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interview: condoleezza rice

We'll start on Sept. 11. If you could tell me, briefly and colorfully, if possible, just where you were when you heard what happened in New York.

I was standing at my desk on Sept. 11 at 8:47, when my assistant came in to tell me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought he meant a twin-engine plane of some sort, and I thought it was some kind of accident. I went down to have my staff meeting, and a few minutes later the assistant gave me a note that said that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center, and I thought, "My God, this is a terrorist attack."

So I went into the situation room to try to gather the National Security Council's principals. I was trying to reach Secretary Rumsfeld at the Defense Department; couldn't do it. Indeed, Colin Powell was in Peru and we needed to get him back. But I tried to call Don Rumsfeld, and I couldn't reach him. I turned around and a plane had hit the Pentagon. About this time, the Secret Service came and they said, "You have to go to the bunker, because we think something may be headed for the White House. The vice president is already there."

There were false reports that maybe there had been a car bomb at the State Department. At that point, you're just kind of carried along by adrenaline in trying to deal with the moment. I did stop on the way to the bunker to call the president one more time, and he said, "I'm coming back to Washington." We said we didn't think that that was a good idea, because Washington is under attack and we don't know what else is coming.

You're just carried along on some kind of adrenaline at that point, and even throughout the day, taking a phone call from President Putin, who was saying that they were standing down their military exercises because, of course, America was alerting its military forces, and the Russians didn't want any confusion between our forces and theirs. As an old Soviet specialist, I thought, "That's a change." We used to worry about a spiral of alert between American and Soviet forces. I was thinking a little bit to myself what an incredible moment that was. ...

Rice is the U.S. national security adviser. In this interview she recounts how President Bush made the decision to go to war, and discusses how the Sept. 11 attacks caused the U.S. and Russia to realize that "[we] would now have more in common than we had in conflict" and that forging a "common security agenda" was a necessity. This interview was conducted on July 12, 2002.

If you can fast-forward to that evening when you finally get together first for an NSC meeting in a room together. Did you have any idea at that point who was responsible? How did the conversation run?

We actually had an NSC meeting of a little bit earlier in the day on Sept. 11, when President Bush landed at Offutt [Air Force] Base in Nebraska, and we had a moment to ask the question who had done this. Everybody assumed that it was Al Qaeda, because the operation looked like Al Qaeda, quacked like Al Qaeda, seemed like Al Qaeda. But by late evening, when we met again as the National Security Council after President Bush's address to the nation, there was increasing analytic evidence that that is what had happened.

I don't think there was ever a doubt in anyone's mind, because we knew enough about the organization to know that this is exactly the kind of thing they would try to do.

We've heard that George Tenet said this organization is in 50 to 60 countries, and the president said, "Let's pick them off one by one." Can you tell me that story, if it's true?

We had had a number of discussions of the Al Qaeda network, going all the way back to when we first came into office in January of 2001. At several of those, George Tenet had talked about the far-flung nature of Al Qaeda, that it had tentacles into many, many different countries.

When we put the map out on the table, you look at the map, you look at Afghanistan and you look where it is -- I think the color kind of drained from everybody's faces.

The night of Sept. 11, George was relating that part of the problem here would be not just to deal with their home base in Afghanistan, but to deal with their tentacles in other places. The president said, "Then we're going to have to have a strategy to defeat them, even if we have to do it one by one." That was a revealing moment.

From the very start, this president said that our first job was to try to recover as a country, to try to deal with the problems of New York City and of the Pentagon. But moments after that, he was already focused on what we would need to do to defeat these terrorists who had done this to us. He also very early focused on the fact that this was going to have to be a global struggle, in which this not just America's struggle, but the struggle of the entire civilized world.

The following morning, I think almost the first thing the president does is put a call in to Tony Blair. We've spoken to the prime minister, and he said he stressed the need to look for evidence to present to the world that it was Al Qaeda, and also the need to present an ultimatum to the Taliban as quickly as possible. Can you tell me about that conversation, what the president said in reply?

