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General Tommy Franks

Marvin R. Shanken conducts an exclusive interview with America's top general in the war on terrorism.

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The date, 9/11, was coincidental. It was the only day in September when the schedule of Gen. Tommy Franks meshed with that of Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken. But the somber anniversary served as the perfect backdrop for the first post-retirement interview granted by General Franks. It was a day marked by his own observations of small groups of Americans waving flags along the byways of Tampa, Florida, his hometown, and the ever-present yellow ribbons tied to telephone poles and palm trees on the city's avenues. Franks served his country for 37 years, earning three Purple Hearts for wounds received and, over his career, three Bronze Stars for valor.
He climbed up the ranks of the U.S. Army, enlisting after a short stay at the University of Texas in the 1960s and finally reaching one of the highest posts in the military, the head of Central Command. He is a soldier's general, a man who chose throughout his career to spend time in the field, mastering his chosen career firsthand, not in a classroom or some think tank. He earned high accolades as a commander in the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, and worked hard throughout the 1990s to restructure and modernize the U.S. military. He was in charge of CentCom in 2001 when Osama bin Laden's terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and he led the planning and execution of the attacks on Afghanistan in October 2001 and Iraq in March 2003. He retired on August 1, 2003.
His comments and answers reflect the beliefs of a man who truly loves his country, and one who fought for the principles established by the founding fathers more than 200 years ago. He addresses directly questions about the search for bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. In the interview with Shanken, he also touches on his opinion about how history will judge George W. Bush, and the prospects for a world without war and terrorism.
Cigar Aficionado: What is today's date?
Gen. Tommy Franks: It's the second anniversary of 9/11.
CA: When you got up this morning, what was your mood?
Gen. Franks: Somber. Serious. I don't think for the past two years there have been too many days when most Americans didn't at some point during the day either experience the result of 9/11/01, or pause and think a little bit about 9/11/01; where they were, what they were doing. And I know that's been the case for me. It's been the case for my family. It has been the cause of a lot of friendships and associations. So, this morning I got up and it was somber. As I drove to work this morning down Bayshore Boulevard out here in the beautiful town of Tampa, all the palm trees and all the poles had yellow ribbons tied on them.
CA: That's beautiful.
Gen. Franks: It is a beautiful thing. And I'll tell you something else that's beautiful about it. Shortly after 9/11, there were three women who, on Friday afternoons, went down on Bayshore Boulevard and just stood on the corner and waved American flags. Three women. They started calling themselves the Bayshore Patriots. And, three women standing on that corner two years ago is something that you ought to experience every Friday. Up until the time we speak right now, they've never missed one. Rain or shine. And the number is considerably larger today. People stand on that corner and wave at cars passing every Friday afternoon. Those are the thoughts that ran through my mind when I got up this morning.
CA: How does September 11th compare in American history to such tragic events as Pearl Harbor or the assassination of John F. Kennedy?
Gen. Franks: I think we could probably use a lot of different words to describe that. One I've already used is "somber." If you look at a comparison of one day, two years ago, our country lost several thousand citizens: men, women, children, in the wink of an eye compared to the sweep of history. The greatest loss that we've ever experienced. Warfare brought to our shores. And you think about Pearl Harbor. Certainly it's a significant event. I was born in 1945, and so I didn't personally experience what it must have been like in December 1941 with Pearl Harbor. I did experience the loss of JFK. I was a student at the University of Texas on the Austin campus. And it's one of those days that we remember.
I've described 9/11, to the media and to all my friends, as the beginning of a crease in American history. And that's exactly how I think about it. I am an old-fashioned guy. I'm a corny guy. I actually believe in the Constitution of the country. I actually hold all of the values that I think Americans hold, even though we may not talk about them a lot. Well, I'm a guy who talks about them. That is my character. That's who I am. And I believe that we have had a couple of hundred years of this grand experiment called democracy. We've had our highs and we've had our lows. And 9/11 brought all of our history right in front of us. It brought in front of us things like liberty; things like freedom; the ability for you, for your family, to be able to go to a mall anywhere in this country, sit in one of the movie theaters that exist in that mall; get on a jet, fly some place around the world. Do whatever you want. The events of 9/11 impacted the way we live and I think it's healthy for us to think about that. I think it's healthy for us to remember that. And I believe that we probably have had no occasion in American history which has had such an impact on citizens at home in this country.
CA: Every single American.
Gen. Franks: Every single American. Every single American.
CA: Where were you when this occurred?
