Sunday, November 4, 2001 - 10:30 a.m. EST
(Interview with Meet the Press, NBC TV)
MR. RUSSERT: But first, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. General, welcome to "Meet the Press."
GEN. MYERS: Thank you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: How goes the war in Afghanistan?
GEN. MYERS: Well, I'd say in a word it's going according to plan. The objectives are to try to capture or bring to justice as many of al Qaeda as we possibly can in Afghanistan. The other part of that, of course, is to take the Taliban regime down to the point where they can no longer support al Qaeda.
MR. RUSSERT: The Taliban again yesterday made a claim that they shot down a United States helicopter. Your reaction?
GEN. MYERS: My reaction is that every time we hear a claim from the Taliban, we ought to really think about it as psychological warfare. They have made lots of claims in the last four weeks as we've been prosecuting this war. Most of them, we think and believe, are absolutely false. They did not shoot down a helicopter, a U.S. helicopter yesterday. In fact, they have not shot down any U.S. aircraft.
MR. RUSSERT: We did lose a helicopter due to a crash in weather?
GEN. MYERS: Yes, we did. The helicopter -- in fact, there were two helicopters that were on a rescue mission to rescue one of our U.S. service members that had been taken ill that was helping out an opposition group, and these helicopters were on their way to rescue that individual. Weather was a factor, and we think it was a factor in the fact that this helicopter had to sit down and sit down fairly hard. It injured four people. The other helicopter stayed in the area, and in a couple of hours, we rescued everybody and brought them out.
The helicopter that had to sit down hard was damaged beyond flyable state, and so we destroyed it.
MR. RUSSERT: So the enemy could not find it and -
GEN. MYERS: Absolutely. Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: How big a problem is the weather -- the freezing rain, the coming snows?
GEN. MYERS: In any combat operation or any conflict, weather's probably your number one concern. It's no different in Afghanistan. So as winter sets on, that will be an issue that we'll deal with. But let me assure people that we're going to fight right through the winter. The winter is not going to stop us from doing what we have to do.
We are resupplying the opposition with ammunition, with food, with blankets. We hope in the not-too-distant future with cold weather gear. The fighting forces on the side of the opposition on our side will be much better prepared for winter than will the Taliban.
If you remember, the first part of our campaign against the Taliban was going against the warehouses. It was going against air defenses, and their ammunition supplies, and we've done a pretty good job of taking those things out. So what's left for the Taliban is what they have on their back and what they have stored in caves and other places around Afghanistan, which we don't think is very much. So as winter wears on, we think the advantage, as it has been all along, will continue to be with the opposition forces.
MR. RUSSERT: On October 20, there was a commando raid by U.S. forces into Afghanistan. You showed pictures of people being parachuted in and some infrared pictures and things like that.
A "New Yorker" magazine today reports that during that exercise, that operation, 12 U.S. soldiers were wounded, three seriously. Is that accurate?
GEN. MYERS: Let me just tell you exactly what happened, and I don't think that report is accurate in the context that they -- that it was written.
As you know, we lost two individuals to a helicopter accident before they even went into Afghanistan. They were the reserve force sitting back, waiting to respond -
MR. RUSSERT: In Pakistan.
GEN. MYERS: -- in Pakistan -- waiting in case they were needed. They were not needed, but this helicopter landing in a dust storm rolled over on landing and tragically, two service members were killed. Two were injured in that one, as well.
The force that went in on the ground, there were a couple of parachute injuries that we expected, and those happened, and there were some other wounds from some of the action and some of the activity that they were undergoing, but none of it was inflicted by the enemy. We took -- essentially, I think the article -- I've not read the article, but I've heard that it portrays that we ran into some stiff resistance. That's simply not true. There was no resistance. The Taliban were in complete disarray.
MR. RUSSERT: The article said that there was a fire fight, and that the Taliban not only had rifle fire, but also mortars and grenades in response to the U.S., and 12 U.S. soldiers were injured, three seriously.
GEN. MYERS: And that's not true. That's not true. I -- my guess is, my belief is that every soldier that came back from that particular raid is back on duty today, none of them seriously injured, certainly none of them injured by the Taliban. The Taliban probably did return fire and they had all those capabilities. We know from other reporting that they were trying to muster greater capabilities, and they were unable to do so. Our soldiers just simply overwhelmed them.
MR. RUSSERT: The also (sic) also says there was grave concern within the special operations community about being sent into an operation like that, suggesting they were not totally prepared or properly planned.
