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Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Roundtable with European Journalists

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
December 03, 2001

Tuesday, November 27, 2001

(Roundtable meeting with European journalists. Also participating was Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs.)

Q: Mr. Secretary, I'm supposed to throw you the first softball.

Wolfowitz: I'm just a country boy from Missouri.

Q: -- on where things stand in Afghanistan in your view and where the operation is headed now. What can you expect, what do you expect to happen say in Kandahar?

Wolfowitz: I think we've made a lot of progress. It is striking how much the mood has changed from back two or three weeks ago when we were accused of being bogged down. I worry now almost that people will think so much progress has been made that Afghanistan is basically a closed book and it's very, very far from a closed book.

You mentioned Kandahar. There's still a considerable amount of work to be done in Southern Afghanistan. I think one of our major strategic goals at the moment is to develop more active opposition among the southern Pashtun, Pushtun, I'm not quite sure which is the more correct vowel to use. At any rate they weren't organized as opposition before and they are I think coming out of the woodwork now and emboldened to get rid of these people. I think they're closing in on Kandahar. All the reports we're getting suggest a fairly steady but slow advance on Kandahar by various opposition forces and cutting off of --

Q: Is the idea as it was in the north to let the Afghans do the major --

Wolfowitz: That is the fundamental strategic -- I shouldn't say the fundamental, but it is one of the fundamental concepts here, the more the Afghans do the work for themselves the more enduring the result will be and the more successful we will be. It is not simply a matter that it's always better to have allies fight for you than to do anything yourself, but it's even more fundamental, I think, in the case of Afghanistan. The history of that country is just littered with foreigners who came in under one auspice and before long they [weren't] viewed as foreigners. One of the things we're kind of picking up even in the fighting in the north, they can make peace with one another in spite of some of the most bitter enmities, but peace with foreigners who come in who have committed something that's considered an offense is --

Q: So the role of the Marines is not to be very active on their own?

Wolfowitz: The role of the Marines is to establish a forward operating base. But if you say what is the purpose of a forward operating base, I would say the primary purpose is to be in a position to provide more active support to Afghans in the south. It is part of the --

We had forward operating bases in the north. We didn't call them that and they weren't exactly that, but you had large blocks of territory that were controlled by Northern Alliance commanders and it was a matter of getting link-ups to those commanders and then we could have landing fields in places to bring things in. We don't have quite as favorable a situation in the south. But it is definitely not to take over the war from the Afghans. It's really to reinforce what I think is a steadily growing opposition to the Taliban. They don't seem to be greatly more popular among the Pashtun than they were in the north.

Q: The point you made about not getting involved as foreigners in Afghanistan I think was picked up by Michael Gordon in this morning's New York Times when he described putting the Marines in as a calculated risk for that very reason. Would you agree with that summary?

Wolfowitz: I think everything in war is a calculated risk. Although we've gotten so used to things going relatively well for us we've forgotten how risky everything is.

I think that -- I don't think it's that risky. I think our motives are reasonably well understood by Afghans. I think events over the last few weeks make it fairly clear that the reaction of most Afghans to the success of opposition forces is to greet them as liberators. That one should be a little cautious because nobody has terribly clean hands in Afghanistan, but that the Taliban are so widely hated I think means that for at least some considerable time our role will be I think properly understood as supporting the Afghan people.

But we also have to keep in mind our mission, the reason we started this and the reason we're there is to go after the al Qaeda, to get the terrorists, to clean up the networks, and that also means getting rid of at least the main leaders of the Taliban who harbor these people.

I think on that, you take the temperature weekly and probably even daily to sort of calculate where you are and how people are reacting to you and you try with your, I hate the term, PsyOps, with leaflets and broadcasting, and frankly even with interviews like this one because in everything you say you try to get the message out that our goal is not to take over Afghanistan.

Q: -- getting al Qaeda (inaudible)?

Wolfowitz: I think one of the most important results is one that's hard to assess. That is I think we probably disrupted their operations very significantly by putting them on the run, putting them on the defensive. So even when you're not killing them or capturing them I think we probably very significantly disrupted their ability to communicate with one another, their ability to communicate outside.

I think we're just really at the beginning of getting into the networks, getting rid of some of the key leaders, starting to secure the intelligence that will lead us to other people outside.

