Afghanistan Was First Priority After 9/11, Rice Says
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 8, 2004 Senior U.S. officials decided to focus on the al Qaeda-Taliban connection in Afghanistan rather than on Iraq shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the 9/11 panel here today.
After high-level discussions held at Camp David, Md., a few days after the attacks Rice told Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, that President Bush and his senior advisers decided to target al Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan.
Rice also told Kean "there was a discussion of Iraq," at the Camp David meeting, which she said was precipitated by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.
The two senior DoD leaders, Rice noted, pointed out that since the United States was involved in a global war on terrorism, then perhaps "should we look at doing something against Iraq," as well as Afghanistan.
However, toward the end of the meeting, Rice said, "not a single one" of the president's senior advisers recommended an attack on Iraq at that time, noting the decision had been made for a military move against Afghanistan.
After returning to the White House, Rice said, the president outlined what he wanted to do to protect the homeland and plan for the Afghan campaign.
Rice said the president also told her that he wanted military contingency plans drawn up against Iraq, "should Iraq act against our interests."
There was presidential concern, Rice observed, that Iraq "might try to take advantage of us" in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The regime of then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, she pointed out, routinely was firing at U.S. and coalition aircraft patrolling the country's northern and southern no-fly zones. She added that there was some suspicion that Saddam may have had something to do with the 9/11 attacks. Therefore, in the days immediately following 9-11, Rice noted "it's not surprising that the president would say 'What about Iraq?' given our hostile relationship with Iraq" at that time. However, Rice emphasized, the focus of the U.S. government immediately after 9/11 was to go after al Qaeda and their Taliban enablers in Afghanistan.
Rice later told panel vice chairman Lee H. Hamilton that before the attacks, senior Bush policy makers believed that removing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden - while a good idea -- wasn't a "silver bullet" that would destroy the terrorist network.
"What the president wanted was a plan to eliminate al Qaeda so he could stop 'swatting at flies,'" Rice explained to Hamilton, noting such a comprehensive plan "takes some time" to develop and implement. The new plan, she noted, cited the need to obtain Pakistani cooperation in fighting al Qaeda, and was approved shortly before the 9/11 attacks.
Hamilton then asked Rice for her opinion regarding the viewpoint that political, economic and cultural differences between the Islamic world and Western societies caused discord that led to the 9/11 attacks.
"This is really the generational challenge," Rice replied to the panel vice chairman. "The kinds of issues that you are addressing have to be addressed, but we're not going to see success on our watch."
Rice observed that for decades the United States has employed "a policy that looks the other way" when doing business with Middle Eastern governments that repress their citizens' individual liberties.
"I think that that has tended to alienate us from the populations of the Middle East," she said, though she noted ongoing government reform in places such as Bahrain and Jordan.
"The building of democracy is tough," Rice acknowledged, pointing to the United States' own growing pains and stumbles over more than 200 years.
Rice predicted peace and understanding would eventually take seed and grow between the Middle East and the West. "This is why Iraq is so important," she said.
Iraq's people "are struggling to find a way to create a multi-ethnic democracy that works," Rice said. "It is going to be hard."
However, "if we stay with them, and when they succeed, I think they will have made a big change in the middle of the Arab world," Rice said, "and we will be on our way to addressing the source" of Middle East discord and terrorism."