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War on Terror

April 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Word from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on the terror war. At his Pentagon briefing today, the Secretary fielded several questions about a Washington Post article on the possible escape of Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Today our country faces an era of the unexpected. We’re involved in a war unlike any that our country has ever experienced. We must be ready to win today’s global war on terror, but at the same time, prepare for other surprises and uncertainties that we will most certainly face in the 21st century.

REPORTER: Could you first address the reports today that some in the government have come to the conclusion that bin Laden was present in Tora Bora at the time of the battle there in early December, that he got away, and that this represented a failure by General Franks not to take the initiative?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, first, I know… I knew of, nor do I know today of any evidence that we… he was in Tora Bora at the time, or that he left Tora Bora at the time, or even where he is today. We have seen repeated speculation about his possible location, but it has obviously not been verifiable. Had it been verifiable, one would have thought that someone might have done something about it. So that issue, it seems to me, is speculation.

REPORTER: The assertion was that this was the worst failure of the Afghan campaign. Can you address that assertion?

DONALD RUMSFELD: We have to begin with the facts, and the first fact is, if you’re not doing something yourself, somebody else might do it imperfectly or in a manner that might be slightly different than you would do it. We all know that’s the case. We made a conscious decision, the United States government, that there were organized Afghan forces on the ground that could be helpful to us. Now, is it possible to say that in the totality of everything that took place there were some things that, in retrospect, somebody might do differently? The answer is yes. There always are going to be things someone might do differently. Is one of those going to stand out above others? And the answer is: Well, probably. People could sit down and give a weight to them and say, “gee, this might have been different, that might have been different.” And of all of those, this is one that I would elevate as being– and I forget how you phrased it– “the most serious mistake” or “something – error — in the campaign.”

My view of the whole thing is that until the lessons learned are known and have been developed– they’re still being worked on– I wouldn’t be able to answer a question like that. And it impresses me that others can, from their pinnacles of relatively modest knowledge. And I think we’re going to keep learning more as we go along. But I really think that while it really doesn’t bother me at all that people make that kind of speculation, and it is… it is, however, it has to be put into balance with what actually has taken place. And what has taken place has been, under General Franks, a very successful effort in Afghanistan. And it seems to me that when one is putting things in order, that ought to be pretty high on the list.

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, could I ask you a quick question? A related issue that’s current to the Tora Bora debate about whether enough U.S. troops were used is the question of whether enough U.S. troops are in Afghanistan given the instability there? Given the Tora Bora experience, do you have any second thoughts about your opposition to having a larger U.S. presence?

DONALD RUMSFELD: A number of terrific countries have stepped forward and offered up people to serve in the international security assistance force, close to 5,000 people overall in, I’m going to guess, five, six, seven countries. And God bless them for doing it. And they’re spending their money to do it. Now, the people who are talking about increasing it dramatically to 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 people, and going to six, seven or eight more cities, haven’t offered any troops, they haven’t offered any money, they haven’t offered to lead it. And therefore, the excuse, because it hasn’t happened when some people would like it to happen, the excuse is, “well, somebody’s opposing it.” But I’m not opposing it. If the international security assistance force wants to be expanded, fine. If it wants to go to other countries, fine.

JIM LEHRER: Rumsfeld also said the United States would continue to support peacekeeping efforts, but the military’s primary mission, he said, is to track down terrorists.