WASHINGTON -- With government service dating back 43 years, Donald Rumsfeld is accustomed to news stories that he does not like. But seldom does the secretary of defense get as exercised as he has been this week over accounts that the U.S. military had the Taliban's supreme commander in their sights Oct. 6, and did not pull the trigger. On the contrary, he says privately, a missile was fired at Mullah Omar with undetermined results.
Omar might have been hit by a missile fired by an unmanned CIA Predator reconnaissance aircraft, according to Rumsfeld's account (though this outcome would seem unlikely). His main message is that no rules of engagement prevent the U.S. military from eliminating the head of Afghanistan's rogue state. If U.S. forces locate the Mullah, his days could be numbered.
With President Bush ruling out negotiation, refusal to turn over Osama bin Laden could cost Omar his life. The 1976 order against U.S. assassination of foreign leaders has been interpreted by the Bush administration as not applying to the Taliban, which is viewed as a criminal gang without diplomatic status. To rid Afghanistan of the al Qaeda terrorist organization, the strategy is to form a government replacing the Taliban regime prior to entering Kabul.
A missed opportunity against Omar was alleged in the current New Yorker magazine by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. "Intelligence officials" were quoted as saying that on the night the air war was launched against the Taliban, a Predator located Omar and a "full-scale assault by fighter bombers" was requested by the CIA. Hersh reported that this strike was vetoed by the Judge Advocate General at U.S. Central Command. Rumsfeld was described as "kicking a lot of glass and breaking doors."
The notion of a JAG vetoing a military action seems strange to veterans of past American wars, but that is the way war has been conducted lately, American-style. "The modern military commander takes his lawyer to war," Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was a judge advocate during the Gulf War, told me.
Hersh's article was the talk of Washington last weekend, but the first Defense Department reaction did not come until Rumsfeld's Monday briefing. The secretary's answer, couched in deep Pentagonese, seemed to deny the Hersh report. Rumsfeld asserted there "are, for reasonably valid reasons, lawyers who get engaged, not in specific targets so much but in the question of the appropriateness of categories, and offer their advice from time to time." He added "there was nothing other than a desire to deal aggressively with command and control" by him and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A clearer, more decisive answer was given by Rumsfeld Sunday morning when he was privately asked by a colleague about Hersh's report. According to Pentagon sources, he said the story "is just not true." He contended that the green light to fire against Omar was given in less than five minutes, that there was no indecision and that there was no veto by a military lawyer.
Rumsfeld did not appreciate repetition of Hersh's story on the Sunday talk shows -- especially Al Hunt's comments on CNN's "Capital Gang" about a "bureaucratic blunder" that saved Omar, with the secretary of defense "bouncing off the wall." Rumsfeld later Sunday told a questioner in private conversation that there was no way to tell whether or not Omar was hit.
The point of Rumsfeld's unequivocal real position underlines the fact that today's U.S. policy is to get Mullah Omar, as it was not aimed at Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. Rules of engagement for this conflict are kept secret, but they are described by Rumsfeld as not preventing an attack on Taliban leaders. The death of Omar on Oct. 6 would have dealt a devastating blow to the Taliban.
In the Hersh article, unnamed CIA and military officers are quoted as complaining not merely about this incident but about general political correctness and bureaucratic complications in waging this war. Don Rumsfeld's rebuttal, privately if not publicly, maintains that a resolute warrior's attitude is alive and well at the Pentagon, even if the Taliban's head man escaped Oct. 6.