General reveals rift with Rumsfeld
on insurgents By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - A military assessment of the
Iraqi insurgency in late 2004 concluded that it
had the active support of millions of Sunnis who
rejected the legitimacy of a US installed
government, according to Lt Gen John R Vines, who
led all coalition forces in Iraq from January 2005
to January 2006.
That analysis conflicted
with the view of Secretary of Defence Donald
Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who
believed the insurgents represented only Saddam
loyalists and foreign
jihadis and could be defeated
by a combination of force and free elections.
Vines' revelation thus provides the first
serious evidence of past differences between the
US command in Iraq and top US policymakers over
the nature of the insurgency and what to do about
In a speech at the Washington
Institute on Thursday, Gen Vines recalled that an
analysis on which he worked in fall 2004 had
portrayed a three-tier insurgency, the largest
element of which consisted of "Sunnis who rejected
the authority of the interim government".
Vines said this element, which was called
"Sunni Arab rejectionists", included those Sunnis
who "agreed that the transitional government could
not be expected to protect their interests". It
was "quite a large element", he said, numbering in
Noting that Sunnis
constituted 25% of the Iraqi population, Vines
said the Sunni "rejectionists" were a "source of
labor for the insurgency - an unlimited supply of
blue collar thugs". Not all Sunnis were
pro-insurgency, Vines said, but "a significant
He described the other
two tiers of the insurgency as a "very small"
contingent of foreign jihadis and some 30,000
loosely coordinated "former regime elements" with
access to large amounts of cash from "Sunni
sympathisers around the world".
recalled that that he and others involved in the
assessment "felt as long as the government was not
regarded as legitimate by the Sunnis, the problem
[of the insurgency] would not go away".
Vines strongly implied that he was a key
figure in putting together the analysis. He
referred to "the perceptions with which we entered
Iraq in January 2005" and repeated later that the
views he was describing were "views I held".
Although he did not indicate what
institution was primarily responsible for the
analysis, the circumstantial evidence points to
CENTCOM, the US Central Command, with which Vines
had close ties. CENTCOM's main function is to
monitor and analyse developments in the 27
countries for which it is responsible.
Vines's official biography does not show
any assignment between October 2003 and his
assumption of command in Iraq in January 2005. His
prior command of coalition forces in Afghanistan
from May to October 2003, however, suggests that
he was still associated with CENTCOM, which is
responsible for both Afghanistan and Iraq, during
the time the study was undertaken.
Vines assessment was completed in October 2004
just as the Pentagon was preparing for a major
offensive in Fallujah that was based on a very
different set of assumptions about the insurgency.
Rumsfeld revealed in an interview with
pro-war Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland
that the objective of the assault on Fallujah was
to "dissuade Sunni townspeople from joining,
supporting or tolerating the insurrection". The
implication was that the price of such support in
terms of destruction and death meted out to the
city by the US air and ground attack would be too
high for most civilians.
That approach to
the insurgency, which did not require any
accommodation of the interests of the Sunni
community, was at odds with the Vines assessment.
In late October 2004, senior officials in
Washington and Baghdad leaked selected bits of
information from the Vines assessment to the New
York Times and Washington Post. Both papers
published details about the access of Baathist
elements to financial support from abroad, for
But neither paper was given any
hint of the extremely broad base of support among
Sunnis for the insurgency that had been the main
new analytical point of the analysis. Instead, the
Post quoted the officials as saying the "dominant
element of the insurgency" was "a "loose group
referred to in US military documents as 'Sunni
Arab rejectionists', consisting largely of former
members of Hussein's government".
senior officials arbitrarily redefined the
category of "Sunni Arab rejectionists" to be
consistent with their portrayal of the insurgency
as small and isolated.
The Vines analysis
was yet another skirmish in a battle between the
administration and professional analysts over the
nature of the insurgency that began in 2003. The
key points in the analysis on support for the
insurgency had already been stated in the National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq issued in
October 2003 and reissued in June 2004, according
to Wayne White, former deputy director of the
State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and
White, now an adjunct scholar at
the Middle East Institute, told Inter Press
Service in a telephone interview that the NIE had
portrayed the insurgency as having an enormous
support base among Sunnis, because of a wide range
of grievances, including unemployment, the arrest
and killing of family members, the destruction of
homes, and opposition to foreign occupation.
The NIE had been requested by CENTCOM,
according to unnamed officials quoted in a March
10 Knight Ridder story by Warren Strobel and
The tension continued
through much of 2005 between the top
administration officials and the intelligence and
military analysts over the size and motivation of
Sunni support for the insurgency. After his
arrival in Baghdad, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad
sided with CENTCOM and the intelligence community
on the need to meet legitimate Sunni grievances.
Rumsfeld and Cheney then accepted the fact
that the insurgency had significant Sunni support,
but they began arguing that such support was
motivated only by a desire to regain their old
The administration's "National
Strategy for Victory in Iraq" released on November
30, 2005, reflected the revised Rumsfeld-Cheney
viewpoint. It defined the "rejectionists" as those
Sunni Arabs "who have not embraced the shift from
Saddam Hussein's Iraq to a democratically governed
state" and who opposed "a new Iraq in which they
are no longer the privileged elite".
did not directly criticize the administration's
military policy in Iraq in his speech. "I don't
intend to get into the policy arena," he said. He
also refused, as an active-duty officer, to
comment on retired generals' calls for Rumsfeld's
resignation, despite invitations by reporters at
the speech to do so.
pointedly observed in his speech, "The policy was
directed by Washington," adding that the command
in Iraq had merely carried it out.
choosing to focus attention on a previously
unknown October 2004 analysis of the insurgency,
Vines appears to have been encouraging comparison
between that line of thinking and contrasting
policy views of Rumsfeld and Cheney.
Gareth Porter is an historian
and national security policy analyst. His latest
book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power
and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published
in June 2005.