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Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Town Hall Meeting at Bagram Air Base

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
July 15, 2002

(Town Hall Meeting at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan)

Wolfowitz: Good morning. I was just saying to General McNeill, I hope I'm not disrupting your work out here too much. I've been very anxious to come and visit for quite some time. But I know you have a lot of serious work to do, and you don't need too many visitors from Washington. But, it's good to be here and first of all let me send you a very warm hello and thank you from our Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and from our Commander in Chief George W. Bush. And a 'huah' to all of you, Army and all services. Come on you can do better than that. Huah! Okay, now were going.

You know this has been an amazing operation. I think even more amazing than maybe some of you realize. Certainly a lot more amazing, I think, than most of the world realizes, even though they realize that something quite remarkable has been done.

I have to tell you, I was with the President on September 12 and I was with him up at Camp David, the following Saturday after September 11th. We spent a whole day being briefed by the senior leaders in his cabinet, thinking through what we might do. And if any one at that meeting had dared to predict where we would be in Afghanistan now, I think, we would have all said he's dreaming, or she's dreaming.

On September 20th, the President gave an order to General Franks to start planning for an operation in Afghanistan. Believe me, we planned for lots of things all over the world, but we were never crazy enough to plan for an operation Afghanistan, and if we've done so, I'm sure the Congress would have said you guys are out of your minds.

So, September 20th we started from scratch, and on October 7th that operation was under way in less than three weeks. You know, for an organization that some times people poke fun at us -- at the Defense Department, because were big and supposedly we're slow and clumsy. Well that was not clumsy and it wasn't slow and it was fantastic.

We started October 7th. There were guys on the ground - or at least on horseback. I don't know if you count that as on the ground. Up north on October 19th, that's 12 days after the bombing started, within about 2 weeks we were being criticized as being hopelessly bogged down. I don't know if any of you were reading the press at the time. And then within about 2 weeks after that we were moving too fast. It's just been remarkable. And the skill and the bravery, the courage that all of you have shown -- and your comrades have shown -- is just remarkable.

And there is something else about it. If I can say it this way - it's something that hasn't happened. And when things don't happen people don't notice so well. I'm told that Major General McCall, who was the British Commander of ISAF, when he left a few weeks back, said that, with a little historical reference, that he done a lot better than some of his predecessors, meaning the British here in the 19th Century. What we have, we've done it and when I say we I mean Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. But I also mean the U.S. and all our coalition partners. We've done something remarkable with a very small force. And we did it because we came to this country not as occupiers, not as conquerors, but as liberators. And that remains crucial to our mission that we are an army of liberation, not an army of occupation.

And I know I'm speaking here to not just Americans, but coalition partners as well. That if I can say something, I mean it's true that we as Americans feel a little bit special. We do think it's a special country, but it's a special country also in a special way. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who once said that the Declaration of Independence wasn't a declaration for one country at one time. It was really a declaration for all people, for all time. And while we think of ourselves as special, we think of ourselves in a way that we'd like everybody to be special, we'd like everybody to be determining their own future. And I think that's what you are helping to do here. And in the process you're helping our own country.

We're seeing a lot of stories about American veterans from World War II or from Korea, going back to France or Korea or the Philippines, or Italy, or Poland and finding people who come up to them deeply grateful for what we did for those countries 50 years ago, or 60 years ago. I hope some of you get the opportunity to come back here 10 years from now, or 20 years from now. And if we do our job right, you will be the recipients of that same gratitude. We've seen it already, we've seen it when Mazar was liberated, we've seen it when other cities were liberated. We've got a lot more work to do to make sure that those accomplishments of the first few months here stick over 5 years and 10 years and 15 years.

But finally, you've earned the enormous gratitude of the American people. I was thinking, coming over here, if I were a magician and I could transport any one of you to some Main Street town in the United States, you would be mobbed by people who would be thanking you for helping to protect America.

This is an unusual war, it's unusual in so many ways, but it's most of all unusual in the way it began -- with the worst attack on our country in its history. With 3,000 Americans killed, and yet those 3,000 who were killed on September 11th are just a small fraction of what might have been killed if the terrorists had succeeded. Or what still might happen if we let up the pressure on them.

What has been accomplished in Afghanistan is not only to deprive them of their sanctuary here, it's not only to have taken out many half of the top al Qaeda leaders, almost as many of the top Taliban leaders.