Gen. Franks: Kathy [Mrs. Franks] was with me. And we were headed to Pakistan for a visit with President [Pervez] Musharraf. We had stopped in Souda Bay, Crete, to get gas for the jet. Kathy and I had walked into a small market in this little town, because that's where one buys the best olives in the world. We went back to this little hotel. I was about to take a nap. There was a rap on the door. And I opened the door and one of my assistants said, "Turn on the television." I turned on the TV just in time to see the second tower strike. My wife would tell you that the first words out of my mouth were "Osama bin Laden." That's the first thing that I said. I got on the telephone, called back, talked to people in my headquarters, raced off to the jet, got back here on the 12th of September, talked to [Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld, and we started planning for operations in Afghanistan.
CA: The very next day, you and Rumsfeld had your first conversation?
Gen. Franks: I may have talked to him later on the 11th. I can't recall; but, by the 12th, when I hit the ground back here, my staff and the staff in the Pentagon and the secretary's staff were already working on a plan.
CA: Can you recall the very first words that he said to you or you said to him?
Gen. Franks: I don't recall the exact words, Marvin, but it would be a very businesslike conversation that would have been along the lines of form of concept for operations in Afghanistan and "bring it to me as quickly as you can." It would have been something very businesslike. There would not have been emotion in that conversation.
You'll recall that the secretary's quite a hero himself personally. When the airplane struck the Pentagon, he had gone from his office in the smoke and had assisted in removing people from the Pentagon. And so he was, as I was, I'm sure, tired.
CA: But it was businesslike, and not something like, can you believe how horrible this was?
Gen. Franks: It was business. All business.
CA: Did he give you a time frame for action?
Gen. Franks: I don't recall it, but I doubt it, because that would not be the secretary's way. He would have said, "Get it together and talk to me in the next couple of days and bring me something quickly."
CA: Was there a sense of urgency?
Gen. Franks: There was urgency, of course.
CA: When did you first speak to the president?
Gen. Franks: I think my first discussion with the president would have been on seven or eight days after 9/11. And that would be when the secretary and I took him the concept for a plan to remove the Taliban and the terrorist networks in Afghanistan. It was probably the 20th or the 21st of September.
CA: Is the plan that you proposed then essentially the plan that you ended up executing?
Gen. Franks: What we would not have had by the 20th or the 21st, when I talked to the president the first time, would have been the target sets. The specifics. There is an order to war. And the order has to do not only with a sense of priority; it has to do with which things are struck militarily at what point in time. The concept would have been what, in fact, we all watched unfold. The specifics, the target sets and the relationship between humanitarian assistance and kinetic targeting would not have been in place. And I think that I saw the president again, perhaps nine or 10 days later, with a complete package. And I think he approved for execution on the second of October, and we discussed when operations should begin. We agreed when all of the elements would be in place to begin operations.
CA: What time frame was that? You had projected how many weeks or months would be required?
Gen. Franks: I don't think we knew at that point in time. We knew what we were going to do. I think one of the principles of war is that a good commander will always remember that the enemy takes a hand. And we were not sure at that point in time whether the Taliban and the Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan would die hard; whether they would try to escape to the mountains; we didn't know. We knew the effect of precision munitions. We knew the effect of our special operations forces. We knew that we wanted to get our special forces people linked up and working with opposition groups. A lot of people have said, the Northern Alliance. In fact, the Northern Alliance was the largest of these groups, but there were opposition leaders all over the country of Afghanistan. I met some of them in clandestine meetings in Tajikistan. I met some of them inside Afghanistan. I met some of them in Pakistan.
CA: Did the fact that it took a long period of time before the strike give the Taliban an unusual opportunity to disperse and hide?
Gen. Franks: No. The timing of the operation—which started on the seventh of October, less than a month after 9/11—was such that it was operationally overwhelming to the Taliban. They, in my view, had not had time to make a plan. And you'll recall that we had come off of a number of years where we had demurred with respect to putting forces in Afghanistan. I think it'll take another 15 or 20 years, maybe, for us to know, because a lot of historical work is necessary—whether they actually believed that we would put ground forces in Afghanistan. I think that whole proposition was rather shocking for the Taliban when operations did in fact begin. Comparatively, it was a very, very, short period of time: from the 11th of September until the seventh of October. I would also mention to you that I think it was 75 days—75 or 76 days—after 9/11, a new president was installed in Afghanistan. I'd say that's a pretty quick, sort of a kinetic start to an operation.
CA: Was one of the objectives to capture and/or kill Osama bin Laden?
