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interview: colin powell

[Where were you on Sept. 11?]

I was in Lima, Peru, on Sept. 11, meeting with President [Toledo], getting ready for a meeting later on that morning with the Organization of American States to adopt a charter on democracy for the Western Hemisphere. He and I were talking about trade issues. We were talking about letting in cotton exports from Peru into the United States. Suddenly my assistant came in and handed me a note. The note said that a plane had gone into the World Trade Center. There was a suggestion there might have been a second plane, which immediately raised the issue of non-accident terror. President Toledo was being handed a note about the same time.

We tried to continue the discussion, but a second note came in, confirming it all, and saying it wasn't a commercial plane and a light plane, but two big planes. At that point, I realized it had to be a terror incident. I had to get home; I couldn't stay here. The breakfast meeting broke up and I immediately turned to my assistant, said "Get the plane, we've got to go home."

We then went to the meeting. By now all of the delegates have heard what's happened. We nevertheless convened the meeting. They all expressed their condolences to me. Then they voted for the charter of democracy by acclamation as perhaps the first act in response: Democracy will prevail. Democracy will stand. And we, the free nations of the Americas are with you, Secretary Powell, and the American people.

Colin Powell is the U.S. Secretary of State. Here he recounts the process of putting together international coalition to fight terrorism after Sept. 11 and describes the debate over targeting Iraq, in addition to Afghanistan, in the war against terror. This interview was conducted on June 7, 2002.

Can I jump to that evening? You get back, the first meeting where all the secretaries are back together with the president in the White House. We understand [that] you, particularly, focused on the need to look at the key coalition members -- obviously Pakistan being one of the first ones. Could you just give us a sense of the urgency and that feeling that you were after then?

It took me roughly eight hours to fly back from Lima to Washington, D.C., most of the time without any communications with my office or anybody in Washington, a couple of broken conversations with Deputy Secretary of State Armitage. But I had all that time to think about what had happened and what it was going to mean.

If the Russians have always been sensitive to what's going on in Central Asia, how would they react to a sudden American presence on their flank?

By then, I also knew about the Pentagon, of course, and the fourth plane that had crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. So clearly America was under assault, serious assault. Was it by a state? Was it by a terrorist organization? How should we respond? My job now is secretary of state. I'm not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff anymore, but my mind is thinking militarily, but diplomatically: What does this mean? What do I have to do to get the world behind us in this? What opportunities might exist in this time of terrible tragedy and crisis?

Got to Washington; immediately went to the White House. Waited for the president to give his talk to the nation. Then he joined us all in the secure conference room that we had. We began to talk about the implications of this and how to move forward. By then, I'd already started to receive expressions of support from around the world, and I knew that this tragedy was so great that everybody would want to be a part of the response.

I suggested to the president and my other colleagues that this was an opportunity to begin pulling together a worldwide coalition. The Security Council had already started to convene on this. NATO was getting ready to invoke Article 5 almost immediately, first time in its history. I'd just come back from the Organization of American States with their support. So it was clear that we could start pulling a coalition together.

As you looked at where this probably came from -- Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan -- it immediately meant that Pakistan was going to play a key role, as well as Afghanistan.

Let's jump forward to the weekend, the big session of major decision making, or at least setting out the [roles]. Could you just very briefly take me through the nature of the coalition, and how that perhaps differed from previous coalitions that you've been intimately involved with?

By the time the meeting took place on Saturday morning at Camp David where we assembled to look at military options and exactly what we were going to do as we moved forward, the extent of this problem had all begun to sink in. We had the Pakistanis on our side now. We had heard from the OIC, the Organization of the Islamic Conference. We've heard from the OAS, the NATO people, the Security Council, the General Assembly. Everybody wanted to be a part of this coalition. It was a political coalition in the first instance, but that could lend itself to a military coalition.

It was not clear what the military challenge was yet. Our principal purpose for assembling at Camp David that morning was to make a determination as to how would we respond militarily, as well as politically. I was able to present a solid [phalanx] of diplomatic support; whatever military action the president would decide upon.

This coalition would be kind of [fluid]. There were obvious people at the top who would be probably involved militarily. But right now, there were people who might not even want to admit that they were, in fact, in the coalition.