But we're not going to win this operation by taking out any one individual, any one leader. It's a whole network and it's a network that is spread out into some 60 countries. On September 11th, they had a headquarters here in Afghanistan; they had a headquarters in Hamburg, Germany; they had a headquarters in at least several cities in the United States -- some of which we don't even know about.

But because of what you and your comrades did, we captured one of the top people, Abu Zubaida, in Pakistan, because he wasn't safe here anymore. He led us to a terrorist whom we captured in Chicago.

Some of you found a tape in a safehouse here in Afghanistan. That led the people in Singapore to roll up a whole network in Singapore, and in the Philippines and in Malaysia.

Somebody we captured from here went to Guantanamo, started talking to us and as a result we caught three really bad Saudis, including one of the worst of them in Morocco.

So this is a worldwide operation. Success in one field leads to success in another. Our work isn't over, your work isn't over, but let me say God bless you all and thank you. It's a wonderful job you're doing. And our country needs you, the world needs you, the people in Afghanistan need you and you should be very proud of what you've accomplished. But don't rest on your laurels. There's a lot more to be done. Thank you.

I'm willing to take easy questions and if there are hard ones, I'll send them back to Secretary Rumsfeld. How's that? Who want's to ask one? Don't be shy, come on.

Q: Sergeant Taylor. I work in the contracting section. I was sort of tasked with the first question, but my question is: right now, basically, I know that the majority of the Army is here. But, it's more of a logistical question. We, the Army has been doing basically the majority of the contracting. However, you got the Navy, Marines and Air Force here also. Do you foresee there being like a joint operation force, getting the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines to all consolidate instead of duplicating effort? If we joined together, you know, into a contacting --

Wolfowitz: You'd like some help in other words?

Q: You've got it!

Wofowitz: I got it. Okay. I'll take that hard question back to Rumsfeld. But I think that's another thing that is remarkable about this campaign. I worked for Secretary Cheney, when he was secretary of defense during the Gulf War 11 years ago. And we thought we were doing very well on joint operations. It's nothing compared to the level of jointness I've seen operationally here. And I guess you're telling me you would like to see a little more jointness at the support level as well, so I'll take that message back and I'll do what I can.

Wolfowitz: Who else was volunteered to ask a question? Tell me who you are?

Q: (inaudible) Are we currently planning any operations in Iraq? And if so, when do you foresee U.S. deployment (inaudible).

Wolfowitz: You know it's a very important subject and let me say this. The President of the United States has said very clearly, starting with the State of Union message -- and he's repeated it over and over again, including at the commencement address at West Point -- that we have, as a country, a serious problem. He identified it in terms of those three countries -- and I would say particularly Iraq -- that are hostile to the United States, that support terrorists, that have chemical, biological and perhaps nuclear weapons and are working every day to acquire more of them. And, basically, what the President said is that is too dangerous to ignore. It's too dangerous to leave alone, it's too dangerous to wait for ten years for them to hit us. You know, if we had known about September 11th, maybe we would have been here in Afghanistan two years ago instead of now. But September 11th was nothing compared to what attack with chemical or biological, or, God forbid, nuclear weapons would be.

So what the President has said to the country -- and frankly to the whole world -- is we have a problem and we are not going to wait forever to solve it. But he has not made any final decisions about what the way is ahead and that's why I couldn't answer your questions even in the most classified briefing possible, because there aren't answers yet.

In fact, I'm going to two places on this trip: here in Afghanistan and then after we're done here this evening we're going to go to Turkey to talk to officials in the Turkish Government, because the Turks think we've decided, (but) we haven't decided anything yet. We want to start talking to them, because they understand a lot about Iraq, a lot about how one could bring about a change in Iraq and they have a huge interest in what comes afterwards.

Let me say one other thing. I think it's a lot harder to figure out how to achieve our goal of changing that regime than it is to think about what's going to come afterwards. Because what's going to come afterwards is going to be a benefit, I think, not only to people of Iraq, not only to remove a great danger to the people of the United States. But I think it will be another act of liberation. We are talking about one of the most important countries in the Arab world with some of the most talented people in the Arab world. Unfortunately, two or three million of them are in exile because of the government in Baghdad. When that country is free and democratic, I think it can make a positive contribution to a whole range of problems in the Middle East. So, it's going to be a difficult job getting there, but I have no doubt that the result is going to be something that is positive, just as the result here is something that is very positive.

