October 23, 2003

Rumsfeld's Memo Is Depressing

Robert Waldmann reads Rumsfeld's memo and winds up depressed and banging his head against the wall. He is forced to answer "Yes" to the question "Does an economist who reads the Economist and a smattering of the European press really know more about Afghan politics than Donald Rumsfeld?"

This makes Robert worry that perhaps our future is not in the best of hands.

robert's random thoughts: I can't believe I am posting a link to Fox News but that's where Rumsfield's memo is posted. I have read to paragraph 4 and find a remarkable statement showing, perhaps, less expertise about terrorists than I would imagine Rumsfeld has.

I quote: "USG has made reasonable progress in capturing or killing the top 55 Iraqis. USG has made somewhat slower progress tracking down the Taliban - Omar, Hekmatyar, etc."

The odd thing is that Gulbudin Hekmatyar is not a Talib. He is the head of the Hezb i Islami a very different organization which has fought the Taliban. Hekmatyar is a violent, anti-US fundamentalist moslem. The Hezb i Islami are responsible for most (almost all) of the devastation of Kabul done not by the Soviet Union, not by the Muhjedein (incl Hezb i Islami) fighting the Soviet Union, done not by the Taliban or the United Uniteds (US-UK) fighting the Taliban.

Kabul was largely destroyed by the Hezb i Islami (on Hekmatyar's orders) as it fought the other 6 Muhjedein groups for control of Afganistan. One of the first effects of the rise of the Taliban was the destruction of the Hezb i Islami as an effective fighting forse. This largely explains the significant support the Taliban originally had among non-insane Afghans.

Hekmatyar is a particularly interesting case, since, unlike the Taliban, he was assisted by US dollars. The division of US assistance to the resistance to the Soviet occupation was handled by Pakistan which gave the largest share to the Hezb i Islami.

I am an economist. Can it really be that I know more about Afghan politics than the secretary of defence ?

Posted by DeLong at October 23, 2003 08:29 AM | TrackBack


Did Rumsfeld prep this memo and leak it as a get back at the White House for the recent transfer of control to Condi and company (without consulting Rummy on the change)? Is this Rummy's bureaucratic middle finger?

Posted by: Brendan on October 23, 2003 08:42 AM

Well, at this point, I figure the best attitude is to look at the bright side of things: at least they are beginning to question the efficacy of their policies.

'Baby steps....'

Posted by: Ritu on October 23, 2003 08:48 AM


American soldiers 204
British soldiers 18
Coalition soldiers 4
226 Since May 2

American 343
British 51
Coalition 4
398 Since March 20


American soldiers ~1940 Since March 20

Note: American forces have fallen to 130,000
British forces have risen to 11,000

Posted by: lise on October 23, 2003 09:05 AM

When I heard of this memo, I thought of Robert McNamara's change of heart about Vietnam. But I think it has more to do with establishing that Team Bush does not know what it is doing in Iraq or the war on terror. I believe the real reason the Iraq war was fought had to do with the fading away of Al Qaeda in Spring, 2002, the fact that Bush then did not have a highly visible enemy, and his desire to regain the political initiative with a war president role that was working for him.

Posted by: BobNJ on October 23, 2003 09:08 AM

I don't think this is fair to Rumsfeld. Do you really expect him, in an internal memo, to write something like "...the Taliban and other anti-American forces in Afghanistan..."?

Posted by: ogged on October 23, 2003 09:25 AM

I'm sorry but the memo clearly is the type of thing you want a cabinet secretary writing. He is clearly trying to get everybody to look beyond the trees and see the forest. A labeling error in this type of memo is hardly reason to worry. It isn't like he listed the guy as our pal. There may be legitimate reasons to hound Rumsfeld but this memo doesn't appear to be one.

Posted by: Stan on October 23, 2003 09:28 AM

Stan & ogged I think you've hit on the heart of the problem -- in Afghanistan it is enough to fight a war over but in Washington a waste of ink.

When does he do the "trees"?

