Interview With Gen. Michael DeLong
In his new book, Inside CentCom: The Unvarnished Truth About the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, retired Gen. Michael DeLong – the former deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command – writes about a new style of war against a new style of enemy. DeLong helped Gen. Tommy Franks plan America’s post-9/11 efforts against al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime using new weapons, a new strategy of speed and flexibility, and a new urgency to protect the U.S. homeland from terror attacks. In his
book, he explains that much of his work involved building the coalitions for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, new tactics and why the wars played out the way they did. Today, DeLong is Executive Vice President of Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure International and the President of Shaw CentCom service (LLC) for the Shaw Group – a firm doing reconstruction work in Iraq where he still frequently travels.
He spoke with Command Post Contributor Ed Moltzen about his book, the war on terror and conditions today in Iraq.
TCP: August was a difficult month for the Coalition. From what you’ve seen and heard during your visits to Iraq, how is troop
DeLong: I’m probably not going to go there much. The people I talk to over there right now are the Iraqis. I’ve been there six times in the last four months. I’m leaving again (Friday). The people I talk to are the heads of the corporations over there, the ministers of some of the different agencies over there and the tribal chiefs of the largest tribes over there.
In the book, I was kind of hard on the former military people who commented on how the war was fought, and they didn’t have the knowledge we had. And right now I’m not involved (in the military.)
I am confident in how the people of Iraq and Iran feel. I meet with them all the time. I have hired some of them as security people. I have hired former military people who are working with us and they talk to the military people over there. And from what they say, the morale couldn’t be better. If you talk to the Army and the Marine Corps, their morale could not be better. They are energized about what they are doing. They are energized about trying to help the Iraqi people. They are energized that they are there, and if they have to fight they are fighting on someone else’s ground rather than their own ground.
The civilian people, or the Iraqi leaders I talk to, their issues are different. There are groups of people coming up and they don’t want the elections: Some of the former Ba’athists, some of the Fedayeen Saddam, members of al Qaeda led by Zarqawi. With that said, about 85 percent plus of the people in Iraq, according to the people I talk to, like Americans. What they don’t like is being occupied. What they would like is free and open elections. Whether democracy will work or
not is to be seen. If they are going to elect people, they would like to elect Iraqis and not expatriate Iraqis who were not there during the hard times, during Saddam’s reign.
Will there be a civil war? That’s a possibility according to the people I talk to. It’s two civil wars. One up north – the Sunnis are concerned that they used to be the ruling group and may not be. The Kurds would like to be free and have their own country up north, Kurdistan. But they would have to fight the Turks and Sunnis.
In the south, there is a possibility of a war between the Shia and the Sunni. If that doesn’t happen, and there is some sort of security and people can vote with some sort of feeling good about themselves, there is a good chance the January election will happen.
TCP: Prime Minister Allawi said elections in Iraq will go on, as scheduled, in January. Based on what you’ve seen on the ground and what you’ve heard from the Iraqis themselves, its this realistic?
DeLong: Let me put it this way: The hope of most Iraqis is they have some sort of an election. Whether this country ends up being a democratic issue, it’s a regional issue. None of the countries around Iraq wants that country to be democratic. Why is that? If Iraq was a successful democratic country, the rest of the countries around them are not. That could cause internal failing in their countries and they don’t want that. There’s a lot going against Iraq trying to be a democratic country. It would be great if it happened.
TCP: From an infrastructure standpoint, do you believe Iraq is better today than it was before the war? Does it vary on a region-by-region basis?
Delong: It varies on a region-by-region basis. I will tell you, every region is better than before the war. Baghdad is better, and Baghdad was really the only region – well, Baghdad and Tikrit – that Saddam cared about. The infrastructure in Iraq has not been tended to since 1979. Saddam put all his money into castles and things he liked. But the water infrastructure, the power infrastructure, schools, hospitals, the port infrastructure – no money was put into that. The reason things are in the shape the are today is not because of the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War or the second Gulf War. It’s because of Saddam not putting a nickel into infrastructure.
Things were not taken care of. Probably 70 percent of the infrastructure problems were due to neglect over the last 30 years of Saddam’s reign. Now, different contractors have gone in – I being one of them – and have built the infrastructure up. People – if they are not protected – try to destroy the infrastructure.
TCP: The Iraq Survey Group is expected to file a comprehensive report soon on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Reports indicate that it will conclude Saddam had no WMD. But you disagree with that belief. Why do you disagree and is it more likely WMD are still inside Iraq, or have they been moved?
