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Rumsfeld's Hands-On War

He explained that he uses a confrontational style sometimes "simply to stimulate thought, to challenge people, press them, probe them, see if they have thought something through."

The plan that ultimately emerged from those lively exchanges in late September called for a multidimensional assault on terrorism, focused on Afghanistan but global in its scope and desired effect. In their briefings over the past two months, Rumsfeld and Franks have frequently referred to "the plan," usually by insisting that they are adhering to it. It involves not only bombing but also unconventional military tactics, mass arrests of terrorist suspects around the world and a financial squeeze on Osama bin Laden's network.

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"It was to try to, on a worldwide basis, create enough pressure on terrorists and terrorist networks so that life got bad for them," Rumsfeld explained in the interview. "You can't know for sure, but we believed it would work -- that if you froze enough bank accounts, and you arrested enough of their people in different countries, and if you bombed them, and if you gave money and ammunition to the opposition forces, and if you just kept pushing and pushing and pushing all the time in a lot of different ways, making life difficult, making it hard for them to communicate with their troops, making it difficult for them to communicate with each other, making them move every day."

At first, the execution of the war plan proved clumsy. A cumbersome process of approving targets caused the United States early in the campaign to lose as many as 10 opportunities to fire on leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban, Air Force officials say. The Pentagon is now reviewing how to streamline the target approval process.

Complicating that problem, the first weeks of the war saw some crossed wires between the military and the CIA, which was conducting its own airstrikes using Predator drone aircraft outfitted with Hellfire missiles. Rumsfeld has said little about the unusually large role played in the war by the CIA, which sent operatives into Afghanistan in late September and has its own paramilitary unit operating in the war.

Rumsfeld became deeply involved in addressing the target clearance problem and related issues, such as how to interpret rules of engagement. He talked to Franks -- the "CinC," or commander in chief for U.S. military operations in the Middle East -- so frequently that some at the Pentagon began to worry that the hands-on defense secretary was micromanaging the war.

"In the early part of an activity, particularly an activity that's not a set piece, which this certainly wasn't, there's no road map," Rumsfeld said. "We were figuring out what we ought to do." During that period, he recalled, "the interaction between the CinC and me was extensive."

The basic division of labor that emerged, he said, was that Franks would handle the immediate tasks and Rumsfeld would take the longer view. "He tends to be focused on what he has to do, and what his people have to do," Rumsfeld said of Franks. "I'm frequently thinking about things that are around the corner, up ahead." Rumsfeld said that during the course of the Afghan war, he has usually spoken with Franks two or three times a day.

The single aspect of the war that most consumed Rumsfeld, said a senior Defense Department official, was getting Special Operations target spotters to the front lines of the opposition, where they then could call in accurate airstrikes against the Taliban's military units. Until that point, about a month into the campaign, U.S. bombs had fallen on more conventional targets -- such as airfields and antiaircraft facilities -- and made little apparent dent in the Taliban's strength.

"He just pushed and pushed on that," the senior official said. "He didn't scream, but he made it pretty clear he wanted it done."

Asked about this tactical change, Rumsfeld said: "I have a certain amount of impatience about things. I like to get things done. . . . so I do get to the point where I lean forward on things and talk to people."

Rumsfeld's determination paid off hugely in early November. Several top officials said that the turning point in the war came then, when the Special Operations target spotters began to call in precise and devastating B-52 raids on the Taliban front lines. Within 10 days, Mazar-e Sharif fell, followed quickly by Herat and Kabul, the capital.

"It took time," Rumsfeld said, looking back at that key step. "It took time because it's hard to do." He added: "But each place it happened, the results got very good, very fast."

Unlike some observers, Rumsfeld argues that the Afghan war is far from over. "Things have gone well, in a sense, and now some really tough pieces are left," he said. "To finish the job . . . we've got to get the senior al Qaeda people, and we've got to see that the lower-level al Qaeda people don't get out of there and run loose and destabilize another country or start killing people somewhere else." About two-thirds of the top 30 leaders of al Qaeda are believed by the U.S. government to still be at large, administration officials said yesterday.

Also, Rumsfeld said, the United States has to help ensure that Afghanistan doesn't again become a terrorist haven. Moreover, he added, the Taliban leadership has to be "taken care of in one way or another."


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