Prime Minister Blair and the president talked the morning after 9/11. Of course, Great Britain is one of America's closest friends, and so it was not surprising that it was one of the first phone calls that the president made. Prime Minister Blair was concerned about evidence -- was this indeed Al Qaeda; about what kind of ultimatum we would need to give to the Taliban if, in fact, it was Al Qaeda. The president was quite clear that he believed with every bone in his body that it was Al Qaeda, and that there was no question in his mind.

We considered the question of whether to give an ultimatum to the Taliban. First [we] considered whether or not the president should do it in his address to the nation the night before. But at that point, it didn't seem we had put all of the pieces together, and the address to the nation was really to rally the American people, who had just gone through a terrible shock. But it was only a few days later that it was decided that there would indeed be an ultimatum to the Taliban -- that they should hand over Al Qaeda and stop harboring terrorists, or they would meet the terrorists' fate.

That was foreshadowed in President Bush's address to the nation on Sept. 11, because he said that those who harbored terrorists were just as guilty as the terrorists themselves.

Still on the morning of the Sept. 12 NSC meeting, the president comes out and issues a statement stronger than any he's made yet. He talks about this as being a war. Presumably, he talked that through with you. It's a big step to take to say, "We are now fighting a war." Can you tell me how he spoke to you?

In fact, the president had said to the national security principals the day before [that] we were at war. But because we thought that the role of this statement to the nation, the need to bring the American people in and to say, "It's all going to be all right," it didn't seem the right time to declare war, in effect.

So instead, the president the next day, when he talked to the National Security Council principals -- and I can remember quite clearly -- he said, "This is a war, and we're going to have to tell the American people that we're at war." He did it actually without any preparation or paper in front of him. It was a perfectly natural thing for him to say. He did discuss it with the National Security Council principals, but it was not a written statement. He simply went out and called it an act of war.

Now the weekend. You all head down to Camp David for a real brainstorming session. We're just focusing on two or three of the key points of conversation there. We've spoken to Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary Powell. They've spoken about how there was a discussion on whether to go after Iraq. Mr. Wolfowitz put one case; Secretary Powell the other. Can you just talk us through how the president listened to the debate, and [how] you came to the decision that you eventually came to?

... That night, the president went up to New York, to Ground Zero, for the first time. But he sent the vice president and Secretary Rumsfeld and Colin Powell and me to Camp David ahead of him on Friday night to begin to talk about what we were going to face. ...

The president listened to the debate at Camp David that Saturday after the events of Sept. 11, and there were a number of questions on the table. One of the questions was how wide a war should we declare -- should we talk about the war on terrorism as just against Al Qaeda? What about states with which we had hostile relations, that, even if they weren't directly supporting Al Qaeda, were clearly a part of the insecurity that we were now feeling? Iraq fell into that category. How to think about Afghanistan itself, and how to go after this base that Al Qaeda had?

When it came to Iraq, there were those who at least put forward the proposition that we ought to consider what to do about Iraq. Was it important to do it now, because Iraq was clearly a problem?

The president listened to it. He has [no love] -- and clearly still has no love for the regime of Saddam Hussein, and this administration is committed to regime change. But after listening to all of his advisers, he said within a day, first things first. We had to deal with the base where Al Qaeda was. We had to deal with Afghanistan, because it was Al Qaeda that had hurt us and that would try to hurt us again.

But, in many ways, something that I remember most about the Camp David meeting was when we put the map out on the table, you look at the map, you look at Afghanistan and you look where it is -- I think the color kind of drained from everybody's faces, because [of] the stories of British defeats in Afghanistan, and Soviet defeats in Afghanistan, not to mention the potential for instability in Pakistan. It sits there on the Iranian border. We have no relations with Iran. States like Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. I think everybody thought, "Of all of the places to have to fight a war, Afghanistan would not be our choice." But we didn't choose Afghanistan; Afghanistan chose us.

From that, I think you realized you were going to have to get together a fairly unusual type of coalition, which is another of the things he talked about at Camp David. Could you just tell us a bit about how the conversation went about this strange coalition of coalitions?

Due to the nature of Al Qaeda and the fact that it was in so many different countries, and also due to the geography, if you will, of Afghanistan, we recognized that there was going to have to be a coalition of the willing, a coalition that was broad. But we were concerned to not have the nature of the coalition or the membership of the coalition begin to define the mission too narrowly.

