Friday, Nov. 30, 2001 - 3 p.m. EST
(Interview with Robert Novak and Al Hunt, CNN)
Novak: I'm Robert Novak. Al Hunt and I are in the Pentagon briefing room to question a key leader in America's military war against terrorism.
Hunt: He is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Mr. Secretary, you've warned we could be in for a difficult fight in southern Afghanistan. Can you give us any sense as to how long you think it will take us to succeed?
Rumsfeld: I can't. The situation is so difficult, and I would say that it's not just in southern Afghanistan but throughout the country.
It looks as though it's reasonably settled in the northern and western portions and it's pretty clear it's still unsettled in the Kandahar and Jalalabad area.
On the other hand there are pockets of resistance up north and in the west. A good many of these people who surrendered and turned in their arms and then left, and a number of the other Taliban ended up just fading into the villages and the mountains and they're still there and they're still armed.
So I don't think that simply because there are no pitched battles going on at the present time that it's over. I think it's still a dangerous place to be. We've seen any number of journalists killed. It's entirely possible there are going to be more Americans killed. And I think the superficially placid scene one sees up in the north and the west is probably not the real situation. I think there's a good deal of turmoil underneath.
Hunt: To follow up on that, it did seem a few days ago that the Taliban forces were near collapse, and there have been more counterattacks and some of the things you've just enumerated. Is it your sense that, your fear that they could have the capacity for a sustained series of counterattacks?
Rumsfeld: I wouldn't characterize them as major counterattacks. I think that in a few locations like Kandahar where there still are sizeable numbers of Taliban and al Qaeda and foreign troops, that can happen. But I think for the most part in the rest of the country they're small pockets. What they would be, more likely would be in the nature of criminal activity and people being killed by surprise terrorist attacks, that type of thing.
Hunt: The Northern Alliance is emerging as a dominant force, at least as of today. They represent only a fraction of Afghans. They took Kabul over our objections to timing, at least, and there seems to be a sense that they pretty much do as they please, and saying we're winning the war.
Was it U.S. military power or was it the Northern Alliance who won the war. And should they be more responsive to our wishes?
Rumsfeld: Well, it was a cooperative effort. There's no question but that you could not do what they have done if you weren't on the ground. They were on the ground.
It is also clear that they were not able to do what they've done until we brought in very capable air power after embedding special force units, teams, into the various tribal groups and factions of the Northern Alliance.
The combination of that proved to be what was successful. And I don't know that assigning credit, it really makes any sense anyway. The reality is they're there, they're on the ground, they're occupying the space, and we are helping them. We're helping them with food and ammunition and with money and with resupplies of various types plus air power when necessary.
Novak: Mr. Secretary, the Taliban, who had surrendered and then tried to break out of a prison in the north, it turns out according to reports that 300 to 600 were killed. A hundred percent casualty rate, a hundred percent death rate, and they were killed by Northern Alliance, by U.S. forces, and by U.S. aircraft.
Do you have some regrets about the extent of that slaughter, or do you think it was necessary?
Rumsfeld: First of all, I think that the word slaughter is premature and possibly wrong. Second, no. I have no regrets because I don't know the facts.
You're quite right, there have been some very powerful reports. Powerful, I shouldn't use that word. There have been --
Rumsfeld: -- very strong. Whether they're accurate or not is a very open question.
Second, put yourself in their shoes. You had thousands of people in a prison, a compound. A relatively small number of Northern Alliance forces armed to try to contain them. A very small number of Americans, just a handful. Less than a handful. And it turns out that some of the prisoners had not been well searched. They had hand grenades, they had weapons, and they started killing the Northern Alliance guards. They shot them, got their weapons, and then began breaking out. A number of them escaped. So the idea that there was a hundred percent is wrong. Second, some of them are still alive. And third, a lot of them are dead.
When there's a prison uprising and people are about to get out. These are not good people. These are people who have been repressing that country for a long time. They are people who have killed a lot of people. They were in there because they belonged in there, and as they started to escape they were killed. Had they surrendered and thrown down their arms they would not have been killed.
I wasn't there, I don't know the facts. But the short answer is I don't regret anything that I now know.
Novak: Do you feel, Mr. Secretary, there is a problem, however, when apparently most of the prisoners, all of the prisoners are in the hands of the Northern Alliance which I don't believe signed the Geneva Convention, they're not the nicest guys in the world. Does that bother you at all?
