Inside The War Room The Final Days

Posted on October 12, 2010
By GEN. Hugh Shelton

I’m often asked about my final days of office, between 9/11 and the start of operations in Afghanistan—the days that were consumed with post-911 planning for the war, along with preparations to turn over the controls to the expert piloting of General Dick Myers.

On September 13, George Tenet used the White House NSC meeting to officially present to the President the plan that he and I had discussed. He brought Cofer Black (head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center) with him for a follow-up presentation.

“What we’re proposing is an aggressive covert-action plan directed primarily toward al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and to achieve this we will insert CIA paramilitary teams into Afghanistan to work closely with opposition forces—primarily Northern Alliance—to prepare the way for Special Operations forces.”

It was an aggressive plan, and Cofer presented it with a dynamic enthusiasm that completely captivated the President; he was totally on board.

Throughout that week we had National Security Council meetings, some with the President, others just the principals—but they all led up to the principals’ weekend at Camp David. It was there that the President would decide which option to pursue.

In spite of Camp David’s beautiful location, it didn’t take long for the meeting to turn ugly, with Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz pushing hard to invade Iraq, and Colin Powell and I countering that we should go after bin Laden at this time.

At one of the breaks, President Bush pulled me aside and asked, “What am I missing here, Hugh?”

“You’ve got it exactly right, Mr. President,” I told him. “I have neither seen nor heard anything from either the CIA or the FBI that indicates any linkage whatsoever to Iraq. Stand firm, because it will destroy us in the eyes of the Arab world if we go after Iraq under the guise of Saddam somehow being tied to this when the facts show otherwise.”

When the meeting reconvened, the President asked about our plans to attack al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban. I presented three escalating options. The first entailed TLAM strikes, cruise missiles—which most likely would hit a few vacant training camps and cause some very expensive craters in the ground. The second option involved TLAMs supplemented with manned bomber attacks on additional targets—an escalation from the first option, but still, most likely not of the intensity we were after at this point.

Before I could get to three, Wolfowitz interrupted again: “But we really need to think broader than that right now; that’s not big enough. We’ve got to make sure we go ahead and get Saddam out at the same time—it’s a perfect opportunity.”

The President became irate. “How many times do I have to tell you, we are not going after Iraq right this minute, we’re going to go after the people who we know did this to us.”

I continued with my third option, which combined the first two and added boots on the ground, both Special Operators and traditional ground troops. Nothing was decided, although it was obvious that nobody would be backing options one or two.

On September 20, along with his J3, Air Force Major General Gene Renuart, Tommy Franks stepped into the Tank to present his plan to the Joint Chiefs, in preparation for the presentation to President Bush the following day. His aide passed out the briefing sheets as Major General Renuart headed to the front to find the six Joint Chiefs sitting there—the four service heads, the Vice Chairman, and me. Together, he was looking at over 200 years of experience, much of it in hands-on warfighting—and their whole objective was to help him hone his plan.  The SECDEF and Deputy Paul Wolfowitz were also present.

Tommy watched intently as Major General Renuart presented his war plan. It appeared solid—not great by any means, but certainly not full of holes either, especially given the short time he’d had to put it together.

There were a lot of questions about the details that he was unable to answer, but that’s not uncommon. In those cases, the combatant commander would just say they didn’t have the answers at that moment but would get back with them shortly. The questions posed were both respectful and constructive.

Tom’s predecessor, General Tony Zinni, would be the first to tell you that it didn’t always feel great to be hit with all those questions; but by the time you walked out of there—if you had listened to what the service chiefs—each one an expert in the capabilities of his services—were suggesting, ultimately you would end up with a far superior plan.

Tom and I spoke after the briefing and he never mentioned a word about being upset about how it had gone. What did surprise me, was years later (after his book came out) when I learned that Tommy felt like he had been completely torn up in there, extremely upset about how he had been treated.  The following day, he had berated two of the Joint Chiefs, telling them “Yesterday in the Tank, you guys came across like a mob of Title Ten motherfuckers, not like the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

What I had begun to see—and this became a very significant factor when, later on, the Iraq war was playing out—as soon as Tommy was promoted to four-star, he had developed a hell of an ego.  It was not evident until he became the CENTCOM commander, then it started coming out in spades.  I think ego was what that whole smear campaign against the Joint Chiefs was all about—and this would have very serious repercussions later on when he was charged with developing and overseeing the Iraq war plan.

The meeting with the President took place the following afternoon on the second floor of the White House, in a study within the President’s living quarters. In addition to the SecDef, the Vice President was there, as were Tom and Gene from Tampa, and of course I had Dick Myers join us, and Major General Dell Dailey also flew up for the brief, since he would be commanding the secret JSOC part of the operation—which was a big part of the plan. By this time his lead teams had already gone to meet up with George Tenet’s CIA teams.

Tom went through each phase, with the President periodically stopping him for clarification. Like President Clinton, President Bush had a solid grasp of the tactical, operational specifics as well as the overall strategic concerns. He quickly “got it.” We went over the timeline, talked about where we were on overfly and basing rights, and utilized a big matrix we’d created to show the President how all these many pieces had to come together.

When the issue of SOF (Special Operations forces) troop levels came up, I shot Dell a glance. This was an area where Rumsfeld was convinced that the force level should be a lot lighter, and he had repeatedly tried to get SOCOM and JSOC to cut back. So far, they remained firm, but I had little confidence that strength would hold up after I retired. Too many times I had seen Rumsfeld keep digging away like a little pit bull until he got his way.