Wolfowitz: Who else wants to try one?

Q: (inaudible)

Wolfowitz: In case you didn't hear. The question was how do we stop the ideas of terrorists from filtering down to younger generations so we don't have to keep coming back to Afghanistan or to other places.

It's a terrific question. It's a very fundamental question. It doesn't have a single, simple answer in my view. But I do believe -- I've said this in other places -- that there is a gap, a dangerous gap, between what we call the west -- but the west is really the democratic nations -- and the Muslim world. But it's not a gap that is inevitable; it's not a gap that I believe should be the way it is.

I was the American Ambassador for three years in Indonesia and some of you may know it's the fourth largest country in the world. And it has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. Nearly 200 million Muslims in that country alone. And I know from that experience, just speaking of Indonesia alone, that most of those people do not aspire to follow the path of the terrorists. They aspire to the same kinds of benefits that we enjoy living in a free society.

As I said I'm going to be in Turkey tomorrow, spend a lot of time in Turkey. Turkey is one of the few democratic countries in the Muslim world. And it has been, I think, though it's still got a lot of problems, it's been a success story.

What we need to do, I think, is to confront the terrorists with more success stories. Help Muslim countries to liberate themselves and when liberated, to be successful. And that -- look, Afghanistan comes from 20 years of civil war and it wasn't a very advanced country before all that began. So it's a very challenged country. But, success in Afghanistan, I believe, is something that can also send a message that counters the message of the terrorists. So it's -- you know, Rumsfeld has said at times that -- don't make the mistake that this war on terrorism is something that's going to be over in six months or a year. It's going to be a long struggle. Maybe not as long as the Cold War, but it doesn't hurt to think about the Cold War.

Our country, despite what everybody says about us, has had the ability to stick to a task over a long period of time. We need to stick to this task over a long period of time. And it includes not only just fighting terrorists, but what the President has said -- it's the broad answer to your question -- it's building a better world beyond the war on terrorism. And that's a big job, but I think our country is up to it. I should say, more precisely, I think our country and our coalition partners together are up to it, because we're not going to do it by ourselves.

Wolfowitz: Speaking of which, any non-American coalition partner wants to ask a question or make a statement? I can take statements back, too. Anybody else? Right there. Speak up.

Q: (inaudible)

Wolfowitz: The question was: do I see foot soldiers going into Pakistan? Of course, we have soldiers in Pakistan doing support missions. I know you mean something different. You mean in there on combat missions.

Obviously, that border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan on both sides is enormously important. It's wild country; it's a place where terrorists and other bad guys can hide. We've had fantastic cooperation from the Pakistanis from the beginning.

I must say I think several things in this operation have surprised the terrorists. I think one thing that surprised them was that they thought there'd be 100,000 American troops in here and they'd be killing us in large numbers. I think we surprised them with our military operation.

But another thing I think we surprised them with was what President Musharraf in Pakistan has stepped up to. I think they figured we wouldn't be getting help from anybody, much less Pakistan. The help we've gotten from Pakistan is fantastic. The coordination along the border with Pakistan is fantastic. And to be honest, I prefer to leave it there, because I think there are a lot of things about that cooperation that are best kept confidential.

Q: (inaudible)

Wolfowitz: The question was: What's being done back home about searching out terrorists. And the answer is: everything we could possibly think of. We keep thinking of more things. And I suppose it's fair to say, you know, we've been very lucky since September 11th that there hasn't been a major repetition. It's not all luck. A lot of it, I believe, is due to the successes here and successes elsewhere in disrupting those networks.

But they are still out there. Richard Reed came within -- that bad man who tried to light his shoes -- he came within just a few seconds of killing 150 people. There have been a few small incidents including a truck bombing in Tunisia. More importantly we know they are out there actively planning. And that's why we need to keep the pressure on -- not just here, but in lots of other countries and very definitely in United States.

So, we are using all the authorities that the President has through the criminal system to arrest people, to detain them. One example, too, of where we've had, I think, very successful cooperation is this Mr. Bediyya. He came into the United States with the intention of trying to carry out several bad ideas including perhaps even a so-called radioactive dirty bomb. The way we were able to get to him -- I mentioned it earlier -- was a direct result of what happened here in Afghanistan.

