Interview With Katie Couric of CBS Evening News
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, let me ask you about the decision that President Obama is facing. He has a critical decision to make about the road ahead in Afghanistan. How important is this in terms of not only the immediate ramifications, but for U.S. policy long-term, U.S. foreign policy?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Katie, that’s, I think, one of the best ways to pose this, because you’re right – the President is going through a very deliberative process, as he said he would. Back in the spring when we took the policy that we inherited and tried to stabilize it, he changed commanders, he agreed to add more troops. But he said we want to get through the Afghan election, and then we will take stock of where we are, which is what we’re doing. And I think it’s an important process for him to be able to make the ultimate decision.
But you can’t look at it as a standalone assessment. It has to be put into the regional context and the historical context. There isn’t any doubt in my mind that this region of the world, what is often referred to as the Afghanistan-Pakistan region – but of course, it’s embedded in a region that includes Iran, a number of countries to the north, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and of course, India – is one of the most critical areas for our long-term security. And many people view what is happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan as having ramifications far beyond what this initial decision might suggest.
And I think the President is right to say, let’s look at how we got to where we are historically, what we can do to help stabilize Afghanistan, accomplish our core goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida, take a very close look at what we need to do to deal with the Taliban, which is an indigenous phenomenon as well as associated with al-Qaida, and work with the Pakistanis who are now in a fight against those who threaten them, while at the same realizing that there’s a lot of other moving parts to this.
And the United States, to some extent, has to acknowledge being among the creators of the problem we are now dealing with. It seemed like a great idea back in the ‘80s to embolden and train and equip Taliban, Mujaheddin, Jihadists against the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan. And with our help and with the Pakistani support, this group, including, at that time, bin Ladin, defeated the Soviet Union, drove them out of Afghanistan eventually, saw the fall of the government that they had installed, and the rest we know – they eventually took over.
But when we accomplished our primary mission of seeing the Soviet Union thrown out of Afghanistan, we withdrew. And we left the problems of a well-equipped, fundamentalist, ideological and religious group that had been battle-hardened to the Afghans and the Pakistanis. So I think it’s understandable that people were saying, well, sort of, what’s your real commitment, what are you trying to accomplish, do you understand the historical context and the regional geostrategic context?
So I think it’s important to pose it as you do. Let’s look at in the broader question. It’s not about do we put more troops in or not, do we do this on economic development or not. You have to look at it in that broader context.
QUESTION: Well, what are the long-term ramifications for U.S. foreign policy?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I think several. First of all, al-Qaida is degraded to some extent, but it is still alive and well. We just saw that with the arrest last week of the terrorist plot where Zazi had been trained in a camp run by al-Qaida in Pakistan. Pakistan has now realized that their stability – and some would argue, survivability – but certainly stability in maintaining control over their territory means they’ve got to take the fight to the Taliban, some of whom are allied with al-Qaida.
We know that the Taliban is regrouping and showing momentum in Afghanistan. And what their ultimate goals are may not be clear, but certainly if they were able to control great swaths of Afghanistan, or even eventually take Afghanistan back over, there is every reason to believe they would once again provide the support and the haven that Jihadist terrorists are seeking and that al-Qaida once had.
We know Pakistan has nuclear weapons, which is a further complicating factor in this challenge. We know that Iran is on the border of those two countries with interests of their own.
So we are trying to analyze what is in the best interests of the United States. That is our primary obligation. How do we prevent or disrupt attacks on us? How do we prevent attacks on our interests and our allies? How do we prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for future attacks and other staging of Jihadist activities? And how do we work with the Pakistanis to support and stabilize their government? It’s a big order.
QUESTION: Is part of the equation, Madame Secretary, what is within our power --
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes.
QUESTION: – in terms of what we can actually achieve?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes, it is.
QUESTION: That’s humbling, isn’t it, in a way?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, it is humbling, and it’s a necessary element of this analysis, because I think that the prior administration’s goals and views about what they could accomplish in Afghanistan were never matched by resources, and some might say, reality. They were way out there on what they thought could come from our initial objective, which was to go after those who had attacked us. And I always bring it back to them.
As you know, Katie, I was a senator in New York when we were attacked on 9/11. I want to see us get, kill, or capture bin Ladin, Zawahiri. They attacked us. We cannot allow them to proceed with impunity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to make a commitment to try to transform a society that may not want to be transformed, that may not be ready for even wanting the kind of development and values that we represent. We need to make it clear to whoever is elected – and it looks increasingly like it’s going to be Karzai again – that our assistance to him and to his government come with expectations that we are going to look to have implemented. President Obama no longer has given a blank check to anyone about this. He wants to see results.
