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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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CA: That night, when you were home, knowing the next day that it was about to begin, what were your feelings? Were you with other people? How heavy was the weight of the world on your shoulders at that moment?
Gen. Franks: I guess it would be possible in hindsight six months later to be dramatic in response to the question. I think 36, 37 years of military experience in a lot of different places, in a lot of different wars, makes one very, very thoughtful. Much more inclined to check the things that need to be checked at the last minute, than to sit and say, "Holy smoke, this is a big one." I think I returned to my headquarters that night. I sat with my immediate staff. I talked to my subordinate commanders. We talked about some rather mechanical things: the posturing of special operations forces to the south, the west, the north; the precision configuration of airplanes, and how many; and a thing that we call the map, or the master air attack plan. I reviewed it. I reviewed the target sets. I reviewed the intelligence.
CA: But when you were finished reviewing all of the things you had to do, what did you do?
Gen. Franks: I went to bed.
CA: Did you have trouble sleeping that night?
Gen. Franks: I'm not dodging your question, but we all have different sleeping habits and techniques and all of that. I don't sleep well, anyway. I'm not a long sleeper. And so I'm sure that I was up a good portion of the night. But I suspect that I was not thinking about the potential loss of lives, the potential use of weapons of mass destruction. I was probably thinking about the aggregation of force in time and space. Actually, mechanical time-distance factors associated with enemy sets and what I thought their psychological reaction times would be in order to move large formations, and making decisions until the very last minute about which radio frequencies and which radio nets we would permit the enemy to keep up, which ones we would take down.
CA: When you began the invasion, were there any surprises in terms of the type of resistance, the lack of resistance, the qualitative role of the enemy? It appeared as though we almost caught them by surprise and they had no response. Is that an oversimplification?
Gen. Franks: Operationally, at the level of campaign operations, there were no surprises. At the tactical level—and what I mean by that is, What are the Turks doing? What are the Saudis, the Jordanians…what is going on there? The posture of our own forces. The posture of enemy forces in large formations. The Republican Guards, the Special Republican Guards, the regular army forces—there were no operational-level surprises. Tactically, to be sure, there were surprises. Tactically means the formation that may be moving up a road and does not anticipate that there are five men in a small house on the left, and these men engage our forces with rocket-propelled grenades or something. So, tactical surprises? To be sure. Operationally? No surprises.
CA: But, nothing significant?
Gen. Franks: None. No.
CA: You were prepared. You had a plan.
Gen. Franks: Correct.
CA: You executed the plan.
Gen. Franks: I guess, maybe people haven't asked as much as they've speculated, that the strike against the leadership targets on the first night of the war, which was a place we call [Dora] Farms, had desynchronized the activities, or done things out of sequence. There's been speculation that I was then forced to cancel the air campaign and do things with ground forces and all of that. And let me just give you a very simple explanation of that sequence. None of the speculation is true. The operation in Iraq had several ingredients. It had ground forces, Marines and Army troops. It had special operators or special forces. It had naval forces in the northern Arabian Sea near the gas and oil platforms, as well as the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Southern Arabian Gulf. It had air forces from a number of locations, including the United States, flying B2s. The plan, as we had generated it, did not prescribe that the first thing that will happen is, we'll do this, and it will be followed in ten minutes by this. I had that in my mind, but we had not put ourselves on what I would call full automatic, because things change on the battlefield.
I had described to the secretary and had discussed with the president the things that can go right and the things that can go wrong. And we had talked through, on several occasions, things that were very important to us. For instance, we did not want Scud missiles being fired into Israel or into Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or into Turkey. We did not want the regime to be able to destroy the means of economic health of that country: their oil fields, their oil infrastructure in the south or in the north. We didn't want the regime to be able to destroy all of the dams and barrages and permit the flooding of the Shiite marshlands. All of these things were things that we either didn't want to happen, or we wanted the things to happen on a timeline that would set us up for the isolation of Baghdad very, very quickly.