Yes. There were some who, right off the bat, we knew we could count on for solid political support, and if the situation required it and we asked for it, we'd get their military support as well. The United Kingdom certainly was among that list of nations. Others would bide their time. They'd wait to see what the United States was planning to do before they would [commit to] anything other than diplomatic support.

So we knew it would be a fluid coalition. It would have three pieces to it, as [Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc] Grossman said, or it might be a floating coalition. Or as Don Rumsfeld said on a number of occasion, it might be a coalition of coalitions that are constantly shifting and, shifting and changing as the needs shifted and changed. So we were ready for all that.

There were other people who said, "Look, everybody [will] be with you right away. Oh yes, we're with you; we're in this to the death," until the death started to approach. And then the coalition would start to break up and people would find reasons not to be with you.

Well, it turns out that it is now many months later, and that coalition has held together rather well as we sit here and speak in June 2002. I am quite confident it will hold together for as long as this campaign of terrorism is waged -- and I think it will be waged for a long time.

The reason for that is people have come to realize that this isn't just an American problem; it's a problem for all civilized nations. All of us are affected. More and more people realize that terrorism has struck so many of us over the years -- the United Kingdom, Spain, Indonesia, you name it. We have all been exposed to terrorism. It is a curse on the face of civilization and humanity. That's why this coalition will stay together, because it will require international response -- not just militarily, but financially, economically, going after financial flows, intelligence exchanges; all of that. Everybody can play a role in this coalition.

You didn't mention Iraq in that short list, but I believe, at Camp David, Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz raised the possibility of including Iraq in your list of targets. That was something that, I believe, you argued against quite forcefully, at least at that point?

There was an obvious choice to be made. We could go after the known perpetrators -- or suspected, at that point, but we were pretty sure who they were -- even though we didn't have all the goods on them yet. There was little doubt in our mind who they were, where they were residing -- in Afghanistan -- and that they were being supported by the Taliban. And until recently, because the Pakistanis supported the Taliban, to some extent the Pakistanis had some responsibility in this as well. They had already decided, "Enough of that, we're moving on to a new strategic direction, working with the United States."

So the options ultimately came down to: Do we go right after the perpetrators? The world will understand that; the world will see that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship here with the Al Qaeda organization, Osama bin Laden. Iraq, however dangerous a regime this is and still is, there was an argument that said, "Let's not deal with Iraq right now. Let's go after the target that everybody will understand." It was argued out. ...

We're in a log cabin. The first several hours of the day were spent just reviewing the situation, with each of us making presentations and a free flowing discussion. The president listened carefully, took it all in. All of us spoke. ....

My good friend Paul Wolfowitz made the case for Iraq. I made the case for going after the perpetrators, Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan. There was a free-flowing discussion. It wasn't just that morning. It had been discussed before we got there. ...

Then it was lunchtime. We broke for lunch and then the president said, "Let's all take a couple of hours off to take a nap, to work out, to catch up with other business. Let us come back together about four o'clock, and I'll ask for your recommendations at that time." So we all went away. I went back to my room. My wife was there and she was relaxing.

Then at four o'clock we reassembled. The president, not even inviting any further sort of discussion, he said, "What do you recommend?" I went first and recommended the focus on Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Then the secretary of defense, Mr. Rumsfeld, spoke, not Paul Wolfowitz, and he reviewed the situation as he saw it. [He] didn't come down hard on one recommendation or the other, but understood the possibilities of both options.

Paul really debated it earlier in the morning when we were having the discussions, as opposed to making the recommendation. Paul put a case forward that ultimately Iraq would have to be dealt with, and this was as good a time as any to consider it. He didn't argue against going after Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The Taliban wasn't yet a problem; it was to be the problem later. But he thought that we should give serious consideration to doing the Iraq option, and we all listened.

Secretary Rumsfeld, of course, listened as well, and it had been a discussion we'd been having for several days. When the actual recommendations were given, I gave mine. Mr. Rumsfeld sort of described both without strongly supporting either. ...

After listening to it all, hearing the arguments back and forth and listening to the vice president, the director of Central Intelligence and others, the president made the decision that everybody will understand us going after the perpetrators. Iraq will be there. Other regimes that mean us no good -- that mean the world no good -- will be there when this is over, and we can look at those as problems later on. ...

