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interview: paul wolfowitz

So, Mr. Deputy Secretary, the fateful morning of Sept. 11 you'd come to work as normal, I guess. How did you hear about what happened?

Even before we heard about what happened, Secretary Rumsfeld was having breakfast that morning with a number of members of Congress, talking about the subject of missile defense. The secretary's general thesis was that we are heading into a more dangerous world, that we were probably going to head for some surprises and they weren't likely to be nice ones. One of the congressmen asked, "Well, what kind of surprises do you have in mind?" I remember volunteering, "Well, maybe Iran will test a nuclear weapon or maybe North Korea will test an intercontinental ballistic missile." I don't think any of us thought that the Pentagon would be bombed an hour later.

I was sitting in my office. We were having a meeting, and people said, "Turn on the television." We started seeing the scenes of what was taking place up in New York. As I recall, it was still shrouded in a good deal of uncertainty. I suppose, like so many other people, I didn't quite believe what was really happening. It was unbelievable,

Then suddenly there was this sort of rumbling, shaking. It felt like being in an earthquake. We were at the opposite side of the building from where the plane hit, so my guess is it's over a quarter of a mile, maybe further. But the whole building shook. Secretary Rumsfeld had the presence of mind to already be out in the corridors. As you may know, he actually went down to the scene and was helping to carry stretchers when his security people pulled him away.

I was less quick off the mark. My security people pulled me out in front, where a huge crowd was streaming out of the building and gathered on the parade ground. Thank heavens there wasn't another plane ready to hit the parade ground. It was an intense moment. I remember, at the time, trying to make contact by cell phone and find out what was going on. It was impossible to make a cell phone call from the Washington area at that point -- something we learned about crisis management.

Wolfowitz is the U.S. deputy secretary of defense. He previously served as undersecretary of defense for policy (1989-1993) under then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. In this interview he describes how the Bush administration came up with a war plan for the operation in Afghanistan. He tells FRONTLINE, "I believe this is probably a unique campaign, in terms of the level of cooperation that has been required between the CIA and the Defense Department, and probably also unique in the level of cooperation achieved. It's been truly remarkable." This interview was conducted on April 22, 2002.

After about ten minutes out in front of the building, I got word to come on back in. I joined Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers in what they called the "command center" down on the second floor. We're on the third floor here. Secretary Rumsfeld was already on a secure video conference with, I believe, the vice president over in the bunker in the White House, and trying to contact the president by secure phone.

Rumsfeld was just pushing and pushing, when are the Special Forces people going to get in?

The focus of that first half hour or so was making sure that we got planes up in the air and that we were tracking this fourth plane that was still unlocated at that point, and getting authority from the president to shoot that plane down, if necessary. It was a pretty awesome moment. It's not something that anyone was prepared for -- to give orders to an American pilot to shoot down a civilian airliner. But that's what we were in fact getting ready to do.

During that whole time, the smoke -- and again, we were a quarter of a mile away on the opposite side of the building -- the smoke was starting to seep into the command center. I remember saying to Secretary Rumsfeld that we really ought to get out of this building, that we had no idea what was in that smoke, it wasn't a very good place to be. I got no reaction. About 10 minutes later, someone else tried the same pitch to him, and got no reaction. About 20 minutes later, I said, "Mr. Secretary, you really ought to get out of the building," and he said, "No, why don't you leave, so that we're not both in the same place?"

So I got ordered up to this remote location, this relic of the Cold War, about 90 miles from here, and spent most of the afternoon being virtually out of touch with everything that was going on, because I was in this secure facility.

The president decided there would be a big decision session at Camp David and asked for plans from the Pentagon. What did you feel you had to do to quickly put something together.

Well, I think a point that really deserves a lot of emphasis is that there was no war plan of any kind for this operation. ... It was so far from what we were thinking of. We were really starting from scratch.