As soon as we stepped out of the West Wing, I pulled Dell aside in the parking lot, “Look, I’m leaving in another few days, and whatever you do—do not let them browbeat you into trying to do something without the right-size force to make it successful, because ultimately it will all come back to you for having failed militarily to achieve your goals. You can’t let them but you to the bone and not have sufficient backup in case things don’t go exactly as you thought they would. It’s that redundancy that is going to save lives. Nobody will remember—or care—about the force level you wanted before they but you back.”  Without the reductions, I thought, his plan was fine—he did have sufficient redundancies built in—but if Rumsfeld got his way, it could quickly turn into disaster.

I officially left office a little over a week later, but that was far from the end of my involvement.  I remained in close contact with Chairman Myers (still a close friend) and others with whom I had worked so closely.

While I do not want to get into either an analysis or a critique of whether the actions of my successors were right or wrong (it is hard to second-guess someone in that environment without knowing all the facts), I will speak to the facts that I know, to set the historical record straight, and to make sure people learn from the past.

I attended a Pentagon briefing in the Tank about two months before the invasion of Iraq, in which the Chairman at that time, General Myers, shared with me and other retired Chairmen the plan of attack, and while each one of us believed the plan would succeed militarily, some of us expressed our concerns about the aftermath.

I asked: “Once you get in there, what’s your plan?  […] After you remove Saddam, or after he flees the country, who is going to take over then, and who is going to keep these three diverse religious groups who hate each other apart? ”

If you looked at Haiti as an example, we had a plan that was developed in Washington well before we went in. We had fifty-one specific nation-building objectives that needed to be accomplished, and every agency in Washington, D.C., knew that they had to sign up for the ones that were applicable to their organizations. For example, somebody had to come in and revamp or realign the justice system. Who was the best to do that? Clearly, the Justice Department. Someone had to vet the police and retrain them, and this was also the Justice Department. They sent Ray Kelly, the current police chief of New York City, and Ray did a fantastic job. Someone had to fix the transportation system, and this was the Department of Transportation. In theory, each organization had committed its piece of the puzzle to the Atlantic Command, and they all signed on for their part of the nation building. The problem was, in spite of our best intentions, it didn’t happen. It fell apart, and didn’t work, because the various Departments that had committed their resources got busy doing other things that were more important to them at the time, in spite of their prior commitment. The one big exception was the Justice Department, which came through with flying colors and did a great job, but it went downhill from there.

The good news is that as a result of the failure, a study was commissioned to learn from the mistakes and to lay out specifically what was necessary for a successful nation-building operation. It ended up being defined in President Clinton’s PDD 56 (Presidential Decision Directive 56), “Managing Complex Contingency Operations.”  This is very significant because at the time of Iraq, this effective plan was already on the shelf and just waiting to be instituted. But, since it had been prepared under a Democratic administration, no one at the upper echelons of the Iraq planning circle ever bothered to refer to it, let alone institute its carefully organized steps to get the invaded country’s vital services back online.  Instead, Rumsfeld and Franks apparently made the conscious decision to ignore PDD 56, and rather, they decided to fight the last war—the Afghanistan war—which involved a totally different scenario.

So that day in the tank, my question was answered with:  “Good questions and we’ve got that covered. We’re going to carry civil affairs and Psychological Operations troops in with us, and they’re going to be coming behind in the numbers. We also believe the Iraqi people will welcome us with open arms; let’s face it, they’ll be thrilled that we helped them by taking out the dictator whose been terrorizing them for decades.” That echoed Dick Cheney’s public comment that he believed we would be welcomed as liberators.

Amid all of this, there was one man who heeded the great message contained in H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty. Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki realized that the very lives of our great servicemen and-women depended on his speaking the truth. He had been in charge of our stabilization force in Bosnia and was probably the world’s foremost authority on what it took to rebuild a nation and provide that all-important safe and secure postwar environment. In retrospect, Ric was 100 percent right.

You have to listen to your experts and learn from your history, yet this is exactly what Donald Rumsfeld did not do.

When I accepted President Clinton’s nomination as Chairman, I did so with a full understanding that along with the position came the awesome responsibility of ensuring that our own forces remained trained, ready, and equipped to deal with the threats and dangers of the day, as well as an uncertain future.   To effectively do so, I would be guided by:  a) An in-depth understanding of history, what went right, what went wrong, and what did we learn from our prior experiences that ensured we didn’t repeat past mistakes; b) Surrounding myself with the best and brightest experts and advisors (the Joint Staff), and making it clear that they were always expected to speak out with their honest assessment, regardless of how they felt it may be received; and c) my own internal compass, the principles of character and integrity that had always been my unwavering compass.


One of the leading military figures of our time, General Hugh Shelton served two terms as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Shelton was the chief architect of the military response to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

As one of the nation’s elite Special Forces soldiers, Shelton served twice in Vietnam, commanding a Green Beret unit and then an airborne infantry company. He was awarded a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart for a wound suffered when a booby trap drove a poisoned stake through his leg. Shelton rose up the ranks and was assistant division commander of the 101st Airborne Division as they invaded Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, then led the 20,000 American troops tasked with restoring Haiti’s deposed President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power. Promoted to 4-star General, he became Commander in Chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (including Delta Force, Navy SEALS and other top secret Special Mission Units). He is a Congressional Gold Medal recipient and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Shelton’s memoir Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior (with Ron Levinson and Malcolm McConnell) chronicles the general’s incredible journey from a small farming community in North Carolina to the highest level of American military and political power at the Pentagon and White House.For additional information, visit General Shelton’s site.