But it's also a good reminder that the attack on al Qaeda is not just in Afghanistan. It's people we're arresting here in the United States, it's people we're arresting all over Europe with cooperation from I think virtually every European government and most Middle Eastern governments and quite a few outside. So the number is used a bit loosely, but we estimate al Qaeda is burrowed into some 60 countries. I would day the principal, as far as I'm concerned, the most important target is the one here in the United States and we're going after them everywhere.

(Interruption)

Obviously the most important target, as much for symbolic as much as for operational reasons, I think, is bin Laden himself. But I don't think people should get swept away by the symbolism. He could go tomorrow and you'd still have a very dangerous network. Or you could clean up the whole network and he could be a fugitive in the mountains of Afghanistan, and we'd still like to get him but it wouldn't make much difference.

So one has to really think about the network as a whole, and for that matter think about a variety of networks because the more we learn about al Qaeda the more one is truck at how these different groups communicate with one another, cooperate with one another. It seems to me the principal enemy of my enemy is my friend seems to apply among terrorist groups and they all hate us in one form or another and cooperate with one another.

Q: What could be the fate of first the Taliban fighters and then the al Qaeda fighters?

Wolfowitz: I think they are different categories. Clearly among the Taliban there is a sense that there are hard core Taliban and there are others who really just signed up for the kinds of reasons people get drafted into armies in war time. They may not be all that committed and may have cousins on the other side and they'll switch back again.

That's another reason to leave as much of this to local forces as possible because frankly, we don't have the knowledge or the history to make those kinds of judgments.

When it comes to foreigners, the people who are sort of clearly identifiable as al Qaeda, first of all they are, it seems to me, very, very bitterly hated in Afghanistan so they might prefer to be captured by someone who's not Afghan. But there's got to be some process of sorting out those people among the ones who really have to answer for very serious crimes. The second category which may include most of the in some form, those who can provide you some intelligence. Then there probably are some who qualify as foot soldiers, if you like, but they still have been members of a terrorist organization and I don't think we want to see them turned loose any time soon.

Q: Who would do the sorting out?

Wolfowitz: It's going to be frankly a combination of different people. This is not -- again, it's very different from let's say Desert Storm in the Gulf War when we had a uniformed command structure that governed the whole country. In the first instance the sorting out gets done by local commanders. With most of the local commanders we now have both intelligence people and military people as liaisons. But as we saw in Mazar-e Sharif the day before yesterday, it's not an orderly process. If people are determined not to surrender or to take advantage of -- there's been a lot of deception going on here and a number of false surrenders obviously, and that's made the situation more difficult as well.

Q: One of the worries, Afghanistan is going quite well in a lot of ways. If it keeps going well and the Taliban are finally defeated and al Qaeda in Afghanistan is (inaudible), does the U.S. have any plans to have any kind of military presence in Afghanistan in the future, even if smaller?

Wolfowitz: I would say our goal is to have as small a footprint as possible, and footprint is a word you hear around this place quite a lot these days and it refers to something you want to keep small. That doesn't mean zero. I think we, in the first place we have a continuing interest in making sure that Afghanistan is not only eliminated as a sanctuary for terrorists, but doesn't again become a sanctuary for terrorists. But also while we don't want to take on -- We have no pretentions of becoming the government of Afghanistan. At the same time we have acquired a lot of valuable influence with the people who are going to govern that country and some of that influence can be exercised probably better, or as well, through military channels as through political or diplomatic ones.

So to the extent that we can help shape an Afghanistan that is less prone to civil war and less prone to humanitarian disasters we'll want to keep some influence there. But keeping in mind that basic principle that foreigners tend to become unpopular in Afghanistan, we don't want to get in that position.

Q: This difference (inaudible) by other countries with more historic ties with Afghanistan, like Russia or Pakistan?

Wolfowitz: Well it may be gotten better with countries with fewer historic ties to Afghanistan, to be honest. Most of the countries that have historic ties to Afghanistan are not very popular because of those ties. Including two of the countries you mentioned.

But clearly this is an area where we will be very welcoming of the help that's been offered by so many countries around the world. In fact if you notice already in Mazar-e Sharif the hospital that's being set up there is a Jordanian army medical unit that's doing it. We have French special forces in there helping us. At Bagram and north of Kabul we have British Special Forces helping us. I think this is probably, to the extent some kind of international military presence is called for, people with less history in Afghanistan will probably be more welcome and do better. I think coming in with a clean record is a good thing.