But it was also the result of remarkable cooperation. Because when the al Qaeda were driven out of Afghanistan, Abu Zubaida, one of the worst of them, was pushed into Pakistan. Working with the Pakistanis and with other agencies of the U.S. Government, including the FBI, we were able to catch him.

After we caught him and picked up some of his notebooks, we discovered that there was this American whom he'd been in touch with. We worked with authorities in Switzerland, who didn't have the authority to arrest him, but were able to put him back on a plane back to the United States with several FBI agents on board. So he was picked up as soon as he landed in Chicago.

And after about 4 weeks, the Justice Department said, "look this is a strange case. We're not sure we can bring criminal charges, but we know this guy is al Qaeda." We have all the authorities necessary to detain him by the Defense Department. So, he was handed over from Justice to Defense kind of seamlessly.

That's just one of many examples. There are hundreds of terrorists around the world who are now detained, who were plotting. But there are still more out there, so we've got to keep up the work.

Other questions? Yes.

Q: (inaudible) A few young soldiers and a few old soldiers would like to know how long do we anticipate being here? What I'm asking is this (inaudible) Bosnia - a buildup where we're looking at rotations year after year after year until the job's done? And the second part of the question is: when do we think that the Afghani Government will be self-sufficient on it's own so it can run its own country?

Wolfowitz: It's a great question. I wish it had a simple answer. But we will be here as long as it takes to do the job. We will be doing rotations so no single individual will be here that long. But unlike Kosovo or Bosnia, this is a mission of national self-defense. It's even more important than Kosovo and Bosnia.

And the part of your question that referred to when will the Afghan Government be self-sufficient is a very important piece of this issue. One of the things I'm looking forward to doing today is meeting with the people who are training the Afghan National Army. And that is going to be a critical piece of giving the Afghan authorities the ability to provide security for themselves in this country.

I'm also going to be meeting with the Turkish Commander of the ISAF, the Security Assistance Force in Kabul. They perform, I think, a crucial function in protecting stability in the capital.

It's much too early, I believe, to predict when the training of the Afghan National Army will reach self-sufficiency. It's much too early to predict when it will no longer be necessary to have an ISAF in Kabul. And unfortunately it's even still too early to predict when our main job here, which is killing and capturing terrorists and Taliban, will be finished.

I think what we can say is on every one of those fronts we're making progress. But, some realism is needed. This is a country that's been through 20 years of civil war. It's beaten up badly; there is a lot of work to be done and the problems are not going to be solved overnight. So it's important to pace ourselves; it's important to make sure that we keep things moving forward. But the stakes here are simply huge. I mean, we saw it on September 11th and we can't let it be repeated.

Q: With all that's going on here in Afghanistan, (inaudible) the unrest in North Korea, South Korea (inaudible) the potential for going to war with Iraq, do you foresee an increase in the size of the U.S. forces for all these missions in the next few years?

Wolfowitz: That's another great question we get asked a lot, especially on the Hill, where there is some strong sentiment for increasing end strength. What Secretary Rumsfeld has said is before he will agree to increasing end strength, which is one of the most expensive things that we can do, he wants to make sure that we have really ruthlessly cut out things that we don't have to do. This is actually an opportunity to change some things that maybe should have been changed a year ago, or two years ago, or five years ago.

And change doesn't come easy. I mean, I'll give you one example. He's been trying for some time to reduce our peace keeping presence in the Sinai, helping to support the treaty between Israel and Egypt. Because most people agree that after 20 years of peace between those countries, we really, from a military point of view, don't need to keep deploying people there.

It may not surprise you, though, given everything that's going on in the Middle East, that not only the Government of Egypt and the Government of Israel, but the U.S. State Department say this is not a good time to be reducing that presence. So we keep pushing, we keep pushing our allies to bring down our presence realistically in Bosnia and other places. And most of all I think we've got to look at where we can do some of the things in this big military establishment of ours more efficiently, or contract things out. So before we start adding to end strength in a permanent way, I think we've really got to look at those things, because end strength is incredibly expensive. And we need those resources for a lot of other things as well.

But I'll tell you one thing, we take a look everyday to make sure we have the military capability we need to fulfill our missions. And we have it and nobody who thinks about taking on United States should be under any doubt about our ability to carry out our commitments. It's strong and it's there.