What General Franks and his people did in this campaign is really remarkable. I may have the dates wrong by a day or two; I think it was Sept. 20 that the president gave Gen. Franks his final instructions to begin planning for a campaign in Afghanistan. Less than three weeks later, on Oct. 7, that campaign began. Less than two weeks later, on Oct. 19, we had Special Forces people on the ground beginning to conduct direct airstrikes. By the first or second week in November, Mazar-e-Sharif had fallen.

It was stunning speed, although at the time it didn't feel like it. I mean, every day felt like a week. If you may remember, people were saying, "We're getting bogged down, and things aren't going well." But it was remarkable speed, and all the more remarkable, I think, because we in the Defense Department sometimes think we're a little bit slow and a little bit top-heavy. This was a very quick, agile operation. It's the kind of thing we aspire to do more in the future. ...

[In terms of war plans] what was the CIA director laying out, and how did that differ from what you had in mind?

My recollection is that what the CIA director laid out really was a worldwide campaign that went after the fact that there are Al Qaeda people in some 60 different countries, and that we needed to work, as the president said, all the resources at our command, not just the military. I don't recall being surprised by that. My recollection is that it was obvious from the beginning that this would take more than military action, and clearly more than just military action in Afghanistan.

My recollection is that it took a good deal longer, in fact, into the campaign before it began to be as clear as it turned out to be that you could have this kind of dramatic impact on the Northern Alliance. In fact, there was a good deal of discussion in the early stages as to how much one wanted to get in bed with the Northern Alliance. A lot of concerns were expressed that the last time they took Kabul, that was what threw the Pashtuns of the south into the arms of the Taliban, and we didn't want to repeat that experience. So I think that was the piece of the strategy that shaped up more slowly.

So who was saying hold back on these guys? Was it other agencies, or people in the Pentagon saying, "Hang on, you're not very trustworthy allies" or--

I wouldn't identify specific positions with specific people. It was a dilemma and a concern we had from the beginning that, on the one hand, we wanted to defeat the Taliban, but on the other hand, we didn't want to recreate those conditions where Afghanistan ended up being dominated by one ethnic group, and a group that had a minority. ...

We did basically choose the course that we were going to help the Northern Alliance move as fast as it can. But then at the same time, you look for ways to mitigate the effects of that. One of the major things we did was to create that international security assistance force and guarantee that Kabul would remain a neutral capital.

Related to this meeting at Camp David, [can you give me] a sense of the arguments going back and forth on a coalition. The vice president had already said that the mission should define the coalition, and not vice versa. So at Camp David on that Saturday, do you recall any arguments about what you would expect from this coalition, and indeed, what it should be?

My recollection is that, at the Camp David meeting, there was a good deal of discussion about that basic point, and how important it is not to get locked into a notion from the Gulf War, 10 years ago that there is a single grand coalition where all the members of the coalition have to agree about everything; that, to the contrary, first of all, you'll have different coalitions for different purposes. But secondly, also, there will be members of the coalition who will not want to be very openly identified as participating,

The president and everyone else in the administration has made the point repeatedly since then: we will take cooperation from countries in whatever form it comes best. Some countries will participate openly; others may do a great deal privately, but not want to acknowledge it. I think that's been another major difference from the coalition of ten years ago.

... It was reported that you made a case that terrorism could very well come directly from Saddam Hussein, in Baghdad, along with various others. Could you take us through what you actually said, and what the people around you responded to that?

Well, I actually don't recall speaking up that much in that meeting. I was there as Mr. Rumsfeld's deputy. But I think the basic point is that we had multiple objectives, and as the president, again, said from the beginning, it's going to be a broad campaign; it's not going to end quickly. One of those objectives is the Al Qaeda network -- and again, not just one man, but the whole network. The second objective is state support for terrorism, and a third is this larger connection between states that support terrorism and states that develop weapons of mass destruction.

I believe that as early as Camp David all three of those objectives were on the table. There are some important issues of timing, but those are basically tactical issues.