As I watched during this 48-hour period of time, I saw that the oil fields had not yet been destroyed and that the enemy forces were in a location that I thought was advantageous for us. So I made the decision, after I had inserted special operations forces in the western 25 percent of Iraq, which we did, that the next important thing to do would be for ground operations to secure the southern oil fields. I sensed the enemy was not in a position to prevent us from doing that. And so I decided that the order of initiation of conflict would be special operations, first; ground forces from the south, second; special operations operating up in the north with the Kurds, third; air operations vertically into Baghdad, fourth. The sequencing of all that was never changed. There was no action by the enemy that caused us to watch something early or to hold something back. It was simply the read—that's what we call it—the read that I had on the enemy, convinced me that this sequence was the correct sequence.
CA: Was there ever a moment in time when you thought or your people thought that you had Saddam Hussein?
Gen. Franks: I don't think so. I think—let me say this: We had good intelligence on the command and control targets in Baghdad.
CA: When was that?
Gen. Franks: The first night. It's a housing complex. We had good intelligence, but not real time, not right there. I would describe the intel as hopeful. We had reports that indicated that there were leadership targets that were viable. And so we took the decision to strike those targets early on. I guess everyone would be hopeful that maybe you had decapitated the regime and there'll be less loss of life, and so forth. But I'll say this: We never counted on it.
CA: Isn't it surprising that he was able, to this day, to avoid being captured?
Gen. Franks: [Silence.]
CA: I guess I'm saying I would have thought it would have been easier to get him than in the caves of Afghanistan to get Osama.
Gen. Franks: You bet. You bet. And…but what I'm balking about is…you asked me if it was surprising?
CA: I assume you thought you'd get him?
Gen. Franks: Actually, not. Stereotyping is never exactly a good thing to do. But if there's a stereotype that an operational or strategic mind in the military will take what it sees, react to what it sees in a way that makes our action faster, more effective than the enemy's action—if that stereotype exists, it's probably true. And that's the way my mind works. I didn't ever think about, "OK, now if I do this, I'll get this personality." And so I have never and, actually, up to this point, I am not surprised that Saddam Hussein has not been captured or killed verifiably. I'm not surprised. I just take it as it comes. I did not believe that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power was an end state that resulted in the removal of the regime in Iraq. I did not and I do not. I believe that the regime was removed in Iraq by the isolation and, subsequently, by the occupation of Iraq by coalition forces.
CA: Could the regime exist without Saddam Hussein?
Gen. Franks: Yes.
CA: Without leadership?
Gen. Franks: Yes.
CA: Without infrastructure?
Gen. Franks: Yes.
CA: Without resources?
Gen. Franks: Yes. For some period of time.
CA: But it isn't now.
Gen. Franks: It is not. The regime is gone.
CA: But if I interpret you correctly, while the capture of Osama bin Laden is a frustrating prospect, your feeling is that finding Saddam Hussein is inevitable?
Gen. Franks: Right. Without a doubt. In the sweep of history, the capture or killing of Saddam Hussein will be a near-term thing. And I won't say that that'll be within 19 days or 43 days. But compared to tracking someone who is ideologically accepted and loved by some, like bin Laden, Saddam Hussein will be captured or killed. I believe this is inevitable. People ask me all the time, "Well, won't it be good when he's captured or killed?" And, I say, "Sure it will." Of course it will. It will be very helpful to us, because there are people who, as long as they believe he's alive, will form resistance, and so forth. But that'll come.
CA: We're in this war against terrorism, and maybe it's like a book with a beginning and an end. Maybe there's an end. Or there's no end. And we've written chapters in this book on Afghanistan and we've written chapters in this book on Iraq. But there are other countries that, to greater or lesser degrees, are threats and there are problem countries that could require serious attention, whether it's Syria, Pakistan, Iran. Where does the United States have to focus its attention in terms of the fears and threats coming from global terrorism? Where is the next problem?
Gen. Franks: It's a fair question. But there actually are two issues. One is terrorists. Personalities. Cells. Groups. We're doing, in my view, a pretty fair job globally. We, being the international community, are doing a pretty fair job with the problem of terrorists.
There is a second problem, and strategically, it's much more significant. A much more resource- and time-intensive problem. It's going to last a long time. And that's the treatment of terrorism. The problem with terrorism is brought about by a lot of things. I read an article in The New York Times last week. I thought it was excellent. And it talked about schools in a number of places in the Middle East and Africa called madrassas, which are much more inclined to teach the ethic of terror than they are to teach the value of the arts, the value of calculus, mathematics and science. That's a problem of terrorism.
