WASHINGTON – On his first trip abroad since signing up for a second hitch as secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) saw vivid evidence of progress as well as problems in the global war on terrorism.
In his public remarks during a voyage that circumvented the globe, he displayed both the passion and the blunt-spokeness that have made him a favorite of troops and a popular target of critics.
And while he became something of a matinee idol early in his tenure for his witty and combative exchanges with reporters during televised war briefings at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld, 72, showed on his trip to Afghanistan (search), Kuwait and India that his public style can sometimes seem harsh.
When he began the trip Sunday night, Rumsfeld spoke for the first time about why he agreed to President Bush's (search) request that he remain at the Pentagon in a second Bush term. Rumsfeld said he looks forward to pursuing unfinished business, including the war in Iraq. He did not say he would stay for the full four-year term, but he left the impression that he expects to.
He returned to Washington on Thursday night.
In Afghanistan on Tuesday, he attended the inauguration ceremony for President Karzai, a man he and others in the Bush administration believe has managed, in just three years, to parlay the U.S. military defeat of the radical Taliban regime into a viable future for an impoverished, war-weary country.
"It was a breathtaking, thrilling moment to be there," Rumsfeld said the next day when he recounted the event during a question-and-answer session with a group of U.S. soldiers at Camp Buerhing, a remote outpost in the Kuwait desert that is a staging area for troops going to war in Iraq.
It was a triumphant moment for Rumsfeld, and he was eager to share credit with the troops.
"Take Afghanistan only three years ago. It was described after a few weeks as a quagmire. People were aware that the Soviet Union had some 200,000 troops in Afghanistan and they lost after decades, thousands of lives. Well, it's not a quagmire. It's a democracy of 25 million liberated Afghans. And it's a democracy thanks to many of you here and all across the globe who didn't listen to the doubters."
It also was a reminder that much work remains to be done in Afghanistan — and even more in Iraq.
On Wednesday, in his exchange with troops in Kuwait, Rumsfeld acknowledged, "There's a lot not right in Iraq. That's a fact." And during that give-and-take, some soldiers took the opportunity to focus on some of what's gone wrong — not the decision to go to war but in how to fight it.
One soldier asked pointedly why, nearly three years into the war, troops who are being sent into Iraq have to scrounge in junkyards for scrap metal and broken bulletproof glass to armor their vehicles. In essence he was challenging the frequently repeated promise by Bush that his administration is committed to ensuring that troops get nothing but the best to fight the war.
Even more remarkable than the courage of that Tennessee National Guardsman to challenge Rumsfeld was the roar of cheers that arose instantly inside the aircraft hangar where the troops were assembled.
"You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have," Rumsfeld replied, while explaining that shortages of armor are not for lack of money but "a matter of physics." The manufacturers of add-on armor are producing it as fast as humanly possible, he said.
The insurgents are killing two U.S. troops every day, on average, and many have died or suffered grievous injuries from makeshift bombs planted along roads used by military trucks and Humvees. Rumsfeld knows this, and on this occasion in Kuwait it appeared to weigh heavily on his mind.
Before he invited questions, Rumsfeld made opening remarks that at one point appeared to leave him choked with emotion. It was a statement of thanks that he makes almost every time he visits troops in the field, but this time it seemed to draw an extra measure of passion to the surface.
"Just know this for a fact," he said after a pause that suggested he had one more thing to say beyond his scripted ending.
"There is nothing more important than for you to understand" — at that point he faltered, his voice seeming to break. He recovered quickly. "Understand how deeply grateful the American people are to you for what you do — indeed what you volunteer to do, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart."