Rumsfeld responds to Obama speech

Former defense secretary challenges one of the president's assertions about the Bush administration and Afghanistan

Published December 3, 2009 1:25AM (EST)

You don't hear much from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld these days. He did come out of the woodwork on Wednesday, though, in order to respond to the speech President Obama gave the night before about the war in Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld released this statement:

In his speech to the nation last night, President Obama claimed that "Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive." Such a bald misstatement, at least as it pertains to the period I served as Secretary of Defense, deserves a response.

I am not aware of a single request of that nature between 2001 and 2006. If any such requests occurred, "repeated" or not, the White House should promptly make them public. The President's assertion does a disservice to the truth and, in particular, to the thousands of men and women in uniform who have fought, served and sacrificed in Afghanistan.

In the interest of better understanding the President's announcement last night, I suggest that the Congress review the President’s assertion in the forthcoming debate and determine exactly what requests were made, who made them, and where and why in the chain of command they were denied.

A White House spokesman has not responded to an e-mail Salon sent seeking comment on Rumsfeld's statement and information about Obama's assertion, but Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did address the issue at his daily press briefing. His response, which was light on specifics and heavy on snark, did suggest that Rumsfeld may technically be right.

"I will let Secretary Rumsfeld explain to you and to others whether he thinks that the effort in Afghanistan was sufficiently resourced during his tenure as secretary of defense," Gibbs said in response to a question from ABC News' Jake Tapper. Pressed further, he took a shot at Rumsfeld, saying, "I'll let him explain to the American public whether he believes that the effort in Afghanistan during 2001 to 2006 was appropriately resourced. You know, you go to war with the secretary of defense you have, Jake."

Still, it seems Rumsfeld and Obama might both be right, principally because the former defense secretary's statement only covered the years 2001 to 2006, when he left the Bush administration. Gibbs said Obama was referring to requests made in 2008, and there is evidence those occurred.

There's one other possibility here, ironically and inadvertently suggested by the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb. He cited an October piece from the Standard by Steve Hayes in which an anonymous defense official is quoted as saying, "There was no request on anyone's desk for eight months. There was not a request that went to the White House because we didn't have forces to commit. So on the facts, they're wrong."

Now, that refers to 2008. But it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility  that other generals in Afghanistan found themselves in a similar position in the years after the invasion of Iraq, knowing they needed reinforcements but also that there were none, and so they simply never submitted formal requests.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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Afghanistan Barack Obama Donald Rumsfeld War Room