GEN. MYERS: Nothing could be further from the truth. This operation was planned for some time. The leader of the special operations community, General Charlie Holland, down in Tampa, Florida, was fully aware of what was going on, was participating in the planning, and when it came down to it, we were all very satisfied that we were ready to go in. In fact, we executed that exactly as we thought we would do. The fact that we damaged a helicopter inside the compound we went into, that's just one of the things in war that's going to happen. We know when we're sitting down helicopters with lots of troops in a dusty environment that there are going to be some incidents like that, and there were, in this case, but it went -- from my view, it went flawlessly.
MR. RUSSERT: You are an Air Force general. You were selected because of your knowledge of space defense and developmental plans of that nature. Now you're overseeing what is in significant part a special operations war. Are you comfortable with that?
GEN. MYERS: I'm very comfortable. First of all, the value added that I bring to this is 36 years of military experience, some in air combat, some in staff jobs, some in other command positions. So I would say you'll have to ask the President, you'll have to ask Secretary Rumsfeld. I suppose I was hired probably more for my leadership and management capabilities than I was by any fact that I was -- or by the fact that I was a space warrior or anything like that. I mean, that's -- I think that was interesting, but that's not the reason they hired me.
MR. RUSSERT: Is this the toughest challenge, the most difficult war, you've encountered in your 36 years?
GEN. MYERS: I've said that before. I think in my 36 years, I don't think the U.S. military's ever been asked to do anything as important as this. This country, on September 11, was attacked. We were intentionally attacked -- and civilians and innocents were intentionally attacked and killed. Many different ethnic groups, many cultures, many races, many countries, not just the United States, and this is a threat that we can't just let go by the way. We have to take this on, and it's going to be global in scope, and for that reason, I think it's going to be -- it's the toughest thing, it's the most important mission that we've ever been assigned.
MR. RUSSERT: As you know, General, there's intense interest in the United States about how we are doing. In the fog of war, it's sometimes difficult to get information. Let me show you some things that have been written and give you a chance to respond.
This was "The Washington Post" on Friday, the headline, "Big ground force seen as necessary to defeat Taliban. Bombing has left militia largely intact. The attacks have not eliminated any measurable number of Taliban troops. Northern Alliance forces have made no important gains against the Taliban, despite claiming that they were only a few days from reclaiming the northern city of Mazur- e Sharif, according to military assessments here" -- that is, on the ground. "As far as our information from the ground goes, a major chunk of the 50,000 Taliban army and much of its arsenal are pretty much intact after three weeks of bombing,' says a senior Pakistani army official with access to classified intelligence reports from Afghanistan. 'We may not like it, but the fact is the Taliban military is not falling apart, more so because most of its commanders are still alive and loyal to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader."
GEN. MYERS: My reaction is I'll go back to almost your first question, how is it going in Afghanistan? I think it's going exactly according to our plans. We have taken down Taliban air defenses. We have disrupted their ability to resupply their own forces. We took down their transports, most of their helicopters. Most of their -- (clears throat) -- excuse me -- most of their communications have been taken down. The maximum (ph) are communicating now with runners, which is obviously -- in Afghanistan, not the most efficient way to do that.
They have a substantial force left, but at this point in the campaign, that's exactly what we expected. And, as I said earlier, now we're starting to resupply the opposition groups. We've been doing that now for a week or more, to make sure they have the ammunition, the food, the blankets, the cold-weather gear to continue to take this fight to the Taliban.
The same is not happening on the other side.
So I guess in a way, the Taliban are on their heels. They are not the ones that have the initiative here. We have the initiative and the opposition groups have the initiative. Just last night, the night before, we put in a couple more teams with other opposition leaders, and the more teams we get on the ground, the more effectively we'll bring air power to bear on the Taliban lines, and we'll continue to do that.
MR. RUSSERT: So that's a significant increase in the number of U.S. personnel on the ground.
GEN. MYERS: It is. It's an increase, yes, sir.
MR. RUSSERT: There has (sic) been some mixed messages that people are concerned about. This is what the Secretary of Defense told Tom Brokaw on October 30, and I'll let you watch it for a second.
(Begin videotaped segment.)
SEC. RUMSFELD: There's no question but that the Taliban and the al Qaeda still have substantial forces, and they've arrayed against the opposition forces on the ground.
(End videotaped segment.)
MR. RUSSERT: Two weeks earlier than that, at a Pentagon briefing, this is what Lieutenant General Newbold said, and I'll put it on the screen: "The combat power of the Taliban has been eviscerated."
