(Interview with Wolf Blitzer, CNN Late Edition)
Blitzer: And joining us now for some additional insight into the war in Afghanistan, the nuclear issue of warfare, and other issues, is chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. Thanks for joining us. Welcome to Late Edition.
Myers: Thanks Wolf.
Blitzer: Let's, first of all, talk about Operation Anaconda, the U.S. military campaign in Eastern Afghanistan, is all but over?
Myers: I think it's too early to say that. Campaigns like this take some time, and I think we have to be prepared for whatever it takes. We are not event driven, or time line driven. We're event driven. And so, when the area is cleared of al Qaeda and Taliban, we'll be finished.
Blitzer: So where specifically does it stand right now? Because we've been hearing reports that U.S. troops are withdrawing from the area around which Operation Anaconda has been unfolding.
Myers: I think some of those troops that are withdrawing are actually going to rearm and refit themselves, and perhaps go back into the area to finish the job. There are certainly still pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda there that we need to finish out job on, and so it will take some time.
Blitzer: How big are these pockets? How many al Qaeda and associated fighters are believed to be in that pocket or the box, as some of your colleagues at the Pentagon call it?
Myers: I think we'll have to wait and see when it finally all sorts out. Because before we went in there, we heard everywhere from 200 to several thousand. We think there were hundreds. And what's left, we think, is a small part of that, but it's still going to take some time to figure that out. We think that they are in smaller pockets now, not large concentrations. We're going to have to go in and do the hard work to root them out.
Blitzer: Are you still convinced these are what you call deadenders, people willing to fight to the death as opposed to some who might be willing to surrender?
Myers: Well, sure, they have the option, they can surrender if they wish. But so far we haven't seen any willing to do that.
Blitzer: Are your allies, some warlords, working with the U.S. in that area seeking some sort of quiet to convince them to surrender?
Myers: Sure. I think we're all working together as one plan, and we do appreciate the support we've gotten from our Afghan allies in this case.
Blitzer: So, you're suggesting there might still be a possibility of some surrender as opposed to fighting to the death?
Myers: Sure. And, of course, one of the reasons we want to go in here is not just to eradicate the Taliban and the al Qaeda, but also to gain information, and information that might have impact on future operations somewhere around this world, and so we'd like some of them to surrender so we can get our hands on them and interrogate them.
Blitzer: There have been some suggestions the U.S. underestimated the ferocity, the degree of resistance that would be encountered in this area going into Operation Anaconda. Did you?
Myers: In my view, no, I was over there three weeks ago, I talked to the commander, General Buster Hagenbeck who was the one that planned and led this effort. I don't think there was any doubt in his mind that this was going to be a tough fight, we're fighting in tough conditions. The good news is, we were prepared for those conditions. We heard estimates of between 200 and several thousand fighters, we were prepared for those contingencies, and so, no, I think it went pretty much as scripted.
Blitzer: You probably saw the article in the New York Times quoting some wounded U.S. military personnel who were brought to Germany suggesting they were surprised. Let me quote from Army Specialist Wayne Stanton, an injured U.S. soldier: "We could hear them laughing at us. We could hear them laughing when we tried to shoot at them." And elsewhere he says, "We were fighting in their backyard. We were not used to it. They knew every crevice, every cubbyhole, every cave." Army Specialist Wayne Stanton suggests that he, at least, and some of his colleagues who said similar things in that New York Times article, were not briefed to the extent of the resistance that they would encounter.
Myers: I think Wayne's comments there were consistent with what we were told, it was going to be a tough fight. There should have been no doubt about that. We are in their backyard, they know the territory better than we did at the time because they'd been in there operating for some time. And this is an area that they had mapped out. Thank goodness for the bravery of those soldiers that we were able to take the fight to the enemy and be successful here.
Blitzer: Some have suggested that there should have been greater use of air power before the troops went in on the ground to soften it up, and that you missed an opportunity there, presumably, that might have prevented some of these casualties.