He didn't make the decision right then, as you well know. He went off. I think he had decided in his own mind at that point, but he went off to think about it. Very, very wise. Take your time; he had time. He very wisely went off, reflected on it, thought about it some on Sunday.

Then on Monday he came down, called us into the Cabinet Room in the White House, gave us his decision and started barking instructions. ...

On Sept. 19, Deputy Secretary Armitage was in Moscow meeting with [Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Vyacheslav] Trubnikov. At the last moment, he gets Trubnikov to call President Putin. He calls you. What do you say?

... The problem we were worrying about at that point was: If the Russians have always been sensitive to what's going on in Central Asia, how would they react to a sudden American presence on their flank? Rich discussed with Mr. Trubnikov and others, and the Russians understood we would have to do this. We knew we had to be sensitive to the Russians' concerns about our presence.

I understood you spoke to two of the Central Asian presidents. They were rather different both in their standing vis-a-vis Moscow and what you required from them. Could you give me a sense of that difference and what you said to them?

Well, all of those countries have their own unique character. With respect, Uzbekistan was the one of greatest interest to us in the first instance, because it was a direct line of supply down into the area of the Northern Alliance, and we also had a humanitarian problem that we were dealing with. So we needed quick access to the bases in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbeks, in turn, were saying to us, "Now, wait a minute. You're going to come and then you're going to be gone, and we'll have to suffer whatever consequences come from your departure." They were interested in us having a more permanent relationship with them. So we were able to persuade them that, no, we would come and we're not looking for permanent bases, but we are looking for permanent friendships and permanent opportunities to cooperate with one another, and that's what we'll give you. After a period of discussion, they said yes to our first set of requests. Then there was a second and a third and a fourth set of requests. Each one required reassurance once again, and there was a little bit more of a commitment and a little bit more support to their efforts. But they came along.

With respect to the other countries, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, it was essentially the same thing. But the need wasn't as great with them for their assets as it was for Uzbekistan.

Your trip to Islamabad was in the middle of October. President Musharraf was obviously concerned about what would happen to the political track and would the Northern Alliance take over. We understand he urged you to move the political track along. Could you characterize that for us?

... The point we made to President Musharraf then -- and we held to for some time until events sort of got ahead of us -- was that the Northern Alliance was really the only coherent functioning military organization that we could partner with and use as we undertook our military operations, and that they had to be used. But we also understood that there was a history with the Northern Alliance, the difficulty of going into Kabul and doing some things that we would not like to see.

So I tried to assure President Musharraf we conveyed to the Northern Alliance that we were going work with them; we were going to use them; we were going to help them to be successful. But at the same time, they had to understand -- and I made this point to President Musharraf -- that when this was all over, we're interested in a multi-ethnic Afghanistan, where all sides should be represented, and there would be no single dominant group or organization. And that's what we did.

We took a Fourth World force -- the Northern Alliance -- riding horses, walking, living off the land, and we married them up with a First World air force and First World young Army and Air Force personnel on the ground to connect this First World air force to a Fourth World army. And it worked.

They eventually invested Kabul. We thought, "Let's keep them out," but they got close and things happen when you get close. They went in, and to our pleasure, they did not do the kinds of things they did previously. They understood that this was a different game, and I think they've played a fairly responsible role ever since.

I understand you actually used that word "invest" talking to President Musharraf as, perhaps, one general to another; say, something that you understood.

Yes. It's not the word one would use in a drawing room somewhere. But it means something to military people. He knew the context in which I was using it. "Invest" essentially means you make the place untenable for whoever is in there. You now are investing it; you're not going in to wipe out everybody, and you don't want to fight city block to city block. But you have surrounded it so to speak. You've cut it off, so to speak, and you've made it no longer a tenable position. You have invested it.

[Can you tell us about President Musharraf's concerns about debt relief?]

While we were working with President Musharraf and having him move in this new strategic direction, there were great risks for him, and there was a great cost associated with it. People became nervous about Pakistan. Contracts were being cancelled for goods that were made in Pakistan. It became a very, very unstable situation, and he was starting to pay a great price for it.

So, very wisely, he said, "You've got to help me with this. I not only need investment; I need trade. I don't have these. Try to do what you can to keep these contracts from being cancelled and, by the way, I'm carrying a lot of debt around. You've got to do something about debt." Every time we got together, he would raise this issue of debt. He has a very sophisticated minister of finance who always will raise debt, and he and I had known each other previously.