Is that still operative?
GEN. MYERS: I think if you'd ask General Newbold today, he would probably choose another term. In fact, we were surprised that a Marine even knew what "eviscerated" meant.
Sorry -- a lot of Air Force officers don't know what it means, either, I will assure you.
No, I think that was a misstatement on General Newbold's terms, and I think we do have substantial fights ahead of us. In some ways, they have been eviscerated, but not in all ways, so we are pretty much where I think I said we are. We have the initiative, the Taliban do not.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the Northern Alliance. The headline in "The Washington Post:" "Afghan rebels plan assault on Kabul." There seems to be a different measurement of how effective the Northern Alliance is. This is, again, "The Washington Post" on Friday: "A growing number of Western and Pakistani military officials and analysts fear that the combination of U.S. air strikes and Northern Alliance guerrillas may be unable to bring down Afghanistan's Taliban militia without assistance from significant U.S. and allied ground forces. 'There's no way to win this with air alone,' said one Western official, 'or even with only the Northern Alliance on the ground. It's going to take U.S. ground forces.'"
GEN. MYERS: Again, the goal here is to rid Afghanistan of al Qaeda and to do away with the Taliban regime that supports them and has been so oppressive to the Afghan people.
I'm not going to get in and speculate on our future plans, but as we've said before and numerous times, we're going to use the full capability of the U.S. military, and that is not just air power, it's not just ground forces, it's everything that we can bring to bear, and I can assure you that every branch of the armed forces has played a very important role in this conflict so far.
MR. RUSSERT: I obviously never want you to reveal any plans of national security that would jeopardize our troops, but I do want to explore this notion of the Northern Alliance, because it's of deep concern, I think, to the American people.
Back in September, this is what "The Boston Globe" said: "The Northern Alliance has begun to rise in the estimation of some Pentagon strategists as a possible major factor in any sustained U.S. attack in Afghanistan."
A couple of weeks later, the Secretary of Defense I think had a different view, and I'll show it to you. "It is, I think, a question as to whether or not the opposition forces, the Northern Alliance, the tribes in the south, are going to pursue the Taliban and the al Qaeda with the necessary energy and success one would like. That's an open question. I think it's far too soon to say."
And this from on the ground: "'The Northern Alliance has not lived up to the hopes and expectations of the U.S.,' retired General Syed Rafaqat, a former Pakistani chief of staff said. 'Its military capability, quality of leadership, and motivation of troops are doubtful assets.'"
Are you concerned about the capability and the competence of the Northern Alliance?
GEN. MYERS: As we've said from the outset, we were going to use those forces inside Afghanistan that would be for ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban. The Northern Alliance are a part of those forces. We have teams with them now that are doing all sorts of liaison work, not just calling in air strikes, but also working on what kind of equipment do they need.
These are fighters that have been fighting the Taliban for a long, long time. They are very confident. In some places, they are still outnumbered, and in some cases the ratio is much more favorable to the Northern Alliance. We think they're very serious about their business. As I said, we're going to continue to resupply them right through the winter. They will be the best supplied forces of the two that are in conflict, and we think that they have every chance of prevailing.
MR. RUSSERT: If there are 60,000 Taliban and 15,000 Northern Alliance troops, we're going to have to supplement the Northern Alliance with a significant amount of American ground forces in order to win this war, aren't we?
GEN. MYERS: One of the hard things to determine is how many Taliban have been killed with either air strikes or with Northern Alliance activity. And so every time you look at numbers of forces, you have to put an approximate sign in front of those numbers, because it's very difficult. We hear from time to time that the Taliban are defecting. Defecting can be done in a couple of ways. One is they can actually come over to the Northern Alliance, and they have done this way before we started this war on terrorism in Afghanistan. They've been defecting -- some of them will just go back to their homes and pick up where they left off and stop fighting.
So it's a pretty fluid situation on the ground. I would just say that we think the Northern Alliance is proceeding along in the campaign in the pace that we thought they would.
MR. RUSSERT: There seems to have been a marked change in the tempo of the war over the last two weeks. "The Weekly Standard," which is out today, summarizes it this way: "Happy talk from military officials about the Taliban being eviscerated turned to grudging admiration for the Taliban's tenacity. The military boasted of achieving air superiority over Afghanistan, but on the ground, the Taliban was actually growing in numbers, swelled by new recruits from abroad. As 'The Washington Post' reported last week, senior administration officials admit on background that they made a mistake and are now, quote, 'giving wider latitude to the Defense Department to accelerate U.S. battle plans.' The strategy now, according to one official, is let's do what we need to do, let's get on with it and get it over with."