Gen. Franks: Actually, that isn't right. Not just the objective, but the mission, the direction from the president, was to remove the Taliban and remove the enclaves and training camps of the terrorists who were associated with Al Qaeda. I think that many have speculated and will speculate in the future that Mullah Omar was some place at a given point in time and that Osama bin Laden was in Tora Bora or in the White Mountains, or something, at a point in time. To this day, I am unconvinced that we ever had, with any precision, the location of the personalities of either the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Desirable? As the president said, "to kill or capture." Of course. But it was not a specific objective.
CA: Did you feel, after September 11th, that America had appropriate intelligence information on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, or were we really behind the curve when it suddenly became imperative to know everything we needed to know to wage a war against them?
Gen. Franks: It's very, very difficult to know. George Tenet and the Central Intelligence Agency had worked diligently for a period of time to gain information on the Taliban and on the Al Qaeda network, both within Afghanistan and in some 55 or 60 other countries on this planet. We certainly recognized the problem. The intelligence community was working with some diligence on the problem. And that's probably about the best that I could say. The CIA certainly had contact with some of these opposition groups and it was through our agency contacts that I met many of the opposition leaders once we started the war.
CA: It's two years later. Bin Laden is still not captured.
Gen. Franks: And let me say this. He may not be captured or killed in the near future. Do you know why? Because there is an ideology that is associated with the support of Osama bin Laden, and there are a great many households on the face of the earth that will accept him and support him. That is not the case with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It's a different sort of a scenario.
CA: What I'm trying to get at, especially given the fact that a new video of bin Laden was aired last night, is that many people believe that those videos are just manufactured propaganda pieces designed to keep him alive in the public eye. No one knows where he is because many believe he may really be dead. What do you think?
Gen. Franks: There is that theory out there. I think most students of the last two years would tell you that they can neither confirm nor deny that thesis. The military standard, the measure of merit for military operations, seeks to avoid speculation. Most practitioners of the art will say the negative exists until the positive can be confirmed. And so in our discussions, we will accept the credibility of the argument that says he ain't dead until we prove he's dead.
CA: Some people have suggested that because of America's focus on Iraq, we have taken our eye off of bin Laden and the war on terrorism. We moved the manpower, we moved the surveillance and we moved the focus to another country. And so the terrorists are still out there roaming the globe. What's your feeling about that hypothesis?
Gen. Franks: An ill-informed view.
CA: Why? Was the mission over in Afghanistan? Gen. Franks: Absolutely not. But let me just give you the numerical facts. On the day combat operations started in Iraq, the 19th of March of this year, we had about 9,500 Americans involved in operations in Afghanistan. On the day operations ceased, or major military operations ceased, in Iraq, on the first of May, we had about 9,500 Americans in Afghanistan. The intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, focus, command and control that was required for work in Afghanistan never changed, never varied. And to this day, has not changed or varied—with this exception: there is greater participation in Afghanistan today by the international community than there was when the war in Iraq started. So those who would say the focus on Afghanistan was lost as we went into Iraq simply is not factually true.
It's very interesting to me, because I think every week or 10 days for the last couple of years, I gave an update to the president. And each time, even during the major military operations in Iraq, [when] I would give the president an update on Iraq, I also gave him an update on Afghanistan. Because he was interested. Don Rumsfeld, in my personal view, never took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan. And here's the reason: both Afghanistan and Iraq are a part of a global war on terrorism. Look at this. You can look around right now at the continuing investigations of "What did you know in the intelligence community that could have precluded 9/11? What intelligence information did we have that could have changed the outcome and created a better outcome if action had just been taken?" My personal view is that we had more credible and more voluminous intelligence information that indicated a potential nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq than we had precision relating to the planning and ongoing activities of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And both of these elements are part of a global war on terrorism. And we are not at the end of it. We're at the beginning.
CA: Why haven't those points been picked up by the media and given the weight they deserve?
Gen. Franks: Let's talk about the media for a minute. I am not a negativist with respect to the media. I believe in the First Amendment of the Constitution. People have asked me so many times, "Well, why have you been media shy? Why don't you talk to me?" I told you a minute ago, I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy. I believe that the moms and dads and sons and daughters and husbands and wives of military people involved in the global war on terrorism, either in Afghanistan or in Iraq, have an expectation that our senior military leaders are tending to the business of war fighting rather than tending to the business of entertaining the media. That has been my view, sir, and it remains my view and that is why I supported the proposition of embedding media into our operations in Iraq, whereas we have not done that in Afghanistan. We talk about lessons learned. People ask me all the time, "What lessons did we learn in Afghanistan that we then transferred to our operations in Iraq?" Well, one of the lessons is that it is helpful to accommodate the media on the battlefield.