Q: Talking about other countries, tell us if you will a little bit about that supposed great big fight you have every day with Colin Powell and others in government about when and how to go to war with -- (Laughter)

Wolfowitz: If I had a nickel for every story about fights that haven't happened I could retire.

Q: On a serious note how worried has Saddam to be right now? Is there any proof that you know of linking him and his regime to September 11th?

Wolfowitz: I think every state that supports terrorism should be reconsidering their policies quite fundamentally. I think the president has made that clear from the beginning. I think the events of September 11th make it clear that what might in the past have been regarded as nasty behavior but one of those kinds of nasty things you live with in international affairs, I think September 11th took all of that stuff to the level of the intolerable. And we're not just thinking about September 11th. September 11th was terrible, but it's nothing compared to what some future terrorist could do, especially with the kind of support that states might bring in the form of weapons of mass destruction.

So that's why the president from day one has stated the goal very broadly, and I think everyone who has been in that business should get the hell out of it fast.

Q: But there are differences of opinion, as you have in every government, is there also a different evaluation inside the government of what kind of an immediate threat Saddam poses?

Wolfowitz: In the first place, I think one of the reasons we do well as an administration is because we do have different points of view and they get debated strongly. In fact this is a president who encourages debate. I've noticed that since long ago during the campaign. He learns from it and then he makes decisions. And when he's made the decision it's an administration that functions as a team and I think we understand the importance of having a single policy and not multiple different policies which basically means you don't have any policy at all when that happens.

So I would say there's a lot of broad agreement about strategy. There's a lot of healthy debate about tactics. It seems to me tactically they're doing pretty well so far. There's no question who's in charge, it's the president of the United States who I believe is starting to get some of the recognition that he really deserves as a very capable leader.

Q: -- President Bush (inaudible). What would happen (inaudible)?

Wolfowitz: The president spoke. I think what he said is pretty clear. I think the Iraqis or anyone else should pay attention to what he says and take him seriously. He's demonstrated that he's a serious man.

Q: What criteria do you think would need to be met for the Saddam regime to be given a sense of achievement that the Taliban regime is having here in terms of harboring terrorists, in terms of developing weapons of mass destruction. Clearly in the Taliban case an event took place on September 11th. That may not be the case in the future.

Wolfowitz: I don't think what we're talking about is simply -- Obviously anyone who is responsible for September 11th has to answer for what I think are by even a legal definition war crimes. Clearly there is a responsibility issue here.

But I think the point that we've been making over and over again is it goes beyond September 11th. It goes into preventing, I don't know the date in the future, I hope there isn't one in the future, when something much more terrible could happen. Therefore that kind of behavior that condones terrorism, that treats terrorism as just another instrument of national policy is just not acceptable any more. Countries have got to get out of that business.

One can get into the definition business of how do you know when they're out and when they aren't. I still think, as I said the other day, it's like a Supreme Court Justice once said about obscenities. We'll know it when we see it, and we know that quite a few of these countries are still not out of the business. A few of them are pretending to be, but we'll need more than just pretense.

Q: For instance on the list of organizations and in (inaudible) financial assets are to be frozen, none of them is Iraqi based or linked to Europe.

Wolfowitz: I'm not sufficiently expert on every organization on that list. But there are a lot of networks and there's a pretty clear list of states that support terrorism that includes Iraq and quite a few others.

Q: What does it mean that particularly they support terrorism? To what does it refer?

Wolfowitz: You could go through a long list, just as you could with every one of the countries that are on that list. I think the State Department has pretty extensive documentation on each one. What we're interested in seeing is these countries out of that business. Every one of those countries on that list still has a very long way to go to prove that they've stopped.

Q: Do you have the idea that if the U.S. keeps up the language against Iraq and in the event of a possible attack against Iraq that not only some allied, some Muslim countries, but some Western European countries could disagree heavily with that?