So finally, one evening I said, "Mr. President, Mr. President, I've got it, I've got it. It's burned in my forehead forever: 'Debt relief.' Even my wife can see it now." It's become a running joke ever since.

At the very end of October, or perhaps it was the first of November, we understand there was a key meeting in the White House. At that point, certainly to the public eye, the war was not going that well. The dominant Taliban front lines had not really started [to fall]. ... Could you give us a sense of the nail-biting, the worrying? It didn't seem to be all happening, and yet it was going to happen right around the corner.

Yes, there was a great deal nail-biting. The public always tends to get impatient with operations that don't go as neatly and quickly and cleanly as they might wish. You'll always get that kind of criticism.

It wasn't just a single meeting. All of us were watching us and trying to make a judgement as to where the main effort should be. There was a suggestion that we could do both Mazar-e-Sharif and the Northern Alliance advance across the Shomali Plain down to Kabul. We decided we'd better focus on one and then shift our attention to the other, and that's what we did.

So what emerged from our discussions -- no one person came up with the idea. It emerged from our continuing discussions every single day in our dialogue, and it kind of followed how the battle was unfolding. Then the shift and then the question was how fast could the Northern Alliance move? It turned out once we married up that First World air force with it, it could move rather quickly.

In fact, they moved so fast that it created problems for you. Kabul fell within a few days. You had a pretty heavy weekend [at the U.N.] in New York with the dinner for President Musharraf again, and at that point, no political strategy was in place. Why was this?

We were hoping to keep the Northern Alliance outside of the city until we had created a political environment for them or for others, as well to make sure there would be this move toward a multi-ethnic nation. We had not yet gotten that process under way, the Brahimi effort, the six-plus-two effort, the Bonn Conference -- all that was yet to come about.

So we were concerned. But battles tend to have a motion and a rhythm of their own. Once those troops got that close, they went in, and once they got in, we cautioned them. We had to do some careful conversationing with President Musharraf -- if I can invent that word -- to keep him calm, that we were watching this carefully, it wouldn't get out of control. Fortunately, it didn't. The Northern Alliance behaved rather responsibly. I think the fact that American personnel were with them helped in that regard.

Then we rapidly got on with trying to get the political conference underway.

Do you recall if there are any key moments in New York?

There was a meeting of the six-plus-two, the surrounding nations of Afghanistan and the United States and Russia, and we had a long conversation about all of this. The Iranians were there; it was the first time I'd ever seen or met my Iranian counterpart. There was lot of conversation: Where are we going to hold it; what are we going to do? It was a good, fulsome discussion.

But at the very end of the discussion, I asked for the floor. Mr. Brahimi was there in the room with the secretary-general, and I said, "Let me just summarize this with the following observation: Speed, speed, speed!" Three times, I think I said it, according to The New York Times the next day. The reason for that is that the situation on the ground was unfolding quickly. We needed a political solution quickly in order to have something ready to put into Kabul.

You mentioned Bonn. In the end, it went far better than I think anybody could have dreamed. But there was really a sticking point towards the end, with President Rabbani saying, "Look, you should all come back to Kabul. This is an Afghan thing; I'm feeling hassled," and via Jim Dobbins to Richard Armitage, who calls you, saying, "Can you do something?"

The answer was "Do not let them break up. Keep them there. Lock them up if you have to. We do not want this to go anywhere else. We're almost there, and this is the time to grind it out on this line. If they go off, I don't know when I'll get them all back together." Rich Armitage loves the little idea that once you get frogs in a wheelbarrow, you don't let them get out. That was a good analogy. So we kept them. ...

You took one practical step there. I believe you called [Igor Ivanov] in Moscow. ...

Well, I called Igor and let him know that this was starting to slip away from us, and to make sure that he emboldened his representatives there to keep them there. What was interesting about that -- and it has remained interesting in the months that followed -- is the relationship that we were able to develop with the Russians.

There was that nervousness in the beginning about the U.S. around their Central Asian former republics. But now they are accepting the fact that we are there not as potential enemies, but as friends, working against common enemies: terrorism, fundamentalism, drug smuggling -- all those things that are threats now to Russia, just as they are to the rest of us. So Igor and I talk two or three times a week now on this and other matters. ...

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