Myers: I think like the rest of the campaign in Afghanistan, this has been a campaign where all the services, and all the things that all the services can bring to bear, our joint war fighting, was done extremely well. And I think this was another case of that. I'm not going to get into the tactical decision making that General Franks and his subordinate commanders get into, because it's their call. They're on the scene, they were there in the planning, they were there in the execution. They saw how it developed, and I'm just not going to get into it. I think we used air power very well. We used our ground forces very well. We used our partners and allies very well. And we used the Afghan forces very well.
Blitzer: But looking back, with hindsight, obviously everyone is smarter with hindsight, would it have been smart a few more days of bombings before you sent in the ground forces?
Myers: Well, listen, Wolf, this is combat, and that's what our folks are in there doing. They were waging combat with a very tenacious enemy, and I think they did a brilliant job, and that does not mean that we're going to do it without casualties, those aren't going to be setbacks. We're prepared for that, we know that's a real possibility. And we just have to steel ourselves. This is so important that we do this, and do it right, and eradicate the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan, for that matter, around the world.
Blitzer: Correct me if I'm wrong, Operation Anaconda did appear, at least to those of us watching it from afar, to represent a shift in U.S. strategy. Earlier in the war, in October and November, the U.S. did the air strikes, the allied forces, the Northern Alliance, and others, got in on the ground, and did most of the ground attacks. Now, it was the U.S. basically doing everything.
Myers: Well, I think that's a little bit of an overstatement. We certainly had a major role in the direct action in the immediate objective area, but the Afghan forces, part of them were the initial force in there to force the Taliban and al Qaeda to react. So, I think it's more than just U.S. forces. This, we relied heavily on upwards of a thousand Afghan fighters in this particular campaign.
Blitzer: These are fighters dispatched by Hamid Karzai's government?
Myers: In some cases they have been, in some cases they're other leaders in the area that volunteered, were inspired to help us.
Blitzer: When I interviewed the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Friday [ transcript ], he appeared to show a grudging admiration for the level of combat ability of these al Qaeda fighters. Listen to what he said.
Rumsfeld (from video): They do have a very large cache of supplies and weapons and ammunition inside those caves and tunnels, so they're not without ammunition and food or water. They're well supplied, and well disciplined. These are very well trained fighters. These are hard, deadenders, these are hard line types.
Blitzer: Well-trained, well-disciplined deadenders, meaning they're willing to fight to the end. Are these the best, the elite of the al Qaeda fighters?
Myers: Well, it's hard to know, but we know that Afghanistan provided the al Qaeda the opportunity to train, to work out their command and control, every bit of information that I have is exactly as the Secretary said. These were tactically proficient fighters. The fact they're willing to die for their cause is also important. So, they are -- but we knew that going into this. We knew they would be very, very good. We're playing -- we're connecting combat on their territory, it's much more difficult that way.
Blitzer: Does it suggest, though, as some analysts have suggested, that they're protecting something or someone, they're fighting to a degree that they have some big time al Qaeda leaders, perhaps, within their little area that they're trying to protect. The speculation, of course, being Osama bin Laden.
Myers: I really can't -- we can't say at this point. We'll know as we go in and clear out these few remaining pockets, and then try to gather evidence. We also want evidence on what else they're hiding there, if they're hiding any information on their potential interest in weapons of mass destruction. So we'll be looking for all sorts of intelligence clues as we go into the area, but I can't say in terms of their vigor, their fighting, whether or not they're harboring some of the bigger leaders in the al Qaeda.
Blitzer: There's no indication that Osama bin Laden or his top lieutenants may be in that area?
Myers: Well, there's no indication that they are or aren't. And one of the problems we have, since we don't know where Osama bin Laden is, is if we don't know where he is, we certainly can't say he is or isn't in there. So, we'll just have to wait and see.