DeLong: I think what the report will say is, just like everybody else has said, there is no proof there was WMD. There will be no definitive statement in this report. I can state, unequivocally, there was WMD in Iraq before and during the war. You have multiple-source intelligence. Also, from other Arab leaders – as Tommy Franks says in his book – King Abdullah said Saddam has WMD. President Mubarek of Egypt said you have to be very careful going in, because Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. Other leaders who have chosen not to be named said the same thing. We had technical intelligence that saw the same thing.
Two days before March 19, 2003, we saw quite a number of vehicles going into Syria. We could not go after them because we said we’d give Saddam 48 hours. A lot of (Iraqi) leaders went into Syria, and a lot of WMD went into Syria. We’ve gotten indications some went into Lebanon, and probably some went into Iran.
The size of Iraq is roughly, in square miles, the same size as California. Seven-eighths of the country is arid desert land. We’ve done calculations that you could probably bury 16 Eiffel Towers or Empire State Buildings and never find them in the desert. Just four months ago, they were digging for something out in the middle of
the desert and they hit something. It was a MIG-25 Foxbat that the Iraqis buried in the sand. We never would have found this thing.
Biological Weapons, you could put almost your whole program in a suitcase. You could probably put your whole chemical weapons industry inside a van. Yes, they did have it and right today they can’t find it. The people we’ve captured, like Dr. Germ and Chemical Ali, the murderer of the Kurds, aren’t talking.
TCP: In the book, you talk about coming face-to-face with Chemical Ali. What was that like?
Like any good commander, I was looking at the prison sites to make sure they were going well and at the time they were. I went into this one prison that held our special prisoners. The last prisoner I went to was Chemical Ali. He was dressed nicely as far as the prisoners were. He was well-taken care of. His hair was gray. (Everybody who had nice, dark, black hair during the war – they had all died their hair. They all had gray hair in prison.)
I had taken my rank insignia off, I had a jacket on. He said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m just here to look at the prison to make sure everybody is getting taken care of.” He said, “You must be important.” He said, “Who are you? Why are people deferring to you?” He said, “All of the guards who take care of me are wonderful.”
He had a smile on his face all the time. It reminded me, working with police forces when police forces worked with serial killers. You could sit next to this guy and you would let him babysit your child. He was so nice, but he probably killed 100,000 people.
He said, “We don’t have chemical weapons.” I said, “Sure you do.”
Why is he withholding? I can’t tell you for sure, but my guess is anybody inside the Saddam inner circle who was a strong person who had strong feelings about certain things is already dead. Anybody who couldn’t keep a secret – they’re all dead. Until Saddam is killed, or executed, or whatever, they may never talk. They’ll probably never talk until they’re sure he can’t come back.
TCP: Much of your job while you were at CentCom involved building coalitions for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. When you hear the Coalition of the Willing being referred to as a fraudulent coalition, what do you think? What’s your response? (It sounds like that’s a direct criticism of the work you did.)
DeLong: If I believed that, I would take offense. Everybody is choosing to do something they think will effect the election. If I truly believed that - you’re talking about Sen. Kerry – I’d take offense to that. There is nothing more important in today’s world than the defeat of terror, of the pressure of terrorism. As much of the
world as possible has to participate. Russia found that out, sadly, in the last two weeks. Even though they are part of the coalition, they weren’t as tough as they could have been. There are over 70 countries (at CentCom headquarters) in Tampa supporting the coalition. The police forces are going through their countries trying to root out these terrorists. The intelligence organizations of these countries are sharing intelligence like they’ve never shared before. You could go back to 2001 until today. Until this event in Russia, and until the event in Spain, the organizations in the world had thwarted somewhere…between thirty and 100-plus very large terrorist events. People were captured and killed and the event stopped because of what’s going on today.
Guess who’s in the coalition? Spain is in the coalition. The Philippines is in the coalition. Two countries that left Iraq. But if the people in power want to stay in power in their respective countries, and the people of that country don’t want them there (in Iraq), they’ve got to make that choice. But they keep their people in the coalition.
They are still contributing, but secretly. They are working in Afghanistan. France and Germany are working very heavily in Afghanistan even though their people won’t let them work in Iraq.
TCP: How difficult was diplomacy for you, as a career military man?
DeLong: It was easy. People are people. When I retired, I had 36 years and four months of service. I traveled the world. I knew every country. I read the Koran to understand how the Arabs worked. Not that I’m better than anybody in the West. (Understanding the Koran) let me let me not do some things I shouldn’t do, or do things I should do when dealing with them. I used to (coalition members) at my house one a month – all the leaders. They became friends. I could get things
done in some countries that would have taken months of red tape working through the State Department, then with the other embassy, then with their foreign ministry.