I think it was Secretary Don Rumsfeld who came up with the notion that really we were talking about coalitions, many different coalitions in the service of the war on terrorism. There would be members of the coalition who would not want to participate in military activity, but who might have exactly the right piece of information through intelligence sources that was ultimately very important in bringing down Al Qaeda; or those who would participate as important members of the coalition in freezing terrorists' financial assets.

So early on we decided that we would ask states to do what they could and what they were best suited to do. This was not like the Gulf War coalition, where we were taking contributions to the military effort, because the military effort was going to be only a small part of winning the war on terrorism.

The next day, I think, the president has pretty much, in his own head, come to decide what he's going to do. He calls you into his office and tells you. You write it down on a sheet of paper. Can you take me through that?

The day after we returned from Camp David, the president called me in, and he said, "I've decided what I want to do." He had been presented a lot of different views, a lot of information. ... So he came back, he processed it, he said he knew what he wanted to do.

He wanted to focus on Al Qaeda first. He recognized that the way to Al Qaeda was through the Taliban. Probably the most important conclusion that he came to was that this military action that we were about to take had to look different than what the United States had been doing over the last 10 years or so. It could not just be an air campaign. It could not just be a cruise missile campaign. There had to be boots on the ground. We had to have a ground presence to demonstrate our seriousness. Probably that single insight governed more of what we did than anything else, and that was the president.

I'm going to zip forward about a week now. Back at Camp David, the president gets a call from President Putin. We spoke to President Putin. He saw this as an enormously important call, which kind of opened up a new chapter of U.S.-Russian [relations], if you like. Could you just tell me the American side of that phone call?

The phone call between President Putin and President Bush was an enormously important phone call. President Putin had, at the time of the event, called to say that Russia was prepared to help. Russia itself had experienced terrorism. In fact, all of the way back in their first meeting at Ljubljana, the president and President Putin had talked about terrorism and the threat from organizations like Al Qaeda.

But on this particular day when they talked on the phone, President Putin really pledged his support for the war on terrorism. And because we needed to have a presence in Central Asia in the territories that were part of the former Soviet Union, I think that President Putin wanted to make clear that he would not object to an American presence to fight the war on terrorism.

President Bush, for his part, wanted to assure President Putin that it was not the intention of the United States either to try and supplant Russian influence in the region or to try to stay in the regions -- some kind of permanent military bases -- but that we would be partners on the war on terrorism. It was, indeed, a very important phone call. ...

But it was emblematic of something larger. Back almost at the beginning of this, the president had said, through his tears, that he could see opportunities for new relationships. Here we had a vivid example of a new relationship that was budding with Russia, and the president wanted to move to cement that new relationship with Russia. The counterterrorism mission gave us a common security agenda with Russia that finally gave a clear vision to what the president had said to President Putin, which is, "It was time to move beyond the Cold War." Russia and the United States would now have more in common than we had in conflict, and Sept. 11 made that abundantly clear. ...

I'll fast forward now to the next time the two presidents met, which was in Shanghai. This is kind of 10 days into the war now, but I'd like to focus on what they said to each other about the future of Afghanistan. Now certain people in the State Department have told us that the feeling was Russia was a bit too close to Professor Rabbani [of the Northern Alliance] at that time. So what did you say in your discussions about post-Taliban Afghanistan about the slightly different positions on that?

President Putin and President Bush did discuss at Shanghai the future of Afghanistan and how to think about the various parties, and how to think about a stable future for Afghanistan, because by this time, by the time of Shanghai, military operations were well underway. There were questions about whether the Northern Alliance would try and take Kabul. If they tried to take Kabul, would that somehow then make the Pashtun feel that Afghanistan's future was being taken way from the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan? They had a rather detailed discussion of that.

