Politics & Policy

Air Secdef

Journey to the middle of it all.

–Don Rumsfeld is standing at the head of a small cabin of severely jet-lagged journalists, who crowd around him with tape recorders, notebooks, and the occasional boom mike. I have never been around him in person before. He is a little shorter than you might think watching him on TV. But otherwise he’s all Rummy, including the obsession with precise language and the passion for discussing the intricacies of policy issues. He’s wearing a gray Airborne windbreaker emblazoned with “SEC DEF RUMSFELD,” gray corduroy slacks, and casual brown shoes. Often he talks with his hands in his pockets, shrugging his shoulders for emphasis. When he talks with his hands or points a finger a camera clicks as a photographer tries to catch him in an animated shot.

He takes questions on all manner of issues affecting the Middle Eastern region he’s about to visit. He hails the “enormously successful registration effort” that is going on in Afghanistan in advance of the upcoming elections. He says there may be in excess of 9 million voter registrations, well above the 3-4 million figure that has been cited by elections experts as a benchmark for a successful election. More than 3 million of the registrants are women, according to Rumsfeld–”a particularly encouraging sign.”

He says Afghanistan is making economic progress and President Hamid Karzai has taken steps to increase the authority of the central government: “It’s tough, but he’s making progress.” Reconstruction teams dispatched to local areas have helped extend the reach of the central government, and Karzai has been “putting in place provincial leadership that has helped.” He cites the “dramatic improvement” in the road system that has eased travel in the country. But with no oil or other natural resources, he says that, in the end, the economic progress of the country depends on fostering local skills (now a lot of the construction jobs are held by Pakistanis), perhaps through job-training programs. Are we living in an age of nation building, or what? Here is a conservative secretary of Defense going on at some length and in some detail about potential job-training programs in Afghanistan.

The Taliban and al Qaeda are still out there, “trying to discourage the Afghan people from moving to a democratic state.” He says they are mostly going after “soft targets” and if they get more militarily ambitious, they will regret it. Rumsfeld said, “Is the Taliban still active? Yes. Are they going to end up being successful? No. To the extent they come together in military formations, they will lose faster.” Rumsfeld portrays the poppy growing in Afghanistan as a serious problem–it was this language that most interested the reporters on board, and many of them were going to lead their stories with it. “It produces great wealth for people who use it to harm society,” says Rumsfeld. “It requires an overall master plan” to combat it.

On Iraq, he doesn’t have anything to say about the controversies swirling around Ahmed Chalabi. I ask how the Iraqis forces were performing in the fight against Moqtada al-Sadr. He launches into a long explanation of the makeup of the Iraqi forces–so long, in fact, that I have to ask a follow-up to get back to my original question and he admits that he has been “rambling” (score one for the journalists!). Basically, he says original figures for the numbers of Iraqis security forces were exaggerated since they included retirees and others who are inactive. He says the key to understanding the performance of the forces that are there (about 110,000) is that they have different training and capabilities. So lightly armed police might not perform so well against Sadr’s militia, since that’s not what they’re there for. But the Iraqi counterintelligence units have been performing much better. According to Rumsfeld, reports on patrols in Iraq come in every day and more and more of them involve joint patrols with the Iraqis, and the goal obviously is slowly to move to them being solely Iraqi. Rumsfeld takes encouragement from the fact that, despite being targeted by the insurgents, Iraqis are “lining up to be recruited, volunteering for these positions.”

When the questions turn to creating a national director of intelligence, Rumsfeld gives us all some of his famous Rumsfeldian analytic rigor. He says creating a NDI is fine, but how will it create better intelligence? That’s the question. He quotes Mencken to the effect that to every problem “there’s a solution that’s simple, neat, and wrong.” Improving our intelligence will take work that doesn’t lend itself to a “bumper sticker.”

Then you see the wheels really start to turn. He’s obviously really interested in this question. He discusses the ins and outs, throwing out a few profound questions–Is it sill possible to keep a secret in our society; Is there a difference anymore between domestic and foreign intelligence?–before stopping and ending the briefing. Then he can’t help himself and starts talking again, returning to the question of whether there’s a distinction between domestic and foreign intelligence (which had been raised only by Rumsfeld’s own inquisitiveness). “That’s a humungous issue,” he exclaims, to himself as much as anyone else. “Think about it,” he urges us. No doubt no one will be thinking about it more than Don Rumsfeld himself, a thinking man’s secretary of Defense.

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