Skip to main content /TRANSCRIPTS



Interview with Retired General Edward Atkeson and Ambassador Robert Hunter

Aired November 5, 2001 - 19:30   ET



DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: It is, we believe, proceeding at a pace that is showing measurable progress.


BILL PRESS, HOST: In the war against terrorism, who is winning the military battle and who is winning the war of words? This is CROSSFIRE.

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST: Good evening and welcome to "CROSSFIRE". The war in Afghanistan is now in its fifth week. U.S. bombers pounded at least five separate locations in the country today, from the far north to the south.

Reports from the ground in Kandahar say members of the Taliban are fleeing that city. Those that remain are hiding in small groups. As of tonight, that's what we know.

But there's a great deal more we don't know: the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, for instance. How long it will take to find him. Whether key leaders of the Taliban are still alive. Or more fundamentally, how the war is progressing so far. Quite well, says the Pentagon. Others are skeptical and they charge the coalition is stumbling.

That's our debate this evening. Later we'll be talking about another, no less vital element of the conflict: the propaganda war. But first the shooting war. Joining us: Ambassador Robert Hunter, who is a senior adviser at the Rand Corporation, and Retired General Edward Atkeson, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International studies. Bill Press.

PRESS: General, we all want to believe that everything is proceeding right on track. The Pentagon certainly wants to believe that and they keep telling us that. I'd like you to listen to one of the latest reassuring words. We just heard Secretary Rumsfeld, but yesterday on the -- "Meet the Press" Pentagon spokesman General Myers was on again with these words of reassurance. Just to hear them one more time. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GENERAL RICHARD MYERS, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: I think it's going exactly according to our plan. We have taken down the Taliban air defenses. We have disrupted their ability to resupply their own forces.


PRESS: So, four weeks later. Taliban are still in charge. Taliban still control every major city in Afghanistan. We still don't know where Osama Bin Laden is. Is that what you would call exactly according to plan?

MAJOR GENERAL EDWARD ATKESON, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, a month ago they ran the country. Today, they are -- they have pretty well holed up.

They can't move. They can't communicate. They are fighting a rear-guard action in Mazar-e Sharif and in Kabul. They can't feed the people. They can't -- they have lost virtually all of their air force and air defense capability. Their armored forces decimated or cannibalized for parts or dug in. They are highly dependent on unreliable, vulnerable smuggling operations, actually, for their supplies.

They have no Ho Chi Minh Trail or Cambodia sanctuary that they can fall back into, and they are not going to get a break on Ramadan. So I think we have got the momentum and we have certainly got the initiative.

PRESS: Well, we are the world's only superpower, General. I mean, we have this enormous military, and this is a stone age country. So you have the world's most powerful country probably against the world's weakest, and you don't find it strange that after four weeks, it's still going on, and they are still in power?

ATKESON: There are many ways to fight a war. There are many roads that lead to Rome. Now they have -- they have chosen one which is of minimal danger to us, maximum hazard to them. It's not perhaps in all details the -- the path I would have chosen to take it in. But I think they are on the -- on an excellent path, and I think that we'll -- we'll bring about the results that we want.

CARLSON: Ambassador, you heard the general here. After only four weeks, we have totally destroyed the Taliban's capacity to govern. We have ended Osama Bin Laden's ability to wage terror. We have prevented -- so far -- retaliatory strikes against the United States and we have done all this without losing a single American soldier. It sounds like a raging success by any definition. Isn't it?

ROBERT HUNTER, RAND CORPORATION: Well, I think it's been going the right way. Look, the important thing is to get these folks out of the terrorism business and to get the Taliban out of power.

Now it may take a while, because it's not just about the application of the military power. It is also to try to have as few civilian casualties as possible, certainly as few casualties to our force as possible, so we don't just do Osama Bin Laden's business for him by making it look like the United States is out trying to kill a lot of civilians.

We also have to try to keep the coalition together. If this takes a while, fine. What is four weeks, after all, in any kind of conflict? I think we look for too much instant gratification. So I think the Pentagon is doing it just about right.

CARLSON: Amen to that.

ATKESON: Without losing a soldier, I might say.

CARLSON: Well, that's exactly right. And you also hear -- when you don't hear that criticism, you hear the United States described as this kind of hapless victim of terrorism. Clearly, the U.S. was a victim of terrorism.

But consider what happened in just the hours following the attacks on his September 11th. U.S. intelligence had figured out with a fair amount of certainty who did it, had begun to prepare special operations -- people to be dispatched to the region -- and had begun to set up staging areas in the region.

It seems to me this has worked remarkably efficiently -- our response, that is -- from literally hours after the attack. Don't you think?

HUNTER: We also have to remember this is a war on terrorism in general. This is phase one, and it's going to go on a long time, as the administration says and as the American people expect.

