Criticism Mounts of U.S. Generals in Iraq

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U.S. Army General John Abizaid testifies before a full Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

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 In contrast, they point to the example of Israel, which had barely withdrawn all its troops from southern Lebanon before it launched investigations into the conduct of the war against Hizballah.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 Condoleezza 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.

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