GEN. MYERS: No, not fair enough, a couple of comments on the Taliban and on whether they're getting support. There've been reports that volunteers are flowing in from Pakistan to Afghanistan. We can't verify any of those numbers, and that's one of the difficulties we're having, is how do you verify these claims one way or the other?
There is no administration, I don't think, from anybody on the Taliban. One of the quotes was that we admired the Taliban. Absolutely not. We do not admire them. We have not been surprised by their tenacity. This war in Afghanistan's been going on, you know, for several years, way before we started to engage, and to the notion that somehow the U.S. military has been held back and not been able to prosecute this conflict as we see fit, that is absolutely not true.
MR. RUSSERT: No political pressure?
GEN. MYERS: No political -- the only political pressure we've had is the right political pressure. Obviously, this war is being executed by General Tom Franks. He lives down in Tampa, Florida. He has briefed the President on numerous occasions. We try to have Tom do that about once a week. That's the President's request. The national security council is present for that.
He's had the full support of the national security council from the very beginning. As far as I know, he's gotten everything he wants to prosecute this war at the pace that he wants to prosecute it. He is probably the one that has the best knowledge of the situation on the ground, the capability of the Northern Alliance, our capabilities, and he's the one that's executing the war, and I -- these innuendoes and other, more direct comments that, in fact, somehow the political side of the house has held this war back are absolutely false.
MR. RUSSERT: Although your military briefers at the Pentagon have said that they are surprised by the resilience of the Taliban, how tough and what warriors they've been proven to be.
GEN. MYERS: Yes, I think surprised is an unfortunate word. That was one briefer on one particular day. Who knows -- by the way, he's, as John Newbold, two really great officers who know a lot about the war. Surprised would not be the word I would use. We understood how this was going -- I'll go back to my original comments, that we are on the campaign plan that we set up, and we're going to proceed -
MR. RUSSERT: How would you rank the Taliban as an enemy?
GEN. MYERS: Oh, it's hard -- it's -- I mean, they're not like a regular army. I would rate them as anybody that can have ruled Afghanistan over the last several years, that has denied education to women, that has killed women and children to further its aims, that takes humanitarian assistance and takes it away from the nongovernmental organizations that are trying to put that assistance in there and sell it in the marketplace or says that the U.S. is poisoning it, and maybe they'll poison it themselves, and that is conducting the awful psychological warfare inputs that they were massacring civilians.
I don't rate them very high, and I don't think -- I think when push comes to shove that we're going to prevail here.
MR. RUSSERT: General Musharraf, the leader of Pakistan, is meeting with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld as we speak. He's reportedly going to urge Secretary Rumsfeld to consider Ramadan, the Muslim holy season, which begins next week, perhaps take a pause in the military bombing campaign.
What's our response?
GEN. MYERS: Our response is that on September 11, the United States and all, for that matter, all freedom-loving people were directly attacked. They were attacked by al Qaeda and those who support them. They chose that time. We didn't choose that time. So they chose the time that this war was going to start, and so we're going to proceed on this global war on terrorism, and I might just add we're very focused on Afghanistan right now, and the world is, because that's where you see most of the action. But this war is much broader than that; it is much wider than that. Lots of things going on in diplomatic circles, lots going on in financial circles, lots going on in criminal investigative circles, lots of planning going on in other parts of the world to interrupt these terrorist networks.
But they're the ones, to go back to your original questions or question, they are the ones who set the date. So we're prepared to fight this war on terrorism. We'll be sensitive, as we have been. The Taliban like to park their air defense assets and some of their more precious assets in their mosques and so forth, and we're not -- we're not going to hit those. They know that. They'll use women and children and residential areas as shields for their military equipment. We know that, and we're not going to hit that, but we're going to prosecute this war right through the winter.
MR. RUSSERT: How concerned are you about the stability of General Musharraf in Pakistan and how concerned are you about the safety of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal?
GEN. MYERS: Those are really political questions, a little bit outside my lane. I can just tell you this, that the United States government is doing all it can do to support Pakistan, because they've supported us in this conflict, this war on terrorism. They understand that we've got to win this war, and of course we're concerned about those things. And other than that, I'll just -- I'll say that's a question probably for somebody else.
MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned the war on terrorism. Do we have the capability to eliminate Saddam Hussein's nuclear and biological threat, if we decide to do that?
