Donald Rumsfeld, who served as former United States President George W Bush’s defence secretary and was the architect of the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has died at the age of 88, his family announced on Wednesday.
His stint as Bush’s defence secretary from 2001-2006 was his second, after serving as the youngest secretary of defense in US history under former President Gerald Ford from 1975-1977.
Rumsfeld “was surrounded by family in his beloved Taos, New Mexico”, his family said in a statement posted on Twitter, without saying when he died. “We will remember his unwavering love for his wife Joyce, his family and friends, and the integrity he brought to a life dedicated to country,” they said.
In a separate statement, Bush praised Rumsfeld as “a man of intelligence, integrity, and almost inexhaustible energy” who “never paled before tough decisions, and never flinched from responsibility”.
A statement from the family of Donald Rumsfeld: pic.twitter.com/AlKYxVvqgF
— Donald Rumsfeld (@RumsfeldOffice) June 30, 2021
But many observers responded to the news of Rumsfeld’s passing on Wednesday by pointing out his central role in the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the deaths of thousands of people in both countries, and the use of torture.
Iyad el-Baghdadi, president of the Kawaakibi Foundation, a research and activist group focused on liberty in the Arab world, said “Donald Rumsfeld was a war criminal who presided over illegal wars that involved wholesale massacres of civilians, systemic torture and plunder, and massive corruption”.
“The country he helped break has still not recovered. This is his legacy. May he burn in hell for all eternity.”
Rumsfeld oversaw the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but failed to maintain law and order in the aftermath, and Iraq descended into chaos with a bloody rebellion and violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims. US troops remained in Iraq until 2011, long after he left his post.
Donald Rumsfeld was a war criminal who presided over illegal wars that involved wholesale massacres of civilians, systemic torture and plunder, and massive corruption. The country he helped break has still not recovered. This is his legacy. May he burn in hell for all eternity.
— İyad el-Baghdadi | إياد البغدادي (@iyad_elbaghdadi) June 30, 2021
Many historians and military experts blamed Rumsfeld for decisions that led to difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, Rumsfeld insisted on a relatively small invasion force in Iraq in 2003, rejecting the views of many generals. The force was then insufficient to stabilise Iraq when Hussein’s government fell.
As he did in Iraq, Rumsfeld, in 2001, sent a small force to Afghanistan, quickly chased the Taliban from power and then failed to establish law and order or capture Osama bin Laden, who remained elusive for another decade.
Rumsfeld played a leading role before the war in Iraq, in making the case to the world for the March 2003 invasion. He warned of the dangers of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction but no such weapons were ever discovered.
Critics faulted Rumsfeld for dismissing the pre-invasion assessment of the US Army’s top general, Eric Shinseki, that several hundred thousand allied troops would be needed to stabilise Iraq.
Rumsfeld also was accused of being slow to recognise the emergence of the rebellion in 2003 and the threat it posed.
In a 2011 interview with Al Jazeera, Rumsfeld was asked about whether the initial size of the Iraq invasion force and the Bush administration policies regarding the war were “responsible for the killing of innocent Iraqis”.
“You keep making assertions which are fundamentally false,” a combative Rumsfeld responded. “No one in the Pentagon said they (number of troops) were not enough.”
The wars in Iraq killed hundreds of thousands, including tens of thousands of US military members. The total number of Iraqi civilian deaths is unknown. The Iraq Body Count project places the number of deaths since 2003 between 185,724 and 208,831, as of June 30.
Rumsfeld also oversaw the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to remove the Taliban leaders who had harboured the al-Qaeda leaders responsible for the September 11 attacks on the US.
US forces during Rumsfeld’s tenure also were unable to track down Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaeda chief slipped past a modest force of US special operations troops and CIA officers, along with allied Afghan fighters, in the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora in December 2001. US forces killed him in 2011.
Critics have argued that had Rumsfeld devoted more troops to the Afghan effort, bin Laden may have been taken. But as he wrote in, Rumsfeld’s Rules, his compilation of truisms dating to the 1970s: “If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much.”
Rumsfeld twice offered his resignation to Bush in 2004 amid disclosures that US troops had abused detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison – an episode he later referred to as his darkest hour as secretary of defence.
Not until November 2006, after Democrats gained control of Congress by riding a wave of antiwar sentiment, did Bush finally decide Rumsfeld had to go. He left office in December, replaced by Robert Gates.