Posted by: Jack on October 23, 2003 10:20 AM

BobNJ seems to me to be unto something, especially in the light of efforts by the White House and Condi to paint Rumsfeld's job with Iraq as something they can, should and will fix. In other words, he may feel they've scapegoated him for the failure of what he may think is everyone's responsability, not specifically his (given the current state of the Army and the new challenges blah blah blah.)

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on October 23, 2003 10:20 AM

Stan and Ogged seem right to me. The memo looks like most of the stuff Rumsfeld thinks about all the time, like how should the DOD be organized to fight terrorism, how can we judge results, and should we think about some new kind of organization which would fight more effectively. This article in the NYT seems responsive:

Posted by: Masaccio on October 23, 2003 10:25 AM

Um, must as I regret doing so, I have to agree with Stan. Rumsfeld sounds to me like he was doing what I have heard bigwigs do all my meeting-ridden life. He was tossing around a name that he hoped would make him sound well informed, but he wasn't well informed enough get away with it. Specialists don't make such mistakes, but they ain't the boss. Dumb, ego-serving behavior, but it doesn't tell us anything important about this situation.

There is a ton of interesting issues to consider in relation to this memo, though. What's he up to?

Posted by: K Harris on October 23, 2003 10:38 AM


Howard censured over push for war with Iraq

October 8, 2003

Prime Minister John Howard was yesterday censured by the Senate for misleading the public in his justification for sending Australia to war with Iraq.

It was only the fourth time in more than three decades a sitting prime minister has been censured and the second in Mr Howard's seven-and-a-half years in office.

The motion attacked Mr Howard for failing to adequately inform Australians that intelligence agency warnings about a war with Iraq would increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack.

It also noted that no evidence had yet been produced by Mr Howard to justify his claims that in March this year, Iraq possessed stockpiles of completed biological chemical weapons that justified going to war.

Posted by: Emma on October 23, 2003 11:06 AM

I'm not surprised by Stan and Ogged's comments roughly "so what". I am more surprised that Brad added the link to my observation (thanks Brad). The more important point is that, even, if most people don't stress the so what, they aren't intersted in my pointlet.

I for one am pretty sure that Rumsfeld knows that Hekmatyar does not belong to the Taliban but that he considers the difference not worth wasting a second on (Taliban, Al Qaeda and Hezb i Islmai added to the memo doesn't kill more trees).

I also think this is not completely unimportant (talk about bold claims). I see a connection to a certain vagueness about the difference between
Al Qaeda-Taliban alliance and Iraqi Ba-athists this time certainly not based on ignorance.

Or to quote Menachim Begin ordering the invasion of Lebanon to respond to acts of terror by an organisation based in Libya "Abu Nidal Abu Shmidal a terrorist is a terrorist".

More generally on the memo it seems to me to be anything but a sign of humility. The reason is that Rumsfeld says the things he has done (and started doing before 9/11) are clearly great but perhaps the stick in the mud uniformed bureacrats in the armed forces have to be pressed harder.

My translation roughly is "It is clear that I have done everything humanly possible to fight terrorism, but can one man save the world when he has to deal with idiots who don't appreciate his genius?"

but then again maybe I'm unsympathetic

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on October 23, 2003 11:16 AM

Robert, perhaps you're reading more into than you should?

Posted by: Stan on October 23, 2003 12:30 PM

>>I don't think this is fair to Rumsfeld. Do you really expect him, in an internal memo, to write something like "...the Taliban and other anti-American forces in Afghanistan..."? <<

Well, yes. Especially if they hate each others guts and killed each other in large numbers. To fail to make distinctions between one's enemies when they loathe each other hinders one's own strategic thinking.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on October 23, 2003 12:33 PM

Stan, even if Rumsfeld had good reasons for making simplistic errors, you miss the heart of the matter. The question of how best to respond strategically to the threat posed by terrorism should have been asked, at the latest, in March, '02. Instead, the shallow, ill-informed man who occupies the oval office was busy buying into the "the road to a better world leads through baghdad" crowd he is surrounded by, and stragegic thinking went out the window.