So you don't want to do things just like a hail Mary dropping everything that you have in the arsenal right now if that's going to prejudice your ability to keep a coalition together, if you are going to deny the argument that is made by Osama and all these other people that somehow this is the United States against the Islamic world. Building that coalition, getting people to be with us on this, is absolutely critical to the military job. And I think the package has -- has gone pretty well.

PRESS: Well, I would believe that too. I hate to be the skeptic -- I don't hate it at all. I enjoy being the skeptic on this panel. I would believe what you guys are saying if our only source of information were the Pentagon. But it's not.

I mean, let's look at the Northern Alliance. This is our -- these guys are our hope. We are in there bombing positions so they can finally make a move -- if they ever have the guts to make a move.

The Northern Alliance was quoted last week as saying that the kind of bombing we are doing right now we could continue for 100 years and it would not dislodge the Taliban. Those are our friends over there.

And the Indian foreign minister -- or defense minister, I'm sorry -- Mr. George Fernandez, met with Secretary Rumsfeld to show this great unity that they are on our side.

The day before he met with him, he called our U.S. bombing campaign over there a waste of explosives on barren mountains and he said further, quote -- of our campaign -- "The most it will do is melt the ice on the peaks earlier than usual."

HUNTER: Has he been for a visit, I wonder? Is he...


PRESS: Well, he's -- he's a hell of a lot closer than we are. General...


HUNTER: ...about as far away as we are.

ATKESON: That's a very cute thing to say, but it really doesn't convey much. When we started it off...

PRESS: What it conveys is that we are not doing anything.

ATKESON: Just a minute.

HUNTER: That's ludicrous.

ATKESON: That's silly. But let's talk about a serious thing. War is a serious undertaking and we have undertaken this seriously.

The first targets we went after were those that we could do -- strike primarily with stand-off weapons. We took everything that was virtually vertical and turned them horizontal to sort of even the -- the path, so that now we have air supremacy -- not just air superiority -- air supremacy there. We can go anywhere in the country to further refine the attacks.

Now we have put special operations forces into the field. We have put forward air controls into the field. So now we can pick at those particulars that are annoying them. In addition to that, of course, we can always pull in a heavy -- heavy bombardment wherever we get into positions where they have entrenched fortifications and we have got to take the whole thing out.

HUNTER: The key thing is we will persevere as long as it takes. It may take awhile. And they have to know that we will continue to persevere. And whether it takes weeks or months, the final analysis is going to be the defeat of the Taliban and the end of the ability of al Qaeda to operate from there.

PRESS: All right. But I'm a tangible person, all right? Words don't do it for me. I want something I can take home. I want a coon skin cap on the wall.

So we have been there four weeks. Give me a piece of territory. Give me an air base. Give me an imam or a mullah. Give me a leader of the Taliban who has defected. Give me a city. What do you have to give me to prove that what you say is right? Nothing.

ATKESON: OK. There are difficulties in the north in both Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif. They are very close to mountains around it. Unless you control those mountains -- and they are in -- well within artillery range -- they could have artillery up there bombarding the -- the city. You don't have that situation down in the south. Kandahar is more open. You have got the desert to the south. There's a possibility down there -- and perhaps over to the west -- where we could seize airfields at a point in time.

This is a continuing flow. We have developed this in stages.

HUNTER: This is -- this is not like the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) we had in Vietnam.

ATKESON: We are ready.

HUNTER: There is -- the Taliban have no friends. They have no resupply. They are in effect totally surrounded. And if we continue to pound at them and we find somebody -- whether its the Northern Alliance or somebody else who can do things on the ground -- it will pick away at them steadily until the job is done. And I suspect what you will see is a collapse all at once.

Now if you want your coon skin cap, you are going to get it. You might not get it for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but -- but get the wall ready. We are going to -- we are going to nail it up there for you.

PRESS: But I want it tonight. I want it tonight.


CARLSON: Danielle Boone never said he wanted an imam or a mullah, did he?

ATKESON: Well, Daniel Boone didn't have to require that.

CARLSON: Maybe you will get one of those, Bill. But Ambassador, let me ask you this. Since -- almost since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, you have heard Muslim groups in the United States warn the administration not to bomb during Ramadan, never mentioning that Muslim nations have fought each other for thousands of years -- and Israel, for that matter -- during Ramadan.

But the pressure has been on the administration to pull back during that month. I want you to listen to President Bush's response to those calls.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The enemy won't rest during Ramadan and neither will we. We are going to pursue this war until we achieve our objective. As to the specific times and dates and -- we'll let the military speak to that. They are in charge of this operation. This is not a political campaign. This is a war. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CARLSON: Now, I hate to get political here on CROSSFIRE, but I know, Ambassador, you...

HUNTER: I know you never do.