Rumsfeld: I guess we have to take the world like we find it. The way we find it is that a group of people killed thousands of Americans on September 11th. They are threatening today to kill many more Americans in this country and elsewhere. The only way we can defend ourselves against those attacks, the ones that are being threatened today, is to go after the terrorists where they are. That is our job.
It turns out that in Afghanistan there are people who have fought each other for years. They were before we came and they may after we're gone. Some of them were against the Taliban. We worked with them to defeat the Taliban, try to defeat them -- we're still working on that -- to see if we can't capture or kill the al Qaeda who are threatening terrorist acts around the globe, and to see that Afghanistan is no longer a state harboring terrorists.
The fact that they don't happen to subscribe to some convention that we do or that other countries do is a fact. It is also a fact that we have to stop those terrorists from killing more Americans and I don't feel even the slightest problem in working with the Northern Alliance to achieve that end.
Hunt: Mr. Secretary, most experts say it was a disaster now, in 1989, when the United States left Afghanistan after the Russians were thwarted. Doesn't that suggest that in the first place the United States has to lead a major nation-building effort there, if you will; and do you agree with the Brits that there ought to be probably an international force, predominantly a Muslim force, but there ought to be at least a small logistical and communications force led by the United States?
Rumsfeld: I think nation-building does not have a brilliant record across the globe. It's a very hard thing to do. It's a hard thing for people in a country to make a nation work well, and there's a lot that are not doing it well around the world, and it's even harder for foreigners, strangers, to go into a country and think that they know what the template, what the model ought to be for that country.
We do have a responsibility and we care about what happens in Afghanistan after we leave. And we will leave. We covet no land, we don't want to take over that country as some others have tried to do in past years.
When we leave we want to make sure that we do what's right from a humanitarian standpoint. We want to do what we think is right by helping them develop a broadly based government. But in the last analysis the people that live in an area are going to have to make it work.
With respect to a peacekeeping force, first of all you have to have peace before you can keep it. There is not peace in that country. It is a dangerous place.
Second, the people on the ground are the ones that you would want to provide the peacekeeping first. If they are able to do it. That is to say if the Northern Alliance or the tribes in the south are able to create a secure environment that is sufficient so that the humanitarian aid can come in and the aid workers can get there and they can provide the kinds of assistance to the terribly suffering Afghan people. It's just a tragedy what's happened. They've had three years of drought and many years of war, and it's a sad situation.
We need to help provide that stability. But the best way to do it is if the forces on the ground do it.
Novak: Mr. Secretary, we're out of time, we have to take a break but I want to get one question in.
You have said that when it comes to Osama bin Laden dead or alive, if you had your druthers you'd prefer dead. What orders do our Special Forces have if they encounter Osama bin Laden. Shoot on sight, or try to capture them?
Rumsfeld: Our forces always have the rules of engagement that are written, they understand them. Certainly if a person surrenders we take them prisoner, we don't shoot people that are surrendering. If people refuse to surrender or try to flee they have an obligation to try to stop them.
Novak: We're going to have to take a break. When we come back we'll ask Secretary Rumsfeld about what's next after Afghanistan and the war against terrorism.
Hunt: Mr. Secretary, in this week's New Yorker Sy Hersh reports that Iran is making a major push and having some success in developing atomic power. You've been very forthright in describing Iraq as an evil threat to the United States but you've been more kindly towards Iran. Do you consider Iran basically an adversary or an ally right now in this war on terrorism?
Rumsfeld: Oh, my goodness, Iran is certainly not an ally. That's a word that's reserved for a relationship that's notably different than ours with Iran.
Iran is a state like Iraq and North Korea and Cuba and Syria and Libya that's on the terrorist list. They don't get there by accident, they earn that.
Hunt: Is Iran the same order of threat as Saddam Hussein and Iraq right now?
Rumsfeld: It's a very different situation. I think that there's no question but that Iran is very actively developing nuclear weapons. That is a fact. How many years it will take for them to actually have a nuclear weapon, I don't know. I think it's unclear to me. I do know that they have the delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction and they obviously have been attentive to chemical and biological weapons as well. So this is a country that is on the terrorist list, that has weapons of mass destruction, is trying to get a nuclear capability. It's also a country unlike Iraq -- I would characterize Iraq as a dictator in a repressive system that is unlikely to be altered from within absent an assassination or something like that, and who knows what would follow that?
Iran is slightly different. Iran is a situation where there are clearly some pressures from young people, there are pressures from women in that country. Iran had a different history than Iraq. I don't know, if nothing else happened and one looked at those two countries I would say the likelihood of Iraq reforming itself is zero. The possibility, the remote possibility of Iran reforming itself is considerably above zero.