Blitzer: And when you say they may be protecting not just individuals but some information, information that they may have about their own military or terrorist capabilities?
Myers: Certainly. We have found through interrogations, through material that we have found at other locations that we have been into, we've been able to put together a pretty good picture, and the picture is of their operation, of their net, of the people involved, of some of the -- where they get their resources, also their great interest in weapons of mass destruction.
Blitzer: Do you have any idea where Osama bin Laden is?
Myers: As I said before, no, we don't.
Blitzer: No idea whatsoever?
Myers: We have best estimates from our intelligence community.
Blitzer: That he is still alive, for example?
Myers: We think so.
Blitzer: And that he may be in the eastern part of Afghanistan?
Myers: And that is -- a lot of people point to that, yes.
Blitzer: And if he's there, presumably, he's got some protection. Those caves must be very elaborate.
Myers: Oh, they are very elaborate, and as we're finding out more and more about their structure, they're very, very elaborate. Whether he's in that area or in another area, that whole area of Eastern Afghanistan up against Pakistan is very, very rugged territory. The line on the map is just a line on a map. As you fly over it, as I did a couple of weeks ago, there are no lines. And so you can ebb and flow through that territory as you wish, and you find people that want to support you, and my guess is that bin Laden is moving fairly frequently.
Blitzer: Right. General, standby, we have a lot more to talk about.
When we come back, I'll ask General Myers what's next in the U.S. war on terrorism. We'll continue our conversation with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff when Late Edition returns.
Blitzer: Welcome back to Late Edition, we're continuing our conversation with the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers.
Any more Operation Anacondas in Afghanistan in the works right now?
Myers: Probably, there are. To give that interim administration in Afghanistan the best chance of succeeding, we've got to do our best to deal with the remaining pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda, and so we'll be prepared to do that.
Blitzer: And where specifically in the country do you think those are most likely to be directed.
Myers: I have just seen a map that intel produced on that very subject, and quite widely dispersed. And depending on the numbers you get into, of course, we'd be looking for significant pockets. But, in the end we've got to train Afghan forces to deal with these pockets themselves. And that's another thing we're engaged in is helping train and perhaps equip an Afghan national army.
Blitzer: But, just to repeat, you don't want the U.S. military to participate in the international peacekeeping force that's currently led by the British and the Turks?
Myers: Well, it's not a question of wanting one or the other. We think we're best used, U.S. forces are best used in something we do very well, which is training. And so we will be involved, and have been asked by the government, the interim administration in Afghanistan, to train an Afghan national army. And that's where we'll focus. The U.K. is leading the effort in the interim security assistance force. That will be turned over perhaps to another lead nation here in the next few months. And we'll support it as we have with some logistics and with a few liaison personnel.
Blitzer: And will you support allowing them to go beyond Kabul, to take their international peacekeepers to other parts of Afghanistan?
Myers: Again, I don't think that's something for the U.S. to allow. That will be something that will be discussed. It's a policy matter, it's outside my realm, really. I've got to stay inside my railroad tracks here. But, we think we've worked very effectively with this ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], as we call it, up to now, and we would anticipate we do so in the future.
Blitzer: Let's talk about the next stages in the military campaign, beyond Afghanistan. As you know, the vice president Dick Cheney left today for a trip to the Middle East. A lot of speculation that he wants to generate support for a U.S. strike against Saddam Hussein, a regime change, as they call it, getting rid of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Is the U.S. military prepared for that kind of contingency should the president order you to do so?
Myers: As I've said before, the U.S. military is prepared for any contingency that the commander in chief asks of us. And so without getting specific, we are prepared. Let me just say a couple of things. On the war on terrorism, of course, the goal is to do away with international terrorist organizations, those who harbor them, and to keep weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorist groups. This is something we're working very hard, as you know, we have a training and equipped team in the Philippines to help with the Abu Sayyaf group which, by the way, has a couple of Americans among its hostages. We are looking at going to a couple of other countries in terms of training, as well, to be decided yet, but there are a couple that we're looking at.