I have to say that I think the president made very clear decisions about the timing. It's now quite clear that he is concerned about all three of those objectives. But what to me is important in this is that the president has been very decisive. We did not have endless wandering debates about tactics, which can be very debilitating. I think history will look back and say that he made the right call. I think he made the right call.

But the secretary of state would, I suppose, naturally have more concerns about the breadth of the coalition. Even if you weren't going to bring them along in every decision, you didn't want to alienate them. Was this something that he raised then?

I think it's a question of focus. Obviously the initial focus had to be in terms of coalition, on Pakistan in particular. We sort of take it for granted now with 20-20 hindsight. But at the time, it was not something that we could assume at all that Pakistan would be with us, and having Pakistan with us was crucial. Again, to go back, I think one of the reasons people look back and say the president made the right call is we got Pakistan lined up. We got the Afghanistan focus set in the right way, and I think so far, it's worked pretty well.

[As] the coalition was taking shape, could you take us through how you decided which foreign bases you'd be most likely to want? And of those, who were the ones willingly offering what they had? Who needed a little encouragement, shall we say? The Yemenis, Saudis perhaps, even the Uzbeks?

My recollection is that the decisions about which places we needed basing rights or overfly rights from really only developed as the plan developed -- and even there only developed, to some extent, once the campaign began. But it was fairly easy to identify early on that Pakistan was crucial, that Uzbekistan was almost as crucial. I think also we needed some place in the Persian Gulf. At the end of the day, I think Oman has really been the country that has been crucial in that regard.

But it wasn't the kind of plan that would collapse if one country had denied us. There were multiple options that we pushed, and as we found the ability to do what we needed to do, we would reinforce those opportunities.

The secretary was, in fact, at the beginning of the next month, to go to Uzbekistan, Oman ... Saudi Arabia, to "stiffen them up" perhaps? Is that the phrase that was used?

No, I don't think "stiffen them up." I think it's more in the nature of thanking them, actually. I think particularly, probably through Uzbekistan, which had had a pretty distant relationship with the United States prior to that time, to assure them that we weren't just birds of passage who would leave a deposit behind and not come back. I think a major part of the secretary's message on those trips was implicitly -- even sometimes, explicitly -- to say, "Look, we left Afghanistan ten years ago. It turned into a mess. When this job is over, we're not going to do the same thing. We're going to work with you to make this region a better region."

You just slightly jumped over your Oct. 1 meeting [with CIA Director Tenet.]

I think one of the very important meetings that I had the opportunity to participate in was actually held by video teleconference. Director Tenet came down here and joined Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers, who I guess was then in his first day as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, although he'd been vice chairman so he'd been pretty well on top of things. [The meeting] included Gen. Franks in from Tampa, and talked about the strategy going forward. I'd say the focus of it was on the relationship between the CIA and the Defense Department.

I believe this is probably a unique campaign, in terms of the level of cooperation that has been required between the CIA and the Defense Department, and probably also unique in the level of cooperation achieved. It's been truly remarkable.

One of the purposes of that meeting was to use bureaucratic language to iron out the seams between the two agencies. When you have two organizations trying to work with one another, often things fall between cracks. We wanted to make sure that that didn't happen, but also to set some of the early conditions of the strategy. As I recall, in that meeting Secretary Rumsfeld argued very strongly for what I think also clearly became the president's position: that we had to press ahead aggressively -- not bomb and then pause -- but we needed to keep the pressure relentlessly on the Taliban until they cracked. I think that turned out to be the strategy that worked.

There was not friction between them? The CIA tends to work covertly, whereas [the military] tends to work more visibly.

I can't say there was no friction, but I would say it was 95 percent right. If you only have 5 percent friction between our two organizations, I'd say that's a huge success.

As the war progresses, the focus is very much on the south taking out the infrastructure, etc, etc. There is no bombing of the Taliban on the front line. But there are people here, saying, "Look, we're ready, we have all the troops. We have 30,000 troops. All we don't have is the hardware. Give us the hardware, we'll do the job." How did you respond to that?