One more soldier. Yes.

Q: That was part of my question, sir. I also would like to know what you believe the role of the reserve force is in augmenting the military force (inaudible) Are there plans to mobilize more of the reserve forces?

Wolfowitz: Are you a reservist?

Q: Yes, I am, sir.

Wolfowitz: Well, the reserves are fantastic and we can not operate without them. We are using them with an intensity that I don't think anybody ever planned on, including the people who were signed up for reserve duty. I mean I feel it, frankly, in a personal way, too, because there is a group of reservists who provide security for me and at times I wonder whether it is really necessary. But they are fantastic about their willingness to volunteer, as you are.

Our reservists also bring skills that, in some cases, we don't have in the active force: language skills, special civil affairs skills. So we can't do without them. We've got to think, though, if this is going to go on for some time -- and it probably will - we've got to think about ways to manage the reserves so that people don't say, "wait a minute; I signed up; I agreed to be called up, but I didn't agree to be called up over and over again and I've got a life to live."

So one of the things we are trying to do, I've mentioned, (is get) out of jobs we don't need to do. The Secretary of Defense has been absolutely ruthless about pushing everywhere he can to reduce reservists. For example, we mobilized National Guard people to provide airport security when there was an emergency.

As in so many other cases, when the U.S. military's taking on a job, it's a lot easier to let them continue doing it than to take care of yourself. And that's not only true here in Afghanistan, it's true back home in the United States.

So we had a lot of tough meetings with the Department of Transportation, saying "Look you don't have these National Guardsmen indefinitely. You've got to get on the stick and you've got to take over that job yourselves." And I think at the end of May, we're out of that business.

We had a lot of reservists mobilized for operation Noble Eagle to provide air defense over the United States. But as the airport security situation improved and we developed, I think, a more realistic assessment of what we needed in terms of air defense, we were able to send reservists home.

So we're trying to look at how we manage the reserves, we're trying to look at how to get those numbers down. But we cannot do without the reserves.

Q: Pamela Constable from the Washington Post. You spoke of the need to maintain the gratitude and cooperation of the Afghan people during a terrorist campaign. And, I think, for the most part, you've had a lot of that. Recently there have been some incidents that have begun to undermine some of that gratitude and cooperation. I'm speaking, of course, particularly of the air attack (inaudible). Recently -- six governors in the South, who have had a meeting and said no more U.S. aircraft (inaudible), no more U.S. air raids unless we go with them. I'd like to ask you, are you concerned about (inaudible)?

Wolfowitz: We are always concerned when we believe that we may have killed innocent people. And we think that probably happened in that incident and we deeply regret that. But we have no regrets whatsoever about going after terrorists, or people who harbor terrorists. And we have really very little doubt that there were such people in that area. It was a combat zone. Bad things happen in combat zones.

We are doing everything we can to find out exactly what happened and to try in the future to make sure, to the extent we possibly can, that innocent people aren't killed. But we have no regrets about going after bad guys. And there were some there.

So, General McNeill and his people are investigating that incident very, very carefully. It unfortunately takes a lot longer to get at the truth than it does to spread initial reports. Initial reports are usually wrong. The truth is harder to come by.

I think a fundamental principle is the one I said earlier that we're here as an army of liberation, not an army of occupation. And it means that we are always going to be working as closely as we can with the central government and with the local authorities in Afghanistan to try to make sure that we maintain that kind of support. That people understand that we are here to help, not to hurt them. But when there are bad people around we've got to go after them.

Q: (inaudible) from CNN. As the majority of al Qaeda - at least in large groups here - seem to have gone or been defeated, how do you see the role of the forces here changing, given what you have said here - the necessity of providing stability for this government here?

Wolfowitz: First of all, I guess I can't agree with the premise that they're defeated. We've made huge inroads, we've driven a lot of them out of the country, we've captured and killed a lot of them. The ones that are still left are a lot harder to get at, because they're hard to find.

I knew about the geography of Afghanistan, I've even gone up to the Congress and explained how big this place is with maps. And I've shown them satellite photographs, which shows just how formidable the terrain is. But when you fly in and you actually see it, you're not -- even when you think you know - you're not prepared for it. So, going after those last troops can be every bit as difficult as the first ones. And in some ways it's more difficult because they are hiding.

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