GEN. MYERS: Well, without getting into specific capabilities, that's exactly what we're worried about in the war on terrorism are weapons of mass destruction and those who have them and the fact they might fall in the hands of international terrorist organizations. So anybody that is harboring terrorists, anybody that has weapons of mass destruction -- or mass destruction capability production capability, we're very much worried about.
MR. RUSSERT: And we're capable to eliminate Saddam's threat, if we choose to do so?
GEN. MYERS: I don't want to speculate on that. I think there's a lot of planning going on right now. That is certainly the kind of threat that we're looking and taking very seriously. You know, I think on September 11 it was quite clear that the terrorists passed over whatever threshold we thought there was for the use of weapons of mass destruction when they killed over 5,000 people from 80 different countries -- again, every culture and ethnic group you can think of. They passed over that threshold, and so I think we have to do all we can to ensure that these weapons of mass destruction don't fall into the wrong hands or any hands, for that matter.
So if it comes to that, we'll be able to take them out.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you confident, as you sit here this morning that you can say to the American people you will destroy al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden?
GEN. MYERS: I am very confident that we're going to win. As the President has said, as the Secretary of Defense has said, we know this conflict is going to take a long time, and we're prepared for that. We are steeled to that. We are resolute. When I talk to our soldiers and our sailors, our airmen and Marines, the coast guardsmen, we're settling in for the long haul. We know this is going to be painful in terms of family separations. We are ready for this. I'll go back to your earlier comment. This is the most important assignment we've had in the military since World War II, in my mind, and that's not to denigrate other great warriors in the Korean War and in Vietnam, where I fought, or otherwise, but I think we've never had such a direct attack on the United States or an attack on freedom around the world.
And so we will win. It will take some time. We know that. But in the end, we will have destroyed and degraded international terrorism to the point where it cannot impact us like it did on September 11.
MR. RUSSERT: Are the American people prepared for significant casualties, if need be?
GEN. MYERS: I think they are. Obviously, we're going to do our best to minimize any casualties on our side. We also know this is not going to be a casualty free operation. We are steeled to that, as well. Our families are steeled to that. You'll be so proud of our armed forces men and women. They understand exactly what they have to do. We have an all-volunteer force. When they raise their right hand and say they swear to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic -- and there's more to it -- but they know exactly what they're saying. They're saying we're prepared to give our lives in defense of our Constitution and what we hold dear.
Not only that, but we have lots of coalition partners that are equally resolute in their approach to this problem, so the American people should make no doubt about it. We're going to do whatever it takes to rid this world of this threat of terrorism.
MR. RUSSERT: It is now the stated policy of the U.S. government that if a commercial airliner is hijacked, if need be, U.S. fighter jets would take it down before allowing it to destroy one of our national institutions. As someone in the chain of command, that would have to be one of the most difficult decisions you'd ever have to make.
GEN. MYERS: It'd be a very, very difficult decision, obviously, and it's one that you think about very, very hard.
Just to correct one thing -- I'm really not in the chain of command. I'm the military adviser. The chain of command runs directly from the President to the Secretary to the combatant commanders. In this case, in that situation, it would either be Admiral Blair out in the Pacific or, for the Hawaiian Islands and some of our territories out there, or it would be General Eberhart at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but -- obviously.
But we have well-trained, disciplined, professional forces. The last thing that any of our pilots want to do is shoot at an American airliner. If it were going to be used, though, as an enemy missile, then they're prepared to do that.
MR. RUSSERT: Yesterday, Osama bin Laden released yet another tape, saying this is a war against Islam, saying that the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the terrorists excelled in those. What would you say to Osama bin Laden this morning?
GEN. MYERS: As I read his remarks -- and I've just read some excerpts from his remarks -- it seemed to me he took on the world. He criticized the U.N., he criticized the United States. Of course, he criticized Arab governments, as well. So he's taking on everybody. I would say they're the comments of somebody that is quite sick mentally, and that -- that in the end, he is trying to use Islam as his shield, and we know this is not a war on Islam or Muslims. This is a war against terrorism. He is a terrorist. And so I would say you'd better move frequently, because we're on -- we're going to be on your tail.
MR. RUSSERT: His days are numbered?
GEN. MYERS: Well, I don't know for sure. We sure hope they are.
MR. RUSSERT: General Richard Myers, we thank you very much for joining us this morning, and good luck with your troops.
GEN. MYERS: Thank you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, bruising debates in Congress over airport security.
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