Another interesting feature of this war is that we had General Dostum on the cell phone, calling members of Congress, who were calling other staff here with advice about how to conduct the war. There was never any issue in Secretary Rumsfeld's mind or the president's, I'm quite sure, that that's exactly the kind of the support we wanted to deliver.

What I think probably Gen. Dostum didn't appreciate -- and multiple people in the chain of communication -- that you can't just drop bombs from the sky without a lot of precision about where the targets are. There was no disagreement about achieving that objective. The bottleneck was getting our Special Forces people on the ground to direct those airstrikes. I was actually in Fort Bragg recently for a briefing from some of those people, and they were in on the ground in northern Afghanistan on Oct. 19 -- in other words, 12 days after the campaign began.

When I realized they were in that quickly, I myself was kind of stunned, because every day of those 12 days felt like a week up here. Rumsfeld was just pushing and pushing, when are the Special Forces people going to get in?

Remember, they had to go through terrible weather. In some cases, the helicopters had to fight their way over armed Taliban areas. They were landing in the midst of what they hoped would be friendly troops, but with whom the only contact they had was the early liaison that the CIA had been able to establish. It's pretty wild stuff; to have done it in 12 days is just remarkable.

Once they were there, the whole thing turned around. That was the key to delivering their support in a way that would be effective. If we hadn't had those people there, we could have ended up killing more of Gen. Dostum's people than of the enemy.

So was this the plan from the offset: that you would use the Northern Alliance as soon as you could put all the bits of the jigsaw in place?

Yes, it was. I think Gen. Franks had what he called "multiple lines of action." Support for the Northern Alliance was one of those, destruction of the air defenses was another, use of our own Special Forces in what we called direct action was a third. There were a number of these, and the plan from the beginning was to push every one of them and to exploit success.

Clearly the biggest success turned out to be with the Northern Alliance. I wish I could claim to have been a prophet and said that I knew that it was going to work. I think you could have said from the beginning it had the most potential to be decisive, but we were trying everything that we felt might work.

The press was saying, "What's happening? Where is this war going?" Why could you not say, "Hang on?"

Well, I think if you if you look at what Secretary Rumsfeld said, he did keep saying, "Hang on there, guys." He was also, on the other hand, very careful not to promise results before they were achieved. I can't deny that there weren't some moments of intense fingernail biting here before it began to be clear that this bombing was having such effective results. It was not an outcome that was easy to predict in advance, [it's] much easier to predict in hindsight.

I want to turn to the October Special Forces operation, which was initially hailed as a great success by the press and by the Pentagon, but subsequent reports said that it didn't really achieve very much. It didn't get the intelligence it was meant to get. What lessons did you learn from this?

I think it was very successful in terms of the capability that we demonstrated. In fact, I think over the course of the campaign, we conducted some 23 Special Forces direct actions -- of which that was one -- that were as complex and as long-range as the failed hostage rescue 20 years ago in Iran. We've come a very long way that we can do 23 of those without a failure. Now you're addressing the question, not of capability, but of what that capability achieved.

It is true that it wasn't an intelligence gold mine. We weren't at all sure that it would be; we had hopes. But I do think it did something important, which was to strike fear in the hearts of the Taliban and to tell them that nothing is a sanctuary; we can go into your headquarters and take things down. I think the more they had to start improvising and doing things in a disorganized way may well have contributed to their psychological collapse up north.

Were there discussions back here in which you took part in which the pros and cons were weighed of putting considerably more U.S. troops on the ground?

Certainly we thought a lot about what happens if the strategy of helping opposition groups -- not just the Northern Alliance, but those in the south as well, although they were much fewer -- what happens if that strategy doesn't work? We were beginning to discuss what the options would be. We were beginning to discuss what the decision point would have to be to start making those plans. But the fundamental consideration -- I think the Gen. Franks was the strongest advocate of this concern that we all shared -- was Afghanistan is not a great place to put in 100,000 American troops if you can achieve the result as effectively with indigenous forces.