I think that they found more in common than in conflict. Obviously, the Russians had relations with Rabbani. They had relations with the Northern Alliance and with certain parts of the Northern Alliance. But what was really important in that meeting was that they came to a general agreement that you had to have a broad-based government to rule Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban; that it had to represent all ethnic groups; and that it had to have a strong and heavy representation of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

I think that was an extremely important finding/insight, because without the agreement of the Russians -- and indeed even the Iranians -- that this had to be a broad-based government in Afghanistan, we might have had what has typically been Afghanistan's past -- which is its history of outside powers trying to arrange the pieces in Afghanistan to favor their own interest, rather than thinking about the interest of Afghanistan. Here, I think, you had the outside parties understanding that the best interest of stability was to have an Afghanistan government that would be broadly based.

Did you talk about how President Putin might be able to deliver that message to the Northern Alliance when he was stopping off in Dushanbe?

President Putin agreed that when he stopped in Dushanbe, he would indeed send this message loud and clear to all of their allies. We have every reason to believe that he did exactly that.

Around about the beginning of November, we're about three weeks into the war and not much seems to have happened on the ground at least. Secretary Powell has talked about a bit of nail-biting in this time. But he remembers a key NSC meeting at the end of November where you agreed to focus your military efforts on Mazar-e-Sharif. Do you recall that NSC meeting?

... Yes, we were getting a little concerned that the Northern Alliance didn't seem to be moving. We've been bombing for several weeks, now winter would be coming fairly soon, and what objectives could actually be achieved on the ground before winter came? That was really the question.

There were two possibilities. One was to try to do something more spectacular, like make certain that Kabul fell before winter; the other was to take what was, at that time, the nearest city to Mazar-e-Sharif, an important city, also a city that allowed you to open a land bridge between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, so that humanitarian aid could get into the country. ...

We were also working through the problems of trying to marry 21st century air power with men on horseback. There wasn't any plan on the Pentagon shelf that said, "Your cavalry will be supported by 21st century aircraft," and so there was a lot of work to do. Very early on, though, we had decided on a strategy to support the Northern Alliance, and we reaffirmed that strategy.

Before we could put much energy and effort into deciding Mazar first and then Kabul, events on the ground take over, as they often do throughout military history. That's what happened, and the Northern Alliance started to sweep through these cities very, very rapidly.

When they took Mazar, which is, I think, Nov. 9, it must have been a difficult moment to evaluate. On the one hand, it's your first victory; it's a sign that the Taliban will crack. On the other hand, going back to the concerns you've been talking about President Putin, the Northern Alliance have a dubious history, let's say, and any misbehavior, any massacres could discredit the American campaign against terrorism really. Could you just talk me through those concerns in the context of when Mazar fell, and, as you said, the Northern Alliance were sweeping through the country?

Even before the fall of Mazar, we, the Russians, and others were sending very strong messages to the Northern Alliance that we expected their behavior to be far better than it had been in the past and that they had, this time, a stake in behaving in a way that would allow a broad-based Afghanistan government to take root after the Taliban had been defeated.

As they began to sweep through the country and as Mazar was liberated, of course, there were concerns about Northern Alliance behavior. But most of the reports that we were getting were that, perhaps, they also understood that this was a second chance, and that they had to behave differently if they were going to have a place themselves in a future Afghanistan.

I remember mostly, though, the fall of Mazar as being greeted with something of a sigh of relief that there finally was a real victory to chalk up on the board. Then, as things unfolded so rapidly after that, now facing the fact that the end might be coming for the Taliban much more quickly than anybody realized, and were we really now prepared for the end of Taliban regime? Were we now really prepared for post-Taliban Afghanistan? So that emotion being tempered a little bit by lack of information.

I can remember that the fall of Kunduz must have happened three or four different times because we kept hearing, "Yes, it's fallen; no, it hasn't; yes, it has; no, it hasn't." But Mazar, I think, we probably greeted more with relief than anything else.

I'd like to pick up on something that you said there, that you realize you didn't really have a post-Taliban plan in place, and it was a remarkable weekend between the fall of Mazar and the fall of Kabul. I presume you were in New York for some of that. Richard Haass [the undersecretary of state for policy planning] remembers the president kind of rounding on him and saying, "What is the U.N. up to? Are they doing anything? Do we have to take this on ourselves?" Can you elucidate on the president's concerns in that respect, in the context of that amazing weekend?