As for what is Rummy up to, i see three possibilities: a.) he wants to prove that he's still the smartest kid in the class; b.) he wants, sotto voce, to criticize Bush for downgrading his role; and/or c.) subconciously, he wants to be fired.

I vote for all 3.

Posted by: howard on October 23, 2003 12:48 PM

Comsidering that Rumsfeld was the main architect of the present policy, isn't his memo odd? It's sort of as if I come home to my bachelor apartment and start complaining about the terrible clutter.

Rumsfeld's confusion COULD be careless writing, remediable by a punctuation change, insertion of an "or", etc. Unfortunately, the kind of confusion apparently seen here has been clearly expressed by Bush and even more so by multiple street-level core-constituency Republicans, for whom the Taliban, the Palestinians, al-Qaeda, the Iraqis, and the Iranians are all pretty much the same thing. (And the Sikhs and Hindus too, in some cases.)

Back in the old days conservatives would talk a lot about "words have meanings" and "distinctions are important", etc. etc. That branch of conservativism doesn't seem influential in this administration.

Posted by: Zizka on October 23, 2003 01:38 PM

"Well, yes. Especially if they hate each others guts and killed each other in large numbers. To fail to make distinctions between one's enemies when they loathe each other hinders one's own strategic thinking."

Once you get a full head of steam on something like this it's difficult to stop, eh?

Since this is an internal memo only (not a detailed paper that carefully delineates and categorizes each particular), the non-error in question could very well represent (and likely is) nothing more than a self-styled, short-hand form of communications that is not at all untypical in that type of setting. Precisely what ogged and Stan were indicating.

What is perhaps even pitiable is that Waldmann asks the self-serving, rhetorically smirking question, i.e. "can it really be ...?" No Robert, it certainly doesn't appear that way, the very fact you had to resort to this as your primary and only evidence in support of that is fairly substantial evidence that the answer is a resounding "no."

All in all many among the Left/Dem camp are beginning to sound like millenialists the day after their messiah failed to arrive as predicted: huddled around, struggling to reassure one another, becoming ever more petty and carping at any unwanted, outside intrusion that fails to salve their wounded pride and their self-absorbed sense of righteousness. Of course if we would have listened to that crowd we wouldn't have ventured into Afghanistan in the first place. Perhaps we would have responded much as Clinton did after WTC '93 - very nearly nada.

Posted by: Michael B on October 23, 2003 02:23 PM

"Well, yes. Especially if they hate each others guts and killed each other in large numbers. To fail to make distinctions between one's enemies when they loathe each other hinders one's own strategic thinking."

Good lord, once you get a full head of steam on something like this it's difficult to stop, eh?

Since this is an internal memo (not a detailed paper that carefully delineates and categorizes each particular), the non-error in question could very well represent (and likely is) nothing more than a self-styled, short-hand form of communications that is not at all untypical in that type of setting. Precisely what ogged and Stan were indicating.

The strike against Glenn Reynolds concerned an issue that is not even of secondary significance. This issue about the Rumsfeld memo is a complete non-issue, Waldmann's argument is virtually self-refuting. Engaging Reynolds is of course fine, but why not engage along the lines of a more substantive issue; critiquing Rumsfeld is of course fine as well, why not do so though in an intelligible manner without the petty spin and carping.

Posted by: Michael on October 23, 2003 02:44 PM

From what I've read of recent history in Afganistan, alliances and enemies are pretty fluid. For all I know, there may even be an alliance of convenience between the two groups for now.

Posted by: Anurag on October 23, 2003 02:47 PM

"Of course if we would have listened to that crowd we wouldn't have ventured into Afghanistan in the first place. Perhaps we would have responded much as Clinton did after WTC '93 - very nearly nada."
What a load of steaming crap.
ANY Administration would have done Afghanistan. And you know it. You can not use 93 to predict behavior after 9/11. Christ you sound like Ann Coulter seeing a commie in Truman. Get Real.