I could get it done in thirty minutes because they had access to the prime minister. That doesn’t mean it was right, but it worked. I said this in the book, and I’ll still say it today: The coalition is more important than the war on terrorism. If they hang together and they continue to pursue the terrorists, you wouldn’t have to worry
about the war on terrorism. Terrorism may become like crime. There will be some areas of the world where crime is bad, and some areas of the world where it is not bad. There will be some areas where terror is not bad.
TCP: Sen. Kerry has said more than once that President Bush let Osama bin Laden escape at Tora Bora. In your book, to say the least,
you explain it much differently.
DeLong: Sen. Kerry didn’t know what happened. He’s no more better informed than the armchair generals who went after us (on TV.) And what was going on at the time, where bin Laden was in the Tora Bora caves, there was a tribal area that was full of civilians. You couldn’t go up there with soldiers of any force – especially us
– because we would have been fighting them to get to bin Laden. Whether we would have gotten to him remains to be seen. This was a tribe on the border, and the only people who were accepted up there was the Pakistani army. You know how tough guarding a border is – with Texas and New Mexico and Arizona for example.
We didn’t kill any civilians unnecessarily up there. We know for a fact from our multiple intelligence sources that we wounded bin Laden. But yes, he did get away. If we had killed a number of civilians, our chances of getting elections in Afghanistan would have never happened. It was a diplomatic, not a political call. It was a call to get this country back together again. We knew the death or capture of bin Laden was important. But getting rid of al Qaeda and getting the country feeling good, feeling nationalistic, was important.
TCP: Just days before the Iraq war began, Gen. Shinseki told Congress he believed several hundred thousand troops would be needed for the effort. Was this a big disagreement between the war planners the Army bureaucracy?
DeLong: What happened is, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld talked to all the commanders and all the commanders running area commands around the world and said, “We have new weapons now, very highly sophisticated weapons now for land, sea and air. I’m a good steward of the American taxpayer. I want your operations plans to reflect the updated gear we have. Your plans currently look like Napoleon’s plans. Let’s see what you could do with less people, less airplanes, less ships.”
It was not a bad thing to do. That’s what everybody started doing.
We had the war planned that it was told to us by expatriate Iraqis that the army would stay in tact, the police would stay in tact, you would be able to control different areas inside the cities and prisoners would be in prison. Two days before the war went down, Saddam let between 30,000 and 50,000 of the worst people in the
world – rapists, killers and kidnappers – they were let go into the streets. On the day before we crossed the border, everyone of the police walked out of their uniforms. Now you’ve got 50,000 of the worst people in the Middle East loose on the streets and no policemen. Then the Iraqi soldiers walked out. You had no military police.
Could you use several hundred thousand troops then? Sure you could. But that wasn’t the plan. We couldn’t come in from the north – Turkey wouldn’t let us. We had to funnel our forces coming in from the sea and land (in the south). Once we got in, we got to Baghdad rather rapidly. We had built (forces) up to 200,000. We thought from that time on we could possibly – the people would settle down after the capture of Saddam or the capture of Baghdad. That didn’t happen either. We had to build up a police force and army and a national guard force.
Was Gen. Shinseki wrong? Given what happened, it probably would have been nice to have several hundred thousand (troops). Over time, where do you get several hundred thousand soldiers? Right now we have a heck of a time keeping 130,000.
Were mistakes made? Sure they were. But everybody in the United States, including Congress, had a shot: If you know what the Iraqis are going to do, tell us. If not, we’ll do the best we can.
There were other surprises. We thought they would use chemical weapons on us. That surprised us nicely that they didn’t.
TCP: What do you think will be this country’s response, long-term, to what’s happening in Iraq? Do you think there will be patience over the long haul?
That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. It was written in novel format, and without a lot of military acronyms, to make it easy to read and for people to make their own decision. Sadly, some people have forgotten that 9/11 happened. Sadly, some people have never thought about what happens if we lose the war on terrorism.
This is not like coming back with you tail between your legs after Vietnam. This could be the downfall of the United States and the downfall of the world. You can’t afford to lose that war. The reason I was in the military for 36 years and four months was not because I was a conservative or a Republican, but that I fought and was willing to die for people’s right to dissent, or whether they want to vote or not to vote. That’s the great thing about living in the United States. What’s sad today is during the election process – it’s good to have the candidates going back and forth. It’s bad when they attack each other. The world looks at that and that’s not good.
Dissent is good. It’s always been good. It’s good for the United States in my humble opinion.
But it’s not going to be months in Iraq. It’s going to be years.
Ed Moltzen writes at Late Final. You can read his review of Gen. DeLong’s book here.