Wolfowitz: I don't think I've seen anyone disagree fundamentally with the proposition that state support for terrorism is not something that's acceptable any longer. We can argue, as we argue internally, we can argue with our allies and other countries about not only which countries are problems, but also about what is the best way to approach a solution. Clearly there are, I think more than just conceptually. Practically one would certainly imagine that it would be better to get to the same result through some kind of diplomatic process than through a military process, although I think diplomacy frequently moves better when it's not, when it goes armed rather than unarmed. I think what's happening in Afghanistan is a message to every state that supports terrorists or harbors terrorists that if you keep it up you're going to have the same fate as the Taliban. I think that is a useful principle.

I also think that what we see in Afghanistan is, I believe every state on that terrorism list, every government that supports terrorism also uses terror against its own people. And as we work to get them out of that business I think the fact that they're not very popular with their own people and they have that kind of weakness that the Taliban has, that's another one of the instruments I think we can use to bring pressure on them.

Q: Do you think Iraq can come off the list, as you put it? You want to see countries coming off the list. Can Iraq come off the list while Saddam Hussein is still in power?

Wolfowitz: That's more than I want to speculate about today.

Q: I would like to change the subject if I could and ask you about Russia and NATO. What in your view could and should NATO offer Putin in order to establish a new and different relationship with Russia, and what should it not offer, for example?

Wolfowitz: I think we already have a rather significantly different relationship. By the way I think it was already enormously different before September 11th from what it was even five years ago, but I think clearly the war on terrorism has brought us together in a certain common struggle that has huge political and practical effects in terms of how we deal with one another. I think it's increasingly clear that NATO is not a threat to Russia or Russia a threat to NATO, and that in fact we have I think much more areas of potential cooperation than potential disagreement.

I do think it's important as we bring Russia more and more into cooperation with NATO that we not dilute NATO's ability to act decisively. There can be a little bit of that danger or that tendency and I think that's what makes some people a little bit cautious. But my own personal believe is that the Russians have made it clear in a variety of ways that their ambition is to be part of Europe in every sense of the word, and NATO is the fundamental security structure of Europe. I think Russia should more and more feel that its security is if not embedded in NATO at least perfectly congruent with NATO and I think we're working in that direction.

Q: -- NATO (inaudible) that would show Putin and the Russian people that they are really about to be integrated in the West, and by doing so maybe making the second NATO enlargement round easier to handle for everybody involved?

Wolfowitz: There probably is and I think such things are things we ought to consider. I don't have specific ideas in mind at the moment.

Q: A bilateral question. To what extent do you agree with Tony Blair's idea that the events of September 11th have given the world a chance to increase international communication, cross-cultural communications, changed the world fundamentally (inaudible) America and other countries spreading that message, that idea around the world?

Wolfowitz: I think it is both a challenge and an opportunity. We have a lot of I guess one would have to say negative work that has to be done in terms of eliminating terrorist networks and state support for terrorism, but I think there is also an opportunity here to leave the world not just neutral about positively better when we're done. And in particular I think we should be looking for ways of encouraging the billion-plus Muslims in the world to feel that they have a stake in the same kind of progressive future that the Western countries, what we call the Western countries -- that includes Japan and increasingly includes parts of Asia -- have come to take for granted.

I was ambassador to Indonesia for three years. I think it's an important part of what we're trying to accomplish here that a struggling democracy like Indonesia with an overwhelming Muslim population should be successful. It's very important that a moderate Muslim country like Turkey which is a part of NATO should be successful. And I think demonstrating not only that the path of terrorism, state support for terrorism is a losing path, but demonstrating that the path of free and open and economically productive countries is available to everyone and in particular available to Muslim majority countries I think is a task in front of us. I think the world will be better if we succeed in it.

Q: One of the discussions, what went wrong (inaudible), what will (inaudible) forces in the war against terrorism? The main question is, these forces that we are sending to Afghanistan will be used against other (inaudible)? For example, what if a war against Iraq? I mean the U.S. would consider these forces, given (inaudible), also able to wage other wars?

Wolfowitz: We have, first of all let me say something about the process here because I think -- I've even lost track of the number of countries that -- seventeen is --

Clarke: I was going to say well over a dozen.

Wolfowitz: Countries that have liaison officers in Tampa whose relations with CENTCOM are so close that frankly I sometimes hear from foreign embassies in Washington when CENTCOM is thinking about something before it comes up from Tampa. The communication is that good. And no country is committed unequivocally to using its forces in some ways that it doesn't agree with.