The Republicans like to prance around like they are the paragons of foreign policy, but if you sit and do your homework, read the history, the biographies, it becomes clear that the Dems have always led the United States more effectively in international affairs: Wilson in WWI, Roosevelt in WWII, Truman in Korea.

It's the Republicans who have always fallen on their current ideological fixations to mess things up. Opting out of the the League of Nations in the 20s, isolationist in the face of Hitler, flirting with the nuclear option during Korea. Then there is the whole bunch of covert ops that Republicans have championed: Iran in 1956, Chilie in 71, and the mother of all blowbacks: Afghanistan in 1980.

Self Righteous? Who belives that they can single handily save mandkind without the co-operation or consent of others: the Right needs to look in the mirror.

But don't wait for them to smarten up, the track record says they can't. If you care about foreign policy performance vote Democrat for President.

Posted by: Scott McArthur on October 23, 2003 02:58 PM


Nice try, but it's not a non-error. Try this:

"Your Majesty, we are busily discussing trade with the U.S. government - Lincoln, Davis, etc."

Would such a memo have given Britons faith in the diplomat who wrote it? Discuss.

Maybe Stan and Michael are this sloppy in their workmanship; if so, I'd appreciate them posting their companies' names, so I can invest appropriately. I know I try to make my internal memos correct and relevant, and not filled with conflations that undermine our goals. Perhaps they work in industries where precision of thought is irrelevant (Detroit maybe? "The competition for our new vehicle is sports cars - Corvette, Accord, etc.").

As most of the people here have pointed out, this would be a more forgivable error in an administration that hasn't spent 30 of its 34 months in office focusing on Iraq and missile defense, rather than on defeating al Qaeda and other terrorist threats to the US. Nothing this admin has done gives us reason to credit this as an insignificant internal shorthand; rather, everything they have done suggests that they have no sense of the complexities of the real world (was it Perle or Wolfowitz who said that, unlike in the Balkans, Iraq has no history of ethnic strife? Will Michael call that a "non-error?").

Neither Brad nor Waldmann think the man should be fored over this; it's just a telling detail from an administration that only pays attention to details when they regard message control.

Posted by: JRoth on October 23, 2003 03:03 PM

Folks, I hate to break it to ya, but I believe Anurag's surmise is correct. After the fall of the Taliban government, according to media reports, a regrouped Taliban army and Hekmatyar's forces entered into a de facto alliance against the Americans/U.N./Karzai government.

Posted by: john c. halasz on October 23, 2003 03:44 PM

Is the administration pursuing a policy of "unite and conquer"?

Apparently Saddam and Al Qaeda are together, now we hear that Hekmatyar and the Taliban are more or less the same thing. Next we'll be hearing that they are all in league with the Iranians. Forging such alliances surely took diplomacy of the highest order.

More seriously, with what strategy is Rumsfeld's reification compatible?

Posted by: Jack on October 23, 2003 03:45 PM


Your analogies are not apt. I'll take one of them:

"Your Majesty, we are busily discussing trade with the U.S. government - Lincoln, Davis, etc."

If anyone in the admin. had said, say prior to 9/11, that "... we are discussing (fill in the blank with some mutually beneficial term) with the Afghani govt. - the Taliban, Hekmatyar, etc." then that would certainly have been an error. But after the fall of the Taliban there are, as other posters have indicated, alliances of convenience that can and do develop. (And seemingly have in this case.)

Additionally, from a somewhat different angle, the agreed upon fact remains that the memo was intended for four (4) individuals within the DoD if I recall correctly. Again, not a detailed white paper, a memo to four individuals only. It is not at all uncommon that limited circulation memos like this use, as I termed it, a "self-styled, short-hand form of communications" where abbreviated styles are used.

Do I know that either or both of these theories are true with absolute, 100% certainty? No, I simply see them as not only viable but highly probable as well.

