The Magazine

Who Is Anthony Zinni?

He's the guy who knows the guy we need to be talking to.

Oct 22, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 06 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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SHORTLY BEFORE HE RETIRED in July 2000, General Anthony Zinni speculated about life after the Marine Corps. "The biggest shock," he mused, "will be to turn on the TV and something's happening somewhere in the world and your phone's not ringing."

But that shock hasn't come. Zinni spent the last three years of his career as commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, which encompasses Afghanistan and Central Asia--and since September 11 his phone has been ringing off the hook. After a couple of weeks of shuffling from media interview to congressional hearing and back, Zinni took a call from the State Department. The message? Come help us.

Precisely what Zinni will be doing in the war on terrorism is something of a mystery. But given his background, it's a safe bet that he will play a significant role. Whether that's good news or bad depends on what you think U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism should be.

Early media reports suggested that Zinni would serve as a "special adviser" to Secretary of State Colin Powell. This prompted speculation that Zinni, for years one of the most outspoken opponents of removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, would help Powell make the case against including Iraq at first--or perhaps ever--in the U.S. military response to the 9/11 attacks.

But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher seemed to place some distance between Powell and Zinni at his October 2 briefing. Asked about Zinni's role, Boucher said, "I can't tell you very much at this point. He's on the books now as an unpaid, part-time consultant to Assistant Secretary Burns in the Near East Bureau, and we'll offer more on definition of duty and announcement when we can."

By last Thursday, a secretary in the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs Bureau was willing to say even less: "We don't have any knowledge of him here."

Confused, I called Susan Pittman in the State Department's Public Affairs shop. "What's the latest on General Zinni and his role at the State Department?" I asked. "I don't know if there is any latest," she replied. "As far as we know, he hasn't even shown up for work yet."

Even if no one knows--or will say--what Zinni's role will be, he is surely qualified to do it. Zinni is a decorated Vietnam veteran who spent nearly four decades in the military. As head of the U.S. Central Command--the position General Norman Schwarzkopf held during the Gulf War--he enjoyed a unique vantage point on the politics, culture, and military affairs of the region, which included, notably, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

During his time at Central Command, Zinni established relationships, which he has maintained, with many of the military and political leaders of those countries. Throughout his three-year tenure, he constantly worked the phones to keep abreast of political and military developments. He visited with the leaders of "the stans"--the former Soviet republics to the north of Afghanistan--in their own countries, and hosted some of them at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

"In our part of the world," he said, referring to the 25 countries in his area of responsibility, "everything is done by personal relationship."

Zinni is particularly close to Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharraf, who took control of that country in a coup two years ago. "They have a pretty good relationship," says a South Asian diplomat familiar with their dealings. Before Zinni retired, he says, "they used to talk by the phone very frequently--if not daily, then almost daily." In fact, last January, after authorities foiled a terrorist plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in anticipation of the millennium, Zinni got in touch with Musharraf.

As he recounted to a congressional committee shortly after the September 11 attacks, "I was asked because of my relationship with General Musharraf to call him and ask him to apprehend the leaders in this effort who were identified as being in Pakistan along the Afghan border. He said of course, and he immediately apprehended them all. I was then asked to call him again to ask if he would allow our law enforcement and other agencies to have access to them and he said of course, send them right away. I was then asked to call him again and see if he would give up computer disks and other things that were confiscated and he said of course. To make a long story short, I was asked to make five calls, and he delivered on every one of them."

Zinni's relationships could well be helpful in the effort to build and maintain the anti-terrorism coalition. But what if the United States expands its military efforts beyond Afghanistan to, say, Iraq?