And similarly, in Pakistan, I think it’s fair for the Pakistanis to say, we’ve been down this road with you before. You left us holding the bags on well-armed militants, on drug trafficking that ravaged our country, and we have to figure out how to protect ourselves, and are you going to be there? Well, if we’re going to be there, what form are we going to be there with them? And we’re looking at a much more comprehensive strategy to support the Pakistani Government, but equally importantly, the Pakistani people, so that they understand that having a stable, secure Pakistan is in their economic and social future interests.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that this debate, some of it quite public, is perhaps sending a message to our allies and our enemies that the U.S. is a bit wobbly on its commitment to the region?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I hope not, because that is certainly not what is going on. What is going on is the deliberative process that the President said we would engage in after the elections. It’s just that the elections have gone on way too long, and we’ve had to get going here. We can’t sit around and wait for events to unfold. We have to decide what we’re going to do to influence them.
I happen to think it’s appropriate that with respect to decisions that are as costly as these, both in terms of financial resources, but much more importantly in terms of human lives, the young men and women that we send into our military theater, the young civilians that we send to go out and work on agriculture or education – that we do this in a careful, thoughtful way, because the President has to believe he’s making the right decision, has to be able to explain it not only to the American people, but to the global audience, and then has to be able to sustain it and defend it. And I think that’s the process he is engaged in.
QUESTION: Let me ask you a couple of questions about the situation there. Do you think the situation is deteriorating in Afghanistan?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I think it’s mixed. I think that certainly, as we’ve now seen, General McChrystal’s assessment was that it is deteriorating, that the Taliban have the momentum, that they are much more aggressive, they are better equipped, they are moving more broadly in the country than they had been before.
At the same time, I think there are some positive developments that may not get the attention because they’re not in the headlines. A lot has changed in Afghanistan in the last eight years. Many more people, particularly children, women, girls, are back in school, they get healthcare. There’s a lot of positive developments. The university enrollment, including many, many, young women students, is up. Much of the country is controlled, if not directly by the government in Kabul, by local forces, not the Taliban.
So it’s a mixed picture. But I don’t doubt that left to their own devices, the Taliban forces supported and encouraged, and to some extent, empowered by the ideology of standing against the foreign occupiers and standing up for Islam would give the Taliban a real burst of energy to go even further, and that’s what we have to decide how to prevent.
QUESTION: It seems as if there’s a bit of a disagreement within the Administration because General McChrystal, as you well know, said it was deteriorating, and the National Security Advisor General Jim Jones seemed to downplay the urgency of the situation, saying --
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, but I –
QUESTION: -- I don’t foresee the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan as not in imminent danger of falling.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, it’s not imminent. And I don’t think there’s a contradiction between the two. I think that that’s why I said it’s mixed. I think that it is not what it was in terms of control and stability that we would like to see. We’re not on the edge of a cliff that we’re about to fall off.
But that’s what this process is designed to do – what is the unvarnished assessment of the facts on the ground? And it’s not only General McChrystal returning to our two very able ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul. We are looking at our intelligence community. We’re looking broadly, even outside the government, to get the very best assessment we can. Richard Holbrooke has compiled a whole-of-government team that is very helpful in looking at what’s happening in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but at the end of the day, the President has to make the decisions about the way forward. So are there some disagreements in perspective and recommendations? Yes and thank goodness there are. I mean, I would be worried if there was one voice and only one alternative presented to the President.
QUESTION: General McChrystal has asked for as many as 40,000 additional troops. Should he get them, in your view?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I’m going to save my advice for the President, but I think that that is one piece of the overall assessment, but it is premised on what can or might be done militarily. But that has to be married with the civilian development side, the larger political strategy, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region. So it’s a data point, but it is not the answer. We have to look at everything.
QUESTION: When you came back from Iraq in 2007, you criticized President Bush, saying that he needed to spend more time listening to commanders on the ground. The commander on the ground in Afghanistan says he needs more troops, so why shouldn’t he get them?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that what I believed is that the President is listening. He had a one-on-one meeting with General McChrystal. I anticipate – and General McChrystal was on the video screen when we were in the situation room; no restraints on what he can or should say, just open-ended questions. So I think that we’re getting a lot of the feedback. But at the end of the day, the President is the commander-in-chief. And he has to decide, based on every piece of information that is presented to him and all of the analysis, what he thinks is in the best interests of the United States. And that’s what the President is trying to do.
QUESTION: What do you think about ideas like Vice President Biden’s plan to ostensibly make it a more narrow military strategy of using unmanned aircraft or drones in counterterrorism strikes against al-Qaida, kind of limiting our military involvement? Do you think that’s a good idea?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think, again, the Vice President has a very thoughtful analysis of what he thinks is working and will work. I’m not going to go into his specific recommendations, but I think it’s a very important role for all of us to play. It’s not just the Vice President who’s sitting at the table saying, well, what about this and wouldn’t that work better. All of us are coming to the table and saying, here’s what we think we should do.
QUESTION: Can you just tell me how it strikes you? I mean, do you think that that’s a possible alternative?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I’m not going to go there because I think that ultimately, this is, as I’ve said, the President’s decision. But that’s what’s so important about getting these different viewpoints. There may well be a perspective that one person brings to the table that needs to be melded with that of others, and it’s not just all or nothing. It is: Okay, everybody put on the table what you think are our real interests, the best way to achieve them, how we protect ourselves, our interests and our allies, how we try to stabilize this very volatile region, and then I’m going to have the ultimate responsibility to figure out what best to do.
