-Qaeda and Islamic militants, after months of focusing on the alleged threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to U.S. security. He said that Washington has no real way of measuring its progress against Islamic militants bent on harming America.

"How many young people are being taught to go out as suicide bombers and kill people? That's the question," Rumsfeld said. "How many are there? And how does that inflow of terrorists in the world get reduced, so that the number of people being captured or killed is greater than the ones being produced?"

Carpenter of the Cato Institute told RFE/RL that Rumsfeld appears to be making that rarest of political moves: admitting a mistake, at least on some aspects of his Iraq policy. "It's refreshing in one sense that he is returning to the core problem of radical Islamic terrorism directed against the United States," he said. "On the other hand, he should have realized, and his advisers should have realized, that invading and occupying Iraq would be a veritable recruiting poster for Al-Qaeda."

Who leaked the memo to the press and why are unanswered questions. Some speculate that Rumsfeld's critics inside the Pentagon leaked the memo, hoping to paint him as shifting his policy on the most important issue of his department and admitting errors -- and thereby, perhaps, hastening his departure from the administration.

Carpenter, however, believes the memo may have been leaked by Rumsfeld's office to distance the Pentagon chief from Wolfowitz and other senior advisers who are seen as key architects of the Iraq policy. According to that logic, Rumsfeld could be spared some of the blame if the Iraq situation deteriorates further.