It has to do with culture, and it has to do with many other things. And in every case, in my view, where we see people associate this with Islam and with the Muslim faith, it is a bastardization of the religion. It is a manipulation of fact. This is not about a religion. This is about a form of extremism that happens to exist in the same part of the world where the vast majority is Muslim. I have too many Muslim friends to believe that the business of terrorism is some sort of a Muslim sort of thing. That is not fair to people who practice that faith.
CA: But there are certain countries that have really embraced terrorism and supported terrorism.
Gen. Franks: Off and on in the past. Otherwise, we would not have this list of state sponsors of terrorism. But look at Afghanistan, for example. We talk all the time about state-sponsored terrorism. I'm not sure that it has occurred to us as forcefully as it should that Afghanistan was the reverse. There was no state-sponsored terrorism. Afghanistan was a terrorist-sponsored state.
That's an interesting turn of words. It is not a common thing to see where the state is supported by the wealth and power of a terrorist organization. That was the case in Afghanistan. It's no longer the case there. Good for us for what has been done in Afghanistan. And good for us for what has been done in Iraq. Let me just ask you this. I ask myself sometimes. In the grand scheme of things, didn't we believe that the possibility for the export of violence from Iraq into the United States of America existed before the 19th of March of this year? And the answer is: without a doubt. We believed that the potential to come out of Iraq with violence into this country was real. Well, so how're we doing? What's the possibility now, irrespective of the difficulties with security and stability operations in Iraq? Wouldn't we say that the likelihood that terror being exported from Iraq into this country now is about zero? I would.
CA: But which countries should we be worried about in the future?
Gen. Franks: I won't tell you which countries. The ones on the state-sponsored list are obviously of concern to us; but let me give you a sort of a formula. I'll give you the ingredients of where I think our policy is and where I think our policy will go in the future vis-a-vis terrorists and vis-a-vis the states where we see a big terrorist problem. In three words: Convince. Coerce. Compel.
When we look at a country like Iran, when we look at Libya, when we look at Somalia, when we look at North Korea, we look at these countries and say, "Well, these are potential problems." I think, over the course of time, we're talking about diplomacy, and we're talking about convincing people and nations that it is not in their best interest to export terrorism. Coercing. Potentially compel. Then what I say is, "Welcome to the twenty-first century."
CA: What about Saudi Arabia? There are people that believe that they have two faces: the face of a friend and the face of a country that quietly has supported terrorism in the past for their own survival. Is that a fair commentary? And has that changed at all in the last few months?
Gen. Franks: That's a tough question. I do not think it's a fair commentary to say that the Saudis have supported terrorism for their own benefit. So no, I do not believe that. I believe the Crown Prince Abdullah is an honest man and is a friend of this country. And I believe that he is working to corral or curb the problem of terrorists inside Saudi Arabia. I believe that it is not uniformly true that everyone inside Saudi Arabia perceives the problem of terrorism to be as great as Crown Prince Abdullah knows it is. I believe that there is not a unity all across Saudi Arabia at every level that says, "We have a large problem and therefore we should attack this in a massive, head-on sort of way." And I believe, sir, that's what we read about. The internal politics, the internal dilemma inside Saudi Arabia. But I'll say this: I have a number of associates and I have a number of friends who are Saudis. And I believe that they do support the proposition of countering terrorism. And that's probably about the best that I can do with the Saudis.
CA: But is that recent behavior?
Gen. Franks: It is much more pronounced recently. I believe that we're seeing evidence of a greater leadership role in the face of terrorism by the Saudi leadership. Yes. So I do believe that, as we would say, "The burner is being turned up by the Saudis inside Saudi Arabia."
CA: But how do you account for the fact that 15 of the 19 individuals who rammed the four planes into U.S. targets on September 11th were apparently Saudi citizens?
Gen. Franks: I don't account for it. But I do not think it would be right to say that because 15 of 19 were Saudis, therefore Saudi Arabia as a state had something to with the attack. I believe that it would not be a stretch to say that extremism exists there. But a minute ago, when I talked about this extremism that is born in close proximity to a great many Muslims, I wouldn't want to get that confused with it being a Muslim view. As I said, that is just, by golly, wrong. I believe that a lot of this extremism that I've described has existed inside Saudi Arabia. And I think that it is against that extremism that Crown Prince Abdullah is doing an excellent job of standing up in the face of.