Yet further, this was the best that Waldmann could come up with? Risible, and literally so. But I'm happy to know that neither Brad nor Waldmann are calling for Rumsfeld's dismissal (LOL). Just goes to show how charitable and humble they can be I suppose. That much "generosity" in their carping "critique" certainly is deserving of some Rumsfeldian reciprocity.

Posted by: Michael on October 23, 2003 05:28 PM


At the level of the presidency I've voted Republican only once, in 2000. Additionally, the Dems prior to '68 or '72 were an entirely different breed than after that time. I would certainly have been a Dem prior to that era, not after though, and certainly not after Jimmy Carter. Hence I don't fit your presumptive stereotypes. For example, to recall your own allusion, I believe the Truman Doctrine was absolutely pivotal to getting the Cold War off on the notably right foot.

Finally, WTC '93, has many, many similarities to 9/11/01. About the only striking quality that is dissimilar is that it largely failed instead of succeeded (using the terms "failed" and "succeeded" from the standpoint of the militant Islamicists or jihadists of course, not our standpoint).

Regarding the Iraqi / al Queda ties, while they are not elemental or prinary, they are notable nonetheless. Google on "al Queda" and "Salman Pak" for example, but other research will lead to a similar conclusion as well.

Posted by: Michael on October 23, 2003 05:45 PM

Hekmatyar's Hezb i Islami and and the Taliban are very very different things and even if they may have formed a short alliance of convenience in the last ten months, it must be something very short and liable to termination and the first small inconvenience. Hekmatyar has long championed the Shia Muslims' cause in Afghanistan. He has in the past served as an agent of Iranian influence, though whether he can do so in the future after seriously abusing their hospitality when he took refuge there is another question. The history of the Taliban and Hezb i Islami relations has been remarkably vicious, even for Afghanistan.

Given their religious differences, and the differences in their recent and not-so recent local sponsor countries (at least since the CIA dumped Hekmatyar), any lumping of the two together without an explanation is misleading.

I don't know if a clumsy short hand, or acceptable memo-speak, or a slip. But it is a serious mistake to appear in any report, memo, no matter how short.

So should you jump all over the guy, considering you don't know whether he might have said "oops, sorry, don't know how I did that" to the small band of intended readers? I don't know. But it is not reassuring that the Pentagon's boss could write that. Anyone who has followed Afghanistan even semi-closely (even economists like me) should not make a slip like that.

Posted by: jml on October 23, 2003 08:20 PM

Although there are many things in Rumsfeld's memo that are very troubling, Robert's tidbit about the inclusion of Hekmatyar is an absurd one and TRULY shows how naive Robert is about the Afghan situation.

Although the Taliban and Hekmatyar's Hezb-Islami were enemies in the late 90s, Hekmatyar's anti-Western and anti-American sentiments run far deeper than his disagreements with the Taliban. Furthermore, almost immediately after the US attack on Afghanistan, Hekmatyar's group publicly called for an allegiance between them and the Taliban.

Everyone in Afghanistan (by this, I mean the Afghans) considers Hezb-Islami to be allied with Taliban and Al-Qaeda right now. Moreover, Hekmatyar's group is doing its best to destabilize the US-backed Karzai regime. Thus, ipso facto, Hekmatyar is just as much of a threat to current US interests there as are Al-Qaeda and Taliban. Rummy may be a bit of a hardass, but he was absolutely right to include Hekmatyar in the mix.

Posted by: shaitaangul on October 23, 2003 08:54 PM

Much thanks to shaitaangul for confirming and alliance between Hekmatyar and the Taliban. I still wonder whether the only thing the two really have in common is a desire to kill foreign armed forces in the country. So maybe the item is memo-speak that gives good info for those in the know.

I think it is better to look at the big picture rather than try to find "gotcha's" like this -which is little too much like you see in the big media. As I see it, the interesting thing in the memo is that Rumsfeld's diagnosis is that (even though he is running things, and is responsible for the sutiability and performance of the people he selected to work for him), the inferior underlings and various other incomptent forces are at fault here. And one of Rumsfeld's proposed solutions is, maybe, the Pentagon (i.e. Rumsfeld) should run a new agency and take more responsibility for the task.