If anything what we I think experience is a little bit of frustration from some of our allies that they're ready and willing to do things and there aren't a long list of tasks for which we need a lot of help. But we are getting the help that we need, and the focus right now really is militarily, is on Afghanistan, in finishing the work in Afghanistan. By the way, also trying to make sure that al Qaeda people don't slip out of Afghanistan. That means that the naval forces from various countries that are helping us to patrol the Indian Ocean are turning out to be very valuable.

We had an incident the other day when there were four boat-loads of people who turned out to be Pakistani migrants heaving to another country, some of them legally, some of them illegally, but at any rate they looked like suspicious characters, and we had the French and the Canadians were the first on the scene that stopped these people.

Q: (inaudible)

Wolfowitz: Not in Afghanistan. This was in the Indian Ocean. So the naval forces that a number of countries are contributing are very helpful in that mission.

Q: The (inaudible) administration (inaudible) every day that this will be a long war. (inaudible) What do you think (inaudible)?

Wolfowitz: The secretary in talking about Afghanistan the other day said months not years, and the president said that gives me 23 months in Afghanistan. (Laughter)

Clarke: It could be anywhere from two to 23.

Wolfowitz: And I think the president means years and not decades, so --

The truth is, we don't know. And a long war, a long campaign doesn't necessarily mean a long military campaign because a very large part of what has to be done here is police work, intelligence work, Treasury and Finance Ministry work, rooting out these networks.

I think -- my guess is that we will probably find that long after the sort of big obvious problems have been clear up that lots of little remnants remain. That will probably be true in Afghanistan as well. It may be a model for the rest. It won't surprise me if a couple of years from now there's still some al Qaeda people hiding out in the mountains in Afghanistan. We'll probably have a price on their head and we'll probably periodically send some CIA officer or somebody to investigate to see if that person is there.

It's part of what makes this war different than anything of comparable magnitude in the past. It doesn't have as clear a definitive end, and the end is going to be probably much more in non-military things than in criminal investigation and that type of work that has to continue.

But at any rate, to try to answer your question I think we mean years, but I would personally hope it's not ten years.

Q: Is it (inaudible) for you to say which other places exist today where something like what al Qaeda created in Afghanistan could be recreated?

Wolfowitz: I don't think there's any place that's quite as hospitable as Afghanistan was. The sort of combination of a fairly of wild, unruly place with a government that was positively suicidally sympathetic to the al Qaeda. But that is part of what is different about today versus three months ago. Three months ago a lot of governments may have thought that you could get away with harboring terrorists. You might be on the terrorist list and we might not sell you Boeing aircraft, but it was something you could live with. I think what we've discovered is we can't live with that, and I hope they're starting to discover they can't live with that.

So I think in general terrorists are going to find it much less hospitable, governments around the world much less hospitable to terrorists. So hopefully there's no place as good as Afghanistan, but we have to keep clearing them out.

One of the worries, obviously, are places where there isn't very much government at all, and I don't want to start naming countries, but --

Q: Somalia, for instance?

Wolfowitz: You can make a list yourself. But that's not nearly as bad as the sort of wild west with a regime that is sort of openly flouting the international community.

There really is a very important lesson that should be emphasized over and over again. The Taliban really bought their own demise by getting in bed with al Qaeda. They were given every opportunity to get out of bed. To be honest, there are people in our government who thought they were given two or three opportunities more than they deserved. It is important now I think that they be made an example so that others are not tempted in the future to think that this is behavior that somehow you can get away with or you suffer a slap on the wrist.

Q: If bin Laden was able to skip out of Afghanistan there is no place in the world where he could go.

Wolfowitz: There are a lot of places he could go. I can't imagine any sane government knowingly protecting him. They would certainly be asking for terrible trouble. But the world is a big place, there are lots of ways to hide. He is an evil man who deserves to be punished. But we're after something much more than just a single individual.

Q: Just one quick question. When you are talking about making examples of the Taliban so that others don't tend to follow that, it's a little bit like the talks of a country that is setting itself up as the world's policeman. I know that's something that the Bush campaign and the administration was not looking to do.

Wolfowitz: I don't think it's setting up as the world's policeman. I think we have U.N. resolutions. I think we have the whole world in agreement that what the Taliban did was unacceptable. It turns out most of the Afghan people seem to think so as well.

Q: Thank you very much.

Wolfowitz: Thank you.

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