Blitzer: Specifically, the Republic of Georgia, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, and Yemen?
Myers: Quite possibly, but the decisions have to be made on that front first.
Blitzer: Getting back to Iraq, if the president orders you to take military action, is the Pentagon thinking about a relatively modest military campaign, or hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, as was the case more than a decade ago during the Gulf War?
Myers: Every potential situation is different, I don't want to get into hypotheticals here, and I'm not going to discuss our tactics, I don't think, on a program as widely watched as yours, Wolf. As you know, Iraq and North Korea were part of our two major theater war contingencies before. We have plans, we'll be updating those plans, that's something we do in the normal course of events. And we'll try to be as prudent as possible in the use of our resources.
Blitzer: As you know, the Los Angeles Times yesterday, the New York Times today, lengthy articles about this new military posture, using nuclear weapons in certain contingencies, it's called a nuclear posture review that has just been released. It specifically mentions seven countries that potentially might draw U.S. nuclear action if necessary, China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, and Syria. That is generating alarm bells around the world. Give us your perspective, what it would mean for the U.S. to launch military strikes against any of those countries.
Myers: My perspective will be this, in the headline as we talked about this about 15 minutes ago on your show, it was referred to as a plan. In fact, it is the Nuclear Posture Review as required by Congress. So it's not a plan, it's not an operational plan. It's a policy document. And it simply states our deterrence posture, of which nuclear weapons are a part. In addition, it goes a lot further, some of things not covered in the articles I think are really innovative. It talks about a new triad, that has not only nuclear weapons in it, but also conventional weapons, that has missile defenses in it, that has infrastructure implications, and it has underlying all that is better intelligence, so we can better know what's going on out there in the world.
Blitzer: As you know, five of those countries are not nuclear powers, at least not as far as the United States knows. China and Russia are, but Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, Syria are not, and they're, in fact, signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The New York Times wrote today, significantly, all of those countries have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Washington has promised that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, unless those countries attack the United States or its allies in alliance with a nuclear weapon state. So what does that say about breaking, in effect -- would the U.S. have to break its own acceptance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if it were to launch preemptive strikes using nuclear weapons against one of those five states?
Myers: Let me put it this way, this is, again, not a plan. This preserves for the president all the options that a president would want to have in case this country or our friends and allies were attacked with weapons of mass destruction, be they nuclear, biological, chemical, or for that matter high explosives. And it's been the policy of this country for a long time, as long as I've been a senior officer, that the president would always reserve the right up to and including the use of nuclear weapons if that was appropriate. So that continues to be the policy.
Let me just say also, the whole discussion here is about deterrence, why we have a military, why we have nuclear forces is all about deterrence. And we certainly hope to deter other actors in this world from taking steps with weapons of mass destruction that could have devastating affects on our population and the population of our friends and allies.
Blitzer: Tomorrow will be six months since the September 11th attacks. I was over at the Pentagon on Friday, saw the reconstruction which has been going more quickly than earlier envisaged. As you look back on those past six months, take a look at the military campaign, where do you believe six months from now, the Pentagon, the U.S. military will be in this war on terrorism?
Myers: One of the things the president said early on, and that I think we all certainly agree with is this is going to be a very long campaign. And six months from now you can envision, and nobody can know for certain, but you can envision that our major effort in Afghanistan might be over. That we will probably be in the middle of helping train an Afghan national army. But, there is lots of work to do in terms of rooting out terrorist organizations around the world. So we're going to still be actively engaged, and it may not be all military. We've talked a lot about that today, because that's the role that I represent. But, on the diplomatic front, on the civil law enforcement front, intel sharing, information sharing, all the good work that's going on, that work is going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of this year.
Blitzer: General Myers, thanks for joining us.
Myers: Thank you, Wolf.
Blitzer: Appreciate it very much.
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