Novak: Mr. Secretary, on the question of Iraq, the chairman of the Defense Department Policy Board, Richard Perle, of course that's not a full-time job, that's an advisory job.
Novak: He has been very blunt in saying that he thinks regardless of whether there is any link between Iraq and the events of September 11th now is the time to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Do you agree with that?
Rumsfeld: Look, Richard Perle is Richard Perle. He is very bright, very talented, served in government with distinction and you're quite correct, he is chairman of the Defense Policy Board. He however is not a government official, he does not speak for the president, he does not speak for me, and my way to respond to that is that those are decisions that are made by the country, by the president of the United States, and he has made no announcements with respect to Iraq.
Novak: Let me try to get your view on that in one respect. If it were possible to make a deal where inspectors were permitted into Iraq in return for some lifting of sanctions, do you think that would be in the interest of the United States?
Rumsfeld: I'd need to know much more of the texture of that kind of an arrangement. The fact of the matter is that we had inspectors, the U.N. had inspectors in Iraq for a long period. We couldn't find beans. And it's there. And we know it's there. And it was defectors who came out and told us where it was that helped us to find it.
He has biological activity going on in mobile vans. They're moving around. It is almost impossible to find what they're doing. We know with certain knowledge that Saddam Hussein has chemical and biological weapons. We know he had a much more advanced nuclear program than anyone dreamt when the Israelis went in and took it out many years ago. We learned that in Desert Storm.
I think they are a threat. They have already gone after their neighbor Kuwait. They have threatened northern Saudi Arabia. He is a person who has described the moderate Arab regimes in the region as illegitimate. I think left alone he is a danger in the region, which is why we have Operation Northern Watch and Operation Southern Watch with our coalition partners to keep him contained.
Hunt: Mr. Secretary, we're running out of time but let me just ask you, the country with the greatest number of weapons of mass destruction of course if Russia. The Nunn/Lugar program seeks to pay off the Russians to try to dismantle those weapons and some of those rogue scientists, to pay off those rogue scientists. Why does the administration cut funding, both in the Defense Department and in the Energy Department for Nunn/Lugar programs this year?
Rumsfeld: Goodness, I'd have to go check into that. I'm not an expert on the subject. I do know that it's hundreds of millions of dollars that we spend. We have spent. I would presume that the proper response to that question is that after a program's been in place for a period, one does an evaluation of it and takes a look and says is it accomplishing the goals, or isn't it. Are they fulfilling their side of the agreement or aren't they. And if you are in fact providing hundreds of millions of dollars, and money's fungible, where is the money that they are not providing going. Is it going for other things that are equally nasty. I just don't know the answer. And I do know that the United States taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and we still are and they still will in the current budget.
Novak: We're going to have to take another break. When we come back we'll have a big question for Don Rumsfeld.
Novak: The big question for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Sir, during the campaign President Bush and Vice President Cheney made it very clear the Defense Department, the Army was in terrible shape, it needed a rehauling. Suddenly when the war starts it's described as the greatest fighting force in the world. Surely you didn't rehabilitate it that quickly in nine months, did you?
Rumsfeld: No. Of course it depends on what your baseline is. There's no question we have the finest military on the face of the earth. We did this year and we had it last year.
Novak: So you were exaggerating in the campaign a little bit.
Rumsfeld: Not at all. Not at all. The United States military has a procurement holiday -- they called it a procurement holiday in the last administration -- for the better part of eight years and it overshot its mark. It went too far. We are way behind on repairing infrastructure. We're way behind on procurement. There is no question but that we've not invested what we should have in research and development. We may still be the finest military on the face of the earth, and there's no question but that we are. But the question is are you declining or are you level or are you improving. We need to improve.
The stability that this country provides for the world and for the world economy is so important to the well being of people across the globe, including the United States of America, that we need to be willing to invest in it.
Hunt: Mr. Secretary, we have about 15 seconds left. The New York Times has reported that the Pakistanis have flown surreptitiously into Afghanistan and taken out Pakistani soldiers who were allies of the Taliban against what is supposed to be our policy. Can you tell us definitively whether that is true or whether that is untrue?
Rumsfeld: I think I can. We have AWACS planes and various other means of seeing what's going on, and we have no evidence that that's true. It does not mean it's not, but we have no evidence that it is.
Hunt: Secretary Rumsfeld, thank you very much for being with us today. Robert Novak and I will be back with a comment or two in just a moment.