Middle East Commander Fallon Steps Down

The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East is resigning. Adm. William Fallon's decision to step down follows an Esquire magazine article suggesting he opposes President Bush's policy on Iran. Falon has also differed with the administration by calling for more troops in Afghanistan and pulling some forces out of Iraq.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

American troops from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond take their orders from a man who is retiring early. Admiral William Fallon is the supreme commander in a vast region where the U.S. is fighting two wars. His region also includes Iran. And his career ended prematurely after he appeared to disagree with his civilian bosses over how to approach that country.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is following this story.

Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let me read one of the quotes from an Esquire magazine profile that seemed to have gotten Admiral Fallon in trouble. The article is called "The Man Between War and Peace." And he said about Iran, I expect that there will be no war and that is what we ought to be working for.

What was so controversial about that?

BOWMAN: Well, it was sort of getting away from administration policy of more aggressive nature toward Iran. He also said in the article that the administration was, quote, "mesmerized by Iran."

And I think - here's the thing, other officers, particularly at the Pentagon, didn't want to head down to war with Iran. There's a lot else going on in the region with Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. But Fallon was much more outspoken than anybody else on this. He also said he got into hot water with a conversation he had with Egyptian President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak. And he told that to the writer.

So again, Fallon is - he's an old, crusty admiral, former fighter pilot in Vietnam, and it's a personality thing beyond, you know, beyond what he said in the article. And it was - a lot of people think it was the last straw for him.

INSKEEP: He also spoke out about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and we do have some tape from Admiral Fallon's testimony before Congress just last week. Let's take a listen.

Admiral WILLIAM FALLON (U.S. Navy): The drumbeat today is things are really going to heck in hand basket and there's no doubt about that the I.E.D.'s, the suicide bombings, are up significantly from a year or two ago. But the scale of violence in Afghanistan is a fraction of what it is in Iraq. You know, I'm not trying to sugar coat this at all, but it needs effective engagement.

INSKEEP: So he's saying if Afghanistan's not that bad, although he wants to get engaged there, was that a very different point of view from the Bush administration?

BOWMAN: Well, he's putting a lot of pressure on the administration and the Pentagon to send more troops to Afghanistan and to pull troops out of Iraq. That's where you see some divisions between him and let's say General David Petraeus, who would like to keep higher levels of troops in Iraq for a longer time.

Fallon is saying, listen, my area goes from Kenya to Kazakhstan. There's a lot going on in my central command region. I need some troops to go to Afghanistan. And he's also concerned about stretching the military as well, as a lot of folks at the Pentagon are as well. But again, I think Fallon is much more heated, much more upfront in discussing this.

INSKEEP: Was this man dancing along one of the most important constitutional lines here? Because you want military officers to have the freedom to act, to use their professional knowledge and to give their professional advice. But at the same time you want civilians at all times to be in control of the military.

BOWMAN: Well, I don't think he was going beyond his constitutional bounds. I think he was sort of calling them as he sees them. And again, there are a lot of officers behind the scenes that are worried about this. I don't think it was really as much a policy issue as a concern about an overstretched military, as a concern about where is Afghanistan going.

And I know for a fact now that he is looking at sending even more troops to Afghanistan, but the question is, where do they come from? Do you have to reduce them in Iraq before you send them to Afghanistan? I think that's what he's wrestling with.

And also I think there's a perception that not enough officers have stood up and spoken out against what they see are problems over the past six years. A lot of criticism from the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers, and Peter Pace after him, that they didn't question enough. They didn't give their unvarnished opinion.

INSKEEP: So is it likely that any replacement may feel the same, even if he's a little quieter about it?

BOWMAN: Well, I think a lot of other officer who are being suggested for that position are a little more, let's say, politic and diplomatic than Admiral Fallon is.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman on the news that Admiral William Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, is retiring after about a year on the job.

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