The history of the British in the 19th century and the history of the Soviets in the 20th century tells you why we didn't want to be third foreign invader to come in and achieve our objectives and then become the enemy.

Do you recall when Hamid Karzai first hit your radar screen, and when the decision was taken to send a bunch of people to look after him?

I recall, quite early on -- it may have been after Oct. 7, it might even have been before -- when the CIA briefed on the various potential allies in Afghanistan that among very few people they could identify in the south, Hamid Karzai was, I would say, already the most promising in their eyes. They obviously had had contact with him, and had an appreciation of what he was like and what he was potentially able to do.

It's also the fact that, even when the war ended, he had much smaller forces than any of the Northern Alliance commanders. He had not been actively on the ground with a large force of his own, but it was absolutely crucial to have some significant figures in the south.

So when was the decision taken to back him up with a U.S. force?

I think the first decision to get U.S. forces involved was when we learned he was in trouble and had to be gotten out. The decision was we wanted to get him back in very quickly. It was at that time that the decision was clearly made [that] when he goes back in, let's make sure that he has the kind of support that the Northern Alliance commanders have with our Special Forces.

[Editor's Note: Hamid Karzai denies that he left Afghanistan, but U.S. officials maintain he was rescued by a special operations team.]

Was [the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif] the turning point that it appears to be now?

You mean did it appear as decisive at the time it happened? It was not quite as decisive. It was clearly a major turning point by itself, because it meant that we could establish a link up with the Northern Alliance even in bad weather, that we'd be able to fight through the winter. By itself, it was hugely important, psychologically.

Obviously the impact went way beyond Mazar-e-Sharif. I do think psychological impacts are not just what happened in Mazar, but obviously it conveyed a message about what American air power was doing.

I think it probably also piled on confusion that our attack on Kandahar probably had on the Taliban command and control. So I suspect if you could get inside what was happening on their side, you would see that it was it really just fed the chaos and confusion in the command and control. The result was that the northeastern part of the country crumbled. Taliban control there crumbled rather quickly.

Within days, they left Kabul empty.

That's right, even faster than the most optimistic of us expected.

Was that something that caused any ripples of concern in the Pentagon?

Not here, and I don't think the president was concerned. It was important, and around that time, I think maybe a little earlier, the idea came forward within discussions in the deputy's committee and with the president of having the international security assistance force for Kabul to guarantee the neutrality of the capital. I think in that time frame, there was a way to deal with the potential anxieties that would be caused if the Northern Alliance were to permanently take over the capital.

Tora Bora. In comparison to the later Anaconda operation, [Tora Bora] rather showed up that relying entirely on these little warlords caused problems for people. Osama himself was now saying that, in the course of that campaign, he was there; but when you guys got there, he wasn't there. What lessons were learned about the Tora Bora experience?

I don't think anyone really knows where Osama bin Laden is now or where he was then. Remember, there was an awful lot going on, and I think the real choice was to do something the way we did it or not to do it at all. Clearly it really wasn't a surprise. But clearly we have more control over an operation when we have our American or coalition forces -- not just Americans -- embedded with local troops.

What lessons have you learned from the campaign in Afghanistan, and what might change in the future, the extension of this campaign as it goes on?

Let me answer that in a very general way. I think what has really been important is two things. Overall, there's been very decisive leadership from the president; issues get debated, issues get decided, and when they're decided, we move on. The second piece is, I think, extraordinarily good teamwork. There are different roles for the Pentagon, for the CIA, for the State Department; even the Treasury has a major role in this campaign, and so does the FBI and the Justice Department.

Being able to pull all that together as a team is only possible when issues get decided in a crisp way. This president has really been doing that since Sept. 11. Those of us who knew him before are not surprised, but it is still very impressive. ...

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