Roughly two months after the start of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was still unsure about which languages were spoken in the country and asked aides to provide him a report on the subject. That and other revelations come from a collection of hundreds of Rumsfeld’s communications released Wednesday by the National Security Archive, a research center based at George Washington University.
In a November 29, 2001 memo written by Rumsfeld and addressed to aide Larry Di Rita, titled simply “Languages,” Rumsfeld asked to be given a paper showing the languages spoken in Afghanistan, broken down by the percentage of the population that spoke them. Di Rita provided him the list in a subsequent communication.
The “Languages” memo is part of a roughly 900-page tranche of Rumsfeld’s memos released after a five-year Freedom of Information Act fight by the National Security Archive. Following a FOIA lawsuit filed by the archive, the government agreed to release a total of roughly 59,000 pages of memos in monthly tranches. The first group of memos contains many of Rumsfeld’s notorious short internal memoranda, known colloquially as “snowflakes,” which were written in the months before and after the September 11 attacks.
The memos are generally terse requests for information addressed to various aides and officials, as well as complaints about Pentagon bureaucracy and technical systems. Some are vaguely humorous, such as one dated October 27, 2001 that contains information on the correct pronunciation of the words “Islam” and “Muslim,” stating that they should not be pronounced as “Izlam” or “Muzzlum.” In that memo, Rumsfeld seems to ask an aide to look into whether the suggested pronunciations are correct and, if so, to inform then-President George W. Bush and the Pentagon.
“I have a feeling we are going to have to make our case on anything we do after Afghanistan.”
Other memos are more suggestive of the administration’s strategic thinking in the months following the attacks, including with regard to preparing for military operations in Iraq. In one memo addressed to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on December 3, 2001, Rumsfeld wrote: “I have a feeling we are going to have to make our case on anything we do after Afghanistan,” instructing Wolfowitz to “get a team together and decide what we ought to say and shouldn’t say for each of the items in our ‘Way Ahead.’” On December 29, 2001, Rumsfeld sent another memo to a military official asking for specific information about Iraqi Kurds and Shias, writing, “I would like to know how many there are, how well they are armed, what they do, what their history is, etc.” A memo from early 2002 addressed to several top aides and military officials also discusses the need for “war gaming for Iraq.”
While the correspondence released Wednesday represents a snapshot of Rumsfeld’s thinking at various points, the documents strongly suggest that the defense secretary was not envisioning an open-ended era of U.S. military operations after the 9/11 attacks. A number of memos written in December 2001 refer to the need to plan for “when the war on terrorism is over” and for a U.S. strategy in the region “after things settle down.”
Almost 17 years later, the region is more violent and unstable than ever, something that, at least from the documents released so far, Rumsfeld seems not to have anticipated.
The memos also provide some insight into the administration’s thinking in the brief period before the 9/11 attacks. A memo published in the summer of 2001, addressed to then-Under Secretary for Defense Policy Douglas Feith and titled “Oil,” seems to show that oil resources were part of the administration’s broader strategic calculus. The memo does not mention Iraq, though it would later be alleged that access to Iraqi oil reserves played a role in the administration’s decision to invade the country in 2003.
“We ought to have on our radar screen the subject of oil-Venezuela, the Caucauses [sic], Indonesia — anywhere we think it may exist and how it fits into our strategies,” Rumsfeld wrote in the characteristically short, yet dauntingly broad message to Feith.