As the American-led campaign against Iraq seemed to stall yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, denied that he had repeatedly overruled his top military advisers by ordering that the ground force they proposed be sharply reduced.
In the sharpest criticism yet of his handling of the war, the New Yorker magazine claims that Mr Rumsfeld on at least six occasions in the run-up to the war insisted on a smaller troop strength than his commanders wanted.
The New Yorker also quotes high-level US officials as saying that despite advice from General Tommy Franks, the commander of the Iraq war, Mr Rumsfeld refused to delay the start of the campaign until the 4th Infantry Division could be brought to the front by another route, after Turkey had refused to let it deploy on its territory. Yesterday Mr Rumsfeld flatly rejected charges he had micro-managed the campaign and had denied requests by his commanders for more ground troops and tanks.
"It's not true. You will find, if you ask anyone who has been involved in the process at Central Command [of which Gen Franks is in charge] that every single thing they have requested has, in fact, happened," Mr Rumsfeld insisted on the Sunday talk shows.
Little more than 100,000 frontline US and British troops are on the ground inside Iraq, compared with the 500,000-strong force amassed by the first President Bush to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. Pentagon officials say operations are proceeding according to the "rolling start" strategy, which will ultimately see some 250,000 men in the field. Last week the 4th Infantry began to deploy from its base in Fort Hood, Texas, while its tanks and other equipment have started to arrive in Kuwait.
But the charges laid out by veteran reporter Seymour Hersh, in the new edition of the New Yorker, and echoed by a separate report in The Washington Post, paint a very unflattering picture. "He [Rumsfeld] thought he knew better. He was the decision maker at every turn," according to an unidentified "senior Pentagon planner" quoted by Hersh. "This is the mess Rummy put himself in, because he didn't want a heavy footprint on the ground." The New Yorker article asserts that US forces in the region are running low on cruise missiles and other precision munitions. One former intelligence official told Hersh that the campaign was now at stalemate. "The only hope is that they can hold out until reinforcements arrive." Mr Rumsfeld, a formidable politician and ruthless bureaucratic operator, is likely to survive the criticism. But the controversy reflects deep tensions between him and the uniformed Pentagon establishment, which resented his efforts to impose radical change on an institution historically resistant to change.
So bad were relations in summer 2001 that some predicted Mr Rumsfeld would be the first member of President Bush's cabinet to resign. Then came 11 September and the Afghan campaign, which seemed to vindicate the Defence Secretary's vision of a new, streamlined military for the post Cold-War period, relying on pinpoint accuracy, overwhelming air power and greater use of special forces.
Iraq is a more old-fashioned conflict. "Why would you do this operation with inadequate power?" retired General Barry McCaffrey, who led an infantry division in the 1991 Gulf War, has asked. "Because you don't have the time to get them there? But we did. Because you don't have the forces? But we do. Or is it because you have such a strong ideological view and you're so confident in your views that you disregard vehement military advice from army generals you don't think are very bright?"