CA: What about the past, present and future role of the United Nations as it relates to the war on terrorism?
Gen. Franks: This is a private citizen's view. You deal with the United Nations on two levels. One is the ideal. It is what we would like to see. It is what we would like to have. One would like to have an organization that can serve the community of nations with force, with effect, to be able to wrestle these issues to the ground, to prevent hostilities, and to solve hostilities or to get them stopped when they start. On the other hand, there is the level of the practical, where the United Nations is not today. It is not the most effective body at commanding and controlling international military forces to go solve crises and terminate conflicts—that is an issue for us. Because our country is committed to getting a handle on this business of terrorism; and there is a natural reluctance to let any organization that is perceived as less effective tactically to conduct this sort of operation. So on the one hand, strategically, we want to reach for the ideal. We want the United Nations to work with, to support, to rally nations, to rebuild Iraq, to help the Iraqi people. On the other hand, there is a reluctance to say, "OK, it's your problem; now go solve it," because its effectiveness in that form of operations is just not overwhelming.
CA: President Bush recently…I think last Sunday…said that the United States is seeking closer ties with the U.N. It's an admirable idea, but as a reality, aren't a number of the members of the U.N. a problem?
Gen. Franks: I don't know that he said it exactly that way. I just think that there is a lack of unanimity with respect to what actions should be taken and how to go about this business of achieving security inside Iraq. I think it is a problem. It's going to be a problem. But I think one of the very positive things that we've seen recently is the approach that our country has made to the United Nations. I think Secretary [of State Colin] Powell has said, "Look, this is what we're thinking. Let's engage in a dialogue here because it is an absolute certainty that we want greater international involvement. We want help from the international community in Iraq." I think it's a pretty honest thing. Now, that doesn't mean that a lot of pundits are not going to pick and say, "OK, you know, they'll never agree." But I admire the fact that our government has gone to the United Nations and said, "We'd like this to be an international issue. How about giving us a hand here?"
CA: What is your opinion of President Bush as the commander in chief? And how do you think history will judge him?
Gen. Franks: Well, that's really a good question. I'm still apolitical. I want to preface what I say. Military people, a lot of times, are given credit for being ultraconservative and all of that, but they don't announce party alliance and do all that sort of stuff. And so we call ourselves apolitical. Actually, I carry that into civilian life. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not Republican. I'm not an independent. And the reason I'm telling you that is because I'm going to give you my answer to the question you asked, but I would not want people to say, "OK, well, here we have a political hack. Someone with ambition, who has now left the military, and that." I think George W. Bush is about the best in terms of a commander in chief. I'd say that for a number of reasons. Let me give them to you in sort of ascending order.
I count him a friend, because I've spent a lot of time with him and I like his style. I like his style of leadership. I respect him as commander in chief because he asks questions of his military. Honest questions. Hard questions. And he expects answers. And I appreciate and respect his balance in that he receives information, he processes the information intellectually, he discusses it with those around him, and then he makes a decision. And my experience with President Bush has been, once he has made a decision, he stays with it. Those are all very positive characteristics in the eyes of a military man. One wants a commander—let alone the commander in chief—one wants a commander to be decisive. One wants a commander to be intellectually gifted so that, if a subordinate comes in and says, "Boss, I don't know. I think there's a problem here," the boss [will] say, "OK, tell me about it." And then, listen to him, make a decision and execute the decision. Well, as a senior military guy, to have a commander in chief who operates that way is just the best. I wouldn't know another way to describe it. It's just the best.
CA: How do you see him in history?
Gen. Franks: I don't suffer a lot of hero worship. Somebody asked me one time, Who is your favorite person in history? And I said, well, probably several of them. One of them is Sun Tzu, because anyone who can write a total of 78 pages translated into English, that last 2,500 years, and still represent effective military principles, is someone to be admired. And the other one is George Washington, because, as a fellow who was a general and took the good lessons and the bad lessons and then served our country as our first president, well, I have great admiration and respect for that, also.
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