Posted by: jml on October 23, 2003 10:14 PM

When I read the memo, I was astonished.

I can understand a memo asking why our policy is not working as well as expected. What I see is a memo asking "WTF is our plan? Let's make one, OK?"

I can't tell you how disheartening this is.

Posted by: etc. on October 23, 2003 11:52 PM

"ipso facto, Hekmatyar is just as much of a threat to current US interests there as are Al-Qaeda and Taliban" Well, that's an achievement. Communion to the enemy!

Perhaps Paul Krugman could have used this as a less controversial example of the woeful ineptitude and lack of planning with which Afghanistan and Iraq have been handled.

Posted by: Jack on October 24, 2003 04:11 AM

Bloggers serve a useful purpose when they bring the attention of their readers to issues they see as important. They report, we decide. In that way, Waldmann is performing a useful service, even though I’m not overwhelmed by the importance of his point. If (as he suggests) he meant to point out a pattern of conflating dissimilar things (Islamic fundamentalist terrorists and Baathist dictators), he didn’t try hard enough, as evidenced by the responses of intelligent folks here, none of whom seem to have made that link in their responses till he made the point explicit.

Casting backward and finding that Rumsfeld is to blame for the mess he describes certainly raises a good point for the coming election year, though it is not one I would want to raise for tactical reasons. Past presidents have successfully laid unpopular policies at the feet of cabinet members, ducking much of the political fallout themselves. If Rumsfeld thinks the shift in authority for Iraq to Condi Rice is a slap, well maybe he has good reason. “Bush was right, Rummy failed him” isn’t the best campaign slogan I ever heard, but it might spare Bush some falloff among supporters. I want Bush to be held responsible for whatever happens in Iraq.

Figuring out where Rumsfeld wants to take the DoD seems a pretty important task, with the memo providing clues. We already know that he thinks the Pentagon is unresponsive – that ain’t new and the accusation looks like just an effort to make them more responsive. Taken at face value, the memo suggests he wants the Pentagon to respond by becoming an anti-terrorism organization. Alternatively, he wants the Pentagon to fail at becoming an anti-terrorism organization, so we can move on and establish another organization with a narrower set of goals, so a better chance of winning. Either way, he wants them to get busy trying. (I have my doubts that his assessment is fair – I think the Pentagon is trying, but he is the kind of manager who doesn’t let up till he gets what he wants.)

I think Rummy may see Iraq as a testing ground, a lab, for developing anti-terrorism skills. I also note from yesterday’s NYT (thank you, Masaccio) that the military is making some efforts to respond – maybe not intentionally treating Iraq as a lab, but certainly having that effect. What implications would it have for decision-making in Iraq if Rumsfeld does see it as an opportunity to develop anti-terrorism capacity for use elsewhere?

My reading of the record is that terrorism has never been defeated on the battlefield, but I’m willing to be educated on that point. The French lost in Algeria, the US was driven out of Lebanon. The Northern Ireland problem is being solved politically. Israel is floundering in its attempt to deal with Palestinians through military action – resorting to a big wall and bombing the sovereign territory of other nations seems an admission of that. Does Rumsfeld think he can do better? Does he have a choice other than to try? Aren’t Condi and Powell and Snow the right ones to worry about non-military efforts against terrorism?

Posted by: K Harris on October 24, 2003 05:53 AM

Given subsequent posts, I'm backing down from my central point, since the Taliban & Hekmatyar are apparently buddies now ("enemy of my enemy is my friend" is, in fact, from the Koran, right?). Maybe Lincoln & Douglas would make for a better analogy, but it's clearly not a damningly ignorant conflation.

And I thought being a blog commenter meant never having to say you're sorry.

Posted by: JRoth on October 24, 2003 07:12 AM

Another possibility is that Rummy has been secretly looking at liberal websites like Eschaton, Billmon, Juan Cole, this one, etc., and is seeing the light.

Posted by: BobNJ on October 24, 2003 08:08 AM
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