Army Chief Of Staff Casey Defends Iraq Decisions

The last of a four-part series

Gen. George Casey i i

U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey says the Army is not broken, it's "out of balance." He testified before Congress on April 9, 2008. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Gen. George Casey

U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey says the Army is not broken, it's "out of balance." He testified before Congress on April 9, 2008.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

More From Gen. George Casey's Interview

In a rare interview, Gen. George Casey spoke with NPR on a wide range of topics, from policy to troop status and readiness. Here are additional clips from the interview.

Casey defends his record and decisions made in Iraq: "Fundamentally, we don't succeed in Iraq or Afghanistan unless the Iraqi or Afghan security forces can protect their populations and deny their countries as a safe haven of terror."

Casey explains his plan to put the Army "back in balance" after lopsided deployments and not enough time at home for the troops.

Shifting troop missions from Iraq and Afghanistan "could take about two or three months," depending on the scope of an international crisis.

Gen. Casey and Donald Rumsfeld i i

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (center) speaks with Gen. George Casey at Baghdad International Airport in April 2006. Jim Watson/AFP/Pool/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/AFP/Pool/Getty Images
Gen. Casey and Donald Rumsfeld

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (center) speaks with Gen. George Casey at Baghdad International Airport in April 2006.

Jim Watson/AFP/Pool/Getty Images

Gen. George Casey was the top commander in Iraq before he became the Army's top officer two years ago. The war he once led has stretched, and some say broken, the Army.

Now it's Casey's job to repair it.

A four-star general's office tells the history of a career, and Casey's is no exception. The walls and bookshelves are filled with souvenirs from past missions — Omar Bradley's coffee cup, Douglas MacArthur's badge, an Iraqi lyre or harp from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

On the wall, there's a pen-and-ink portrait of Ulysses S. Grant — one of Casey's favorite officers.

"He's the one. He had the tenacity and perseverance to press through in hard times, and he ultimately succeeded," Casey says, acknowledging that many people doubted Grant.

There are now those who doubt this general. During Casey's time in Iraq — two critical years from 2004 to the end of 2006 — the violence spun out of control.

Then, Gen. David Petraeus replaced him and oversaw the so-called surge of U.S. troops, which helped bring the violence and bloodshed somewhat under control.

Sen. John McCain has been one of Casey's harshest critics. He confronted him about Iraq in 2007 after Casey had been nominated to the top Army job.

"We're not winning, and we had a failed strategy," McCain said to Casey. "We had a failed policy, and we are not winning."

"Senator, I do not agree that we have a failed policy," Casey said.

The Senate approved Casey as Army chief of staff, and it was the high-water mark of a career that began in 1970 when Casey was commissioned as an officer, just three weeks before his father, an Army division commander, was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. Casey still wears the stars his dad wore as a general.

But Casey's achievement came with a rare rebuke. Fourteen senators voted against Casey, including McCain and Hillary Clinton. Most criticized his handling of Iraq.

The Westmoreland Of Iraq?

Casey has been compared to another Army general from another failed war: Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of the American military in Vietnam, who also went on to become chief of staff.

"I don't feel like I failed," Casey says. "As I told Senator McCain at the hearing, I feel like I laid the foundation for our ultimate success in Iraq. Success of the surge demonstrates the foundation was set."

The surge was the strategy carried out by Petraeus. And if Petraeus is seen as the hero of Iraq, Casey is seen as the one who bungled it.

"If I had got some different guidance to bring violence levels down faster, I certainly would have done that," Casey says.

Casey says he was following the president's strategy, yet he is being blamed for its failure. To this day, Casey says he doesn't know and doesn't really care who is to blame.

"We're running an Army. We're fighting a war. I don't want to be distracted by petty bickering," he says.

An Army Of Two

It was Iraq — what Casey calls his searing experience —that made him realize the Army must be remade.

The Army is split into two warring camps; Casey is on one side and Petraeus is on the other.

Petraeus wants the Army to focus on small wars — counterinsurgencies like Iraq and Afghanistan — while Casey wants a balance between conventional and irregular warfare, saying the Army must be prepared to do it all.

"Now, the guidance I gave the Army last summer is: 'If you're home for 18 months, or more, I want you to take about 90 days and I want you to focus on major conventional training so you rekindle some of the skills that you've lost,' " Casey says.

But Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and defense analyst, disagrees.

"General Casey talks about an era of persistent conflict. I think we're looking at an era of persistent irregular conflict," he says. "The big challenge before the the Army right now is irregular warfare — Afghanistan, Iraq. The Army is anxious to reorient itself back to a more traditional, comfortable kind of conflict, a conventional war — the kind it fought in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm."

If Casey is to win this fight and build an Army that can do it all he'll have to start by taking care of the Army's people.

'Voting With Their Feet'

"I think people will start voting with their feet," Casey says. "The stressors on families are already difficult. Twelve months is not enough time to recover, especially when you're doing it for a second or third or fourth time.

"People are leaving, there's no question about that. Part of the perception that captains are leaving in droves is the fact that we need more captains. The primary reason is we're increasing the size of the Army, and these new modular organizations have more captains and majors in them, so we're creating a demand internally."

Some officials are worried about recruiting and the quality of the recruit coming in as more waivers for medical reasons and more criminal waivers are being issued, and more troops are joining the force without high school diplomas.

"The only quality measure last year we did not meet in terms of recruits is the high school diploma graduates, so it's about 7 percent below the standard," Casey says. "What I see, after these young men and women go through basic training, I'm pretty satisfied with. I think we're going to get some help from the economy. As a matter of fact the first two months of this fiscal year we have met our high school diploma graduate rates."

Some officials and experts are advising that the size of the Army be increased by 30,000 more troops. Casey says the new administration will have to make that decision.

"We have to have an Army that the nation is willing to afford," he says. "So how much are you willing to pay?"

Downplaying The Army's Troubles

Still, other officials, like Lawrence Korb, a Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, say Casey is downplaying the Army's troubles.

"Desertion rates are up. Suicides are up. The cases of spousal abuse are up," Korb says. "So if you look at those indicators, this is an Army that has many more problems than it did five or six years ago."

Casey will acknowledge that the Army is in for what he calls "two more tough years." Not until 2011 will soldiers get 22 consecutive months at home.

Still, Krepinevich says Casey deserves credit for his time as Army chief. He is doing more to help soldiers returning from combat with mental health problems, and he is coming up with more programs for soldiers' families.

"He's focused very much on making sure the families are well cared for while the soldiers are overseas," Krepinevich says.

Families who have lost a loved one in battle are of particular concern to Casey. But recently, the Army made a mistake. It sent information packets to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan the past seven years. The families were all addressed as "John Doe."

To Casey, that was inexcusable, so he began signing letters to all 7,000 family members.

"You know, my dad was killed in Vietnam, so I took that personally, and I felt I needed to respond to the families directly," he says.

A few days ago he mailed the letters to the families of those fallen soldiers, many of whom he led. Then he turned back to the job of fixing the Army.



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