CA: The embedded media program, in your view, was a success?
Gen. Franks: Absolutely. An unqualified success. Don Rumsfeld and I have both said it. He didn't use these words. This is my voice. Somebody asked me about the embedded media just as you just did, and people continue to ask me about that. What I say about it is, I'm a fan. I lived through Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. And there are lessons to be taken from each war in which our country has been engaged, and one of those lessons is that having media present on the battlefield is good for our country. So, I'm a fan.
CA: You just said that the war in Iraq was not just about weapons of mass destruction, but is part of the overall fight against terrorism. Given that profound statement, what are your feelings about criticism of President Bush that because we've found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it suggests the president misled our country, and we had no business going to war there?
Gen. Franks: That's a fair question. I'll give you an answer on two levels. First off, with respect to the whole discussion of what was known that caused our government to decide to go into Iraq and how that was tied to the war on terrorism, and so forth: my first comment is, Ain't this a great country! The people who crafted our Constitution more than 200 years ago saw fit to enable America to be informed, saw fit to enable both negativists and positivists to make their points forcefully. Ain't this a great country? The fact that there is negativism and questioning and political debate and discussion and sniping, and so forth, satisfies me just fine. I'm OK with that.
Now, let me talk to the substance of your question: Two years after the fact of 9/11, we should ask ourselves what is—not in 1941, not in 1917ñ1918—today, in the twenty-first century, what is the worst thing that can happen in our country? The worst thing that can happen is, perhaps—and this is my personal opinion—two steps. The first step would be a nexus between weapons of mass destruction of any variety. It could be chemical, it could be biological, it could be some nuclear device; and terrorism. Terrorists or any human being who is committed to the proposition of terror, try to just create casualties, not for the purpose of annihilation, but to terrify a population. We see it in the Middle East today, in order to change the mannerisms, the behavior, the sociology and, ultimately, the anthropology of a society.
That goes to step number two, which is that the western world, the free world, loses what it cherishes most, and that is freedom and liberty we've seen for a couple of hundred years in this grand experiment that we call democracy. Now, in a practical sense, what does that mean? It means the potential of a weapon of mass destruction and a terrorist, massive casualty-producing event somewhere in the western world—it may be in the United States of America—that causes our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass-casualty-producing event. Which, in fact, then begins to potentially unravel the fabric of our Constitution. Two steps: very, very important.
CA: If that's true, why have so many critics attacked the president of the United States and tried to diminish the work of the military?
Gen. Franks: Different views. The old saw, the cliché, that talks about politics and the relationship of liberal journalism to the processes of governance in this country is…actually, I'm not sure how to answer your question. But let me tell you this. Today, we stand on the second anniversary of 9/11. One year from today, we will stand on the third anniversary of 9/11. And what will happen two months after that? In November of '04, we will have a presidential election in this country. The nature of politics is for the contestants to look at the production of an administration to determine what they do not like, whether it's the economy, whether it's foreign policy. That list can go on. They can discuss that and debate it. And so the media's coverage of all of this, I think I can accurately predict in the face of Yogi [Berra], who said, "When one finds a fork in the road, take it." Well, he also said, "Prediction is extremely difficult, especially if it has to do with the future." I'll make this prediction: I believe that we're going to have more discussion, more debate. Some of it will be nasty over the next 14 months as we lead up to a presidential election. I'm an American. I like that fact. I like the process that we go through. And I believe that it is incumbent on people who have views to express those views.
CA: OK. Would you say that finding the smoking gun that might provide absolute proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction is actually minor when compared to the importance of the core mission, which is to eliminate terrorism?
Gen. Franks: Defeat terrorism. You have articulated what I would say. I do agree with that. It is an issue, to be sure. But you and I could debate anything that we want to talk about. I'm reminded of the high school debate teams. And that is, one knows the proposition to be debated before one knows which side he or she will sit on for the debate. And I think we're in the middle of a debate, and we're seeing the halves of this country squaring off and each is building its case for the debate. And that's what this democracy's all about.
I told you I'm a corny guy. I'm a traditionalist. And I believe in that. Does that mean that it pleases me when someone says, "Well, General, your campaign in Afghanistan was too much this, or not enough that. The same thing in Iraq." Of course not. But that's a personal issue with me and we take these things personally. But the process, the environment that exists in this country, makes it possible for people to say what they want.
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