Early on, we had understood -- and not just the United States, but with our partners -- that the United Nations was going to have to play a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We were somewhat concerned that the U.N. might not move quickly enough to fill the vacuum, if you will, between the Taliban and the new government. So the president was [with], not only his own staff people, but with Secretary-General Annan, and I saw Mr. Brahimi [the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan] here.

I think what is very interesting about this is that the U.N. did respond very quickly. In fact, the Bonn Conference was put together rather rapidly, and an interim authority put together far more rapidly than I think any of us thought possible. So in some ways, they turned out to be unfounded fears. But it was just that there was a bit of a shock at how quickly the Taliban was routed, and the fact that we were now facing a reconstruction more quickly than we had expected.

How crucial was it for your whole effort, in a sense, that Bonn be successful? Because the war on terror will focus on countries other than Afghanistan, and if no government had been set up to move into the vacuum of the Taliban, then in some ways it would discredit what you've achieved there. Could you talk about your concerns?

The war on terrorism obviously had a goal to defeat Al Qaeda and defeat the Taliban. But I think that we realized that that wasn't going to be enough -- that if terror wasn't going to return somehow to Afghanistan, or Afghanistan wasn't going to again become a place where terrorism would thrive in the way that it had under the Taliban, you had to have a stable Afghanistan. So a third war aim, if you will, became a creation of a stable post-Taliban regime.

The Bonn Conference was absolutely crucial in getting that off on the right foot, because if Bonn had fallen apart and you'd not been able to get an interim authority that was broadly representative, then what we've just experienced in the loya jirga would have been impossible.

So a lot was riding on the Bonn Conference. The United States had a wonderful asset in an Afghan-American, Zalmay Khalilzad, who went as special envoy for the United States and is a member of the National Security Council staff, to work with the parties and to work with our allies on creating an atmosphere at Bonn.

I think we were all really pretty amazed and quite respectful of what the Afghans were able to do at Bonn. Yes, they had a lot of help. But what was really impressive was the degree to which the Afghans themselves were determined to use this new opportunity to make a new start for Afghanistan. Very often, we get caught up in the history, and we say, "Afghanistan has always had trouble being stable, it's had trouble having a central government," and we forget that, if you give people a choice between freedom and tyranny, they'll very often choose freedom. So the Afghans themselves comported themselves very well at Bonn, and that was very gratifying.

The man who ended up on the top of the tree there, Hamid Karzai, must have been identified by you much earlier because he had American military support throughout the end of October. Can you remember the context in which Hamid Karzai first cropped up in your meetings?

Hamid Karzai, I think, emerged, not just because of American military support, but because of whatever faction that you talk to in Afghanistan, they talked about him as a possible reconciliator -- someone who would have the respect and the trust of all of the different ethnic groups. So that's how he emerged.

Indeed, he came to the United States at the time of the State of the Union address of the president. I remember being impressed with his stature, his calmness, and his vision for the future of the people of Afghanistan, and thinking to myself, "I can understand why he's thought of as someone who can reconcile these very different groups." So, in that sense, he emerged from just about every quarter as the person that the Afghans thought most likely to bring about the reconciliation.

I'm going to move on to a general question about Tora Bora. Can you compare the objectives with to what extent it has succeeded?

Tora Bora was, of course, one of the first major operations after the Taliban had lost control of the country. It was successful in, again, they had decided to try to regroup en masse. I don't think we will ever know how many of them we actually killed and however many of them may have scattered. But if you study your military history, they were massing to do something. And the fact that they were unable to successfully mass and attack and scatter, it was important.

It was also important that we destroyed a lot of the cave complexes that they had. Afghanistan had become, interestingly, not just a state sponsoring terrorism. It was almost as if it had been hijacked by Al Qaeda and become their state. They had an entire infrastructure in Afghanistan of cave complexes and training camps and communications facilities. The destruction of all of those meant that it's a less coherent organization than it was before this war. It's still a dangerous organization, and indeed, some parts of it have scattered to other places. The goal now is to make sure that they can't regenerate someplace else or coalesce again.

But Tora Bora, and Anaconda after that, were extremely important in continuing to break up that infrastructure and to make sure that they couldn't coalesce. ...

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