QUESTION: Let me ask you in a broader way if I could, Secretary Clinton – our stated objective in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to “disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qaida and prevent their return to Afghanistan.” Can that goal be accomplished without providing stability to the country in the form of security and economic opportunity for the people of Afghanistan?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Katie, I think that there is no discussion going on about leaving Afghanistan. I think this debate, which is healthy for a democracy and important for the President, shouldn’t be in any way characterized as it’s either this or it’s that. I think development aid, rule of law, better governance from Kabul down to the local level, all of that is part of empowering the Afghans. But what will be most important is training up an effective Afghan security force that will be able to defend the territory and protect the population.
So I think in everybody’s recommendations, there’s a very common thread running through, which is how quickly can we help the Afghans really protect and take care of themselves. And there’s a multiple of sort of ingredients in that recipe that we are examining.
QUESTION: I want to ask you about the whole notion of the more surgical strikes, if you will. Many people would say about that idea – Vice President Biden’s idea – you know, that didn’t work in Iraq; what worked in Iraq was a full-blown counterinsurgency and – you know, a troop surge, and people credit that with the reduction in violence.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, what also worked in Iraq was a decision by many of the people in Anbar province, the Sunnis, to quit collaborating with al-Qaida because they were far more violent and intrusive than anybody wanted to live with, and a decision to really partner with the Iraqis and to push the training of their security forces.
A lot of things worked, but Iraq is not Afghanistan. Iraq had a central government that was very dominant. They had a history of a strong, functioning military. That is not what the Taliban left when they were driven out after the attacks of 9/11. And so I think that a lot of the analogies are really not very apt. And so from my perspective, we can be informed in terms of what has and hasn’t worked in many different settings. But we have to be very careful to look at the situation we’re dealing with now – don’t just automatically transplant ideas and try to graft them onto this body. Let’s diagnose this body and figure out what it needs that we can help provide.
QUESTION: They’re giving me a wrap. Can I ask you one other question?
SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) Sure.
QUESTION: I love talking to you because it’s actually really great, because I think people will understand what you’re saying.
SECRETARY CLINTON: I hope so.
QUESTION: Okay. All right, really quickly – okay, okay. The question I had – you alluded to it earlier, Secretary Clinton, but how can the U.S. stand behind a President who is so mistrusted by so many of the people in the country? Isn’t that a bad partnership?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Katie, we’re going to have to expect a lot more. And I have known and worked with President Karzai since 2003, I guess.
QUESTION: Are you terribly disappointed in him?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I believe that some of what we’re seeing is endemic. We deal with a lot of countries where the governments either don’t have the capacity or are plagued by corruption, cannot deliver for their people. And we know that we have to figure out how better to work with them. And at the end of the day, the people of Afghanistan have to believe that they have a government that’s on their side. Otherwise --
QUESTION: But they don’t.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, some do and some don’t. And what our challenge will be in working for the future – and our ambassador, Ambassador Eikenberry, a former general on the ground in Afghanistan, which I think gives him a unique and very important perspective – has begun the conversations with President Karzai about “What are you going to deliver for your people; who are the people you’re going to put around you; you’ve got to stamp out as much mistrust and corruption as possible given where you stand today in order to have credibility.”
We’re going to go at that really hard, because obviously, you can’t expect people who are intimidated by and abused by the Taliban and their allies, some of whom are not even Afghans, but are foreign fighters – they have this foreign ideology, this Jihadist mentality kind of perpetrated on them, if – they don’t think they have an alternative. They’ve got to believe that they’re going to be protected. And in our conversations with people below the presidential level, people working in the national government and people down in the local areas, the village elders – they all say the same thing – help us to be able to protect ourselves and then leave.
That’s a pretty good summary for what we want to do. We want to help them be able to protect ourselves, which includes having a government that will help protect them, having a military force big enough and well enough trained to be able to protect them, having an alternative narrative to be able to rebuff the Taliban and the others who are still going to be on their doorsteps. But how you translate that into day-to-day operations is what we’re considering inside the White House.
QUESTION: Because training the Afghan military is a huge undertaking and years away, isn’t it?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, it is. It is. But we’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to do that better. We didn’t do it very well in Iraq in the beginning, and we learned how to do it better. We have seen successes in other parts of the world, but no, it’s – I’m not going to put a happy face on and say, oh, yeah, we’ll get that done in a year or two. This is hard work, and it requires having a government that has the trust, the confidence, and the loyalty of the security forces. And so we’re going to try to put that together not because it’s our objective to remake Afghanistan, but because that’s in our national interest to make sure that no more attacks come out of Afghanistan, just as working with the Pakistanis is in our interest to end that as well.
QUESTION: We want to give them the tools --
SECRETARY CLINTON: That’s right.
QUESTION: -- to remake the country themselves --
SECRETARY CLINTON: That’s right.
QUESTION: -- but it’s a tough road ahead.
SECRETARY CLINTON: It is. It is.
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