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Gen. Sanchez should place the blame on himself

Francona: He set the wheels in motion for failure at Abu Ghraib

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Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

Now that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez has retired, he has come out swinging at his former bosses, blaming senior officers and other government agencies for the problems in Iraq, including those during the period when he was in command of U.S. and coalition forces in the country.  He cited errors that were made, including the disbanding of the Iraqi army, clearly the biggest mistake of the effort in Iraq.  Sanchez called Iraq a “nightmare with no end in sight” and seemingly blamed everyone but himself.

This is truly disingenuous. Sanchez presided over arguably one of the biggest debacles of Operation Iraq Freedom — the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal.  The name itself has become synonymous with all that has gone wrong with American foreign policy in the area, and Sanchez must bear some, if not most, of the responsibility.  He set the wheels in motion for the failure at the prison.

Army doctrine is clear about how to run an enemy prisoner-of-war facility.  Abu Ghraib housed suspected insurgents, so the same rules should have been applied.  Overall operation of the facility, per doctrine, should have been the purview of the military police.  The MPs are responsible for security and day-to-day operations, while an attached military intelligence organization is in charge of interrogations and the production and dissemination of any intelligence obtained from the detainees.  Since the major issue at a prison facility is security, placing the MPs in charge makes sense.

At Abu Ghraib, however, Sanchez placed the military intelligence unit in overall command of the facility, including responsibility for daily operations and security.  This unusual arrangement caused confusion between the MPs and the intelligence personnel, many of whom were contractors, about who was supposed to do what.  The confusion resulting from the decision to ignore Army standard operations protocols directly led to the breakdown of the chain of command at the prison.  Officers and NCOs who normally should have prevented the problem behavior did not and those who should have been in charge were not, and those who were in charge should not have been.

The resulting public relations nightmare ended whatever short grace period American forces were going to have with the Iraqi population.  As the photos of Iraqi detainees being abused and humiliated spread like wildfire through the Arab and Muslim world, the reputation of America and Americans suffered, likely for decades to come.  Not even the rumors of abuse and ill treatment at Guantanamo have had as much impact as the damage done by a handful of poorly supervised soldiers at Abu Ghraib.  Those soldiers were under the command of Sanchez.

Some of those soldiers are serving prison sentences, and a senior officer, the commander of the military police unit responsible for detention facilities in Iraq under Sanchez, was reduced in grade from brigadier general to colonel.  Some of the field-grade officers were reprimanded.  As for Sanchez, he never received his fourth star and his career pretty much ended — and rightfully so.

According to the general, “There is nothing going on today in Washington that would give us hope.” He criticizes the “surge” operation, calling it a desperate act to salvage a situation created by misguided policies.  That’s true because the surge is an attempt to salvage a situation that in part Sanchez created by his misguided policy at Abu Ghraib. Sour grapes, general.

Sanchez has found retirement work as a consultant training America’s new generals.  Perhaps he begins the class with: “Here’s what not to do.”

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