Sanchez on Iraq errors: Don't blame me, I was just a general

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in May 2004 testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in May 2004 testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — To hear retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez explain it, the mistakes of the Iraq war that happened while he was in command there weren't his fault. Not Abu Ghraib, not the birth of the insurgency, not the decision to let rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr survive.

Sanchez was a soldier, and according to him, a general's job is to give advice. What the civilian leaders decide after that is out of a general's hands.

"It's our responsibility to provide the best judgment we can," Sanchez said in an interview with McClatchy. "But when those decisions are made, if they are not illegal or immoral, civilian control of the military dictates that we comply."

His explanation is part of an ongoing debate within the military, triggered by the Iraq quagmire: What is the role of a soldier?

Sanchez argues that crafting a strategy wasn't his responsibility, even as the top commander in Iraq. That fell to the civilian leaders, such as the secretary of defense and the president.

But as part of the military's emerging counterinsurgency strategy, commanders now are calling their soldiers "strategic corporals." That is, every soldier's decision is part of the broader strategy.

Captains serving in outposts throughout Iraq now are leading fiefdoms alongside local Iraqi leaders, deciding everything from who should protect the community to how local funds should be spent. Commanders now stress to corporals and captains stationed in those outposts that their decisions are part of the broader strategy.

"It's all well and good for a general to say I am not responsible for grand strategy," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan. "But corporals can be strategic. They can make things happen."

Sanchez leans on the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which dictates how soldiers behave, for his defense. Indeed, the regulations haven't changed since the military adopted counterinsurgency tactics. Soldiers still can be punished for insubordination, contempt or disrespect. So far, the regulations don't define when a corporal making on-the-ground decisions has violated the rules, leaving corporals and generals alike to have to interpret old rules in new situations.

Sanchez's comments were part of a series of interviews he's given recently to promote his new autobiography, "Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story," the latest of several books by key Iraq decision-makers that seem intended to exonerate them of responsibility. In his book, Sanchez repeatedly spells out instances in which civilian leaders made decisions that countered his recommendations.

Don Snider, a professor of political science at the United States Military Academy, said Sanchez is right to not take the blame for civilian decisions. "The general's advice is his responsibility," he said.

Snider said the military didn't prepare for the war in the decade before, during military downsizing. And that, too, was outside of Sanchez's control, Snider said.

The clash between the civilians' and general's responsibilities led to key mistakes, Sanchez conceded, including some that have defined the postwar period.

Sanchez said the key window for the United States to turn the situation around in Iraq opened with the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003.

It closed the following April, he said, when the U.S. made two key mistakes: It launched its first major offensive into Fallujah and decided not to capture Sadr, whose Shiite militia has since grown into one of Iraq's most powerful forces.

Sanchez said he advised President Bush not to go into Fallujah in April 2004 after four private security contractors were taken hostage and killed. Their burned bodies were hung from a bridge as Iraqis celebrated beneath them. The widely circulated photos were grotesque.

Sanchez said he feared that proponents of attacking Fallujah were being driven by a knee-jerk reaction to the photos and not by any consideration of the difficulty of moving into the city, which had been a troublesome redoubt of anti-American insurgents since the day U.S. troops toppled Saddam.

He said he advised against the offensive. The president "appreciated our caution but then ordered us to attack," Sanchez wrote.

That battle ended in failure less than a month later and signaled to the insurgency that the U.S. would walk away from a major fight.

That same month, the U.S. had a chance to arrest Sadr, but Sanchez said that L. Paul Bremer, then the head of the Coalition Provincial Authority, called off the operation. Sadr has been haunting U.S. efforts in Iraq ever since.

Sanchez said that he should have known more about what was going on at the Abu Ghraib prison, where Iraqi prisoners were subjected to degrading treatment that resulted in the courts-martial of seven low-ranking soldiers.

But even there, he said he bore no direct responsibility for what was taking place. Instead, the abuses of Abu Ghraib were a result of the Bush administration's endorsement of aggressive interrogations, which began in Afghanistan. He points out that an Army inspector general report ultimately absolved him.

Sanchez said that by giving his best recommendations, he did his job and didn't deserve his forced departure in July 2004, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal. He retired when it became apparent that Congress would never approve a promotion.

"One of the things that has frustrated me in this war — everybody sees the military commander as the one responsible for the conduct of the war on the ground when in fact it's about the application of national power across the entire spectrum, and (the general) doesn't control it," he said.

Snider said that Sanchez's take on the role of the general may have less to do with the role of the soldier than it does about circumstances. He ultimately said it lies with the civilians.

Sanchez is "a good man put in an immensely awkward position," Snider said. The improvements in Iraq came about because "what really changed was the secretary of defense."

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