CARLSON: But you served under the previous president. Is it even imaginable -- and try to be honest here -- Bill Clinton getting up and saying, "I don't care if it's Ramadan. I don't care if these pressure groups are pressuring me. I don't care if it's politically incorrect. I'm doing it anyway. Can you imagine that kind of resolve?

HUNTER: I think you would have seen Bill Clinton or Al Gore as president doing more or less the same kind of thing. This is the nation united. And we happen to have George Bush as president today, and I think he's doing what any president would do in circumstances like this, which is to persevere.

You can't stop during Ramadan. You can't stop to allow Osama Bin Laden to run off someplace else and make another video and -- and try to exploit that. You have got to keep up the pressure, just as happens when Muslims fight Muslims.

CARLSON: But isn't the remarkable thing here, it strikes me, that the coalition -- such as it is -- has held together pretty much? Musharraf is actually sounding more pro-American this week than he did last. Turkey, the Gulf states, nobody has really bolted.

HUNTER: Basically these people are against not just the United States. They are also against Islam. These are not people who -- who are in the center point of the religion. They are threatening not just regimes. They are threatening fundamental beliefs. And they are pariahs, quite frankly, for every Muslim out there who really cares about his or her religion, his or her or society.

So the idea of having a coalition together -- which the administration worked very hard to put together -- shouldn't be remarkable. But one thing we have to do in prosecuting the war, however, is to do everything possible that it doesn't pull apart.

PRESS: General, just quickly before we take a break. This cannot -- would you agree this cannot be won solely by the air and that we are going to -- as Senator McCain suggests -- need a massive infusion of ground troops?

ATKESON: I don't buy the idea of massive infusions of ground troops. I certainly would subscribe to the idea that war in general is a combined arms activity, and that the smoothest and most efficient campaigns are done when they are well fit together. And right now I think we are seeing that.

I think we can't criticize him. This is only a month into the campaign. You know, it was four months after Pearl Harbor before we could put Jimmy Dolittle -- even for 30 seconds -- over Tokyo.

And then it was another two and a half years before we were prepared to land on the center of Central Europe -- the lands of Central Europe. So don't try and rush the making of the pie or it will collapse here.

PRESS: I'm a young man in a hurry. All right. We will leave it right there. When we come back, even if we are winning the military war as the general and ambassador say, are we losing the propaganda war? More CROSSFIRE coming up.



REPRESENTATIVE HENRY HYDE, (R) ILLINOIS: This is a country that invented Madison Avenue and Hollywood. And if we can't market our own virtues throughout the world, then we are pretty poor.


PRESS: Right on. And welcome back to CROSSFIRE. In addition to the military war in Afghanistan, there's another war going on, perhaps a more important one, and that's a war for the hearts and minds of people in the Muslim world.

How successful have we been in convincing them that the war is against Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban and not against all Muslims?

Shifting to the propaganda war now with retired Major General Edward Atkeson, who served as deputy chief of staff for intelligence in the U.S. Army, and former NATO Ambassador Robert Hunter, now a senior adviser at the Rand Corporation. Tucker?

CARLSON: Ambassador Hunter, you described Osama Bin Laden as a pariah in the Muslim world. But that's clearly not true. He may be -- you know, the leaders of the different Muslim nations may denounce him or recognize that he is -- wants to overthrow them, but ordinary people in the Muslim world aren't convinced that he did it.

Two months after September 11 -- I just returned from there. I don't think I interviewed a single person who said Osama Bin Laden was responsible for those attacks.

So my question to you is, if after two months and really a vast amount of evidence that he was behind it, we can't convince the populations of Muslim countries that he's guilty. Should we even keep trying? I mean, there is -- this is not a receptive audience. This is an unreasonable audience, at least on this question.

HUNTER: Well, whether they are unreasonable or not, this is the audience we have to target and we have to succeed with. That's why in fact the -- the military campaign is trying to kill as few civilians as possible.

It's why the president put together this massive coalition -- like his father did against Saddam Hussein 10 years ago, who was trying to say he was the little guy against the Zionists and the imperialists. This is also why we need to get a lot people speaking on our behalf, not for what Chairman Hyde just said, selling Madison Avenue. A lot of people from the area, a lot of Arabs, a lot of other kinds of Muslims out there saying these things on their own behalf.

We have got to do a lot of other things, including making sure we change those policies and do those things so when -- people when they look to the United States will say, "there is a country that is trying to do something that is going to benefit us," rather than somehow being on the wrong side.

CARLSON: Well, good luck. The White House can't even get Muslim groups in the United States to rally to its cause. But let me ask you this.

There -- I mean, this is a population in the Muslim world that is not used to living with a free press. It's not used to living under a transparent democracy.

And as a result, I believe, is totally in the thrall of these wild conspiracy theories that Al Gore is Jewish and so is Rudy Giuliani and with the Israel intelligence, they blew up the World Trade Center buildings.

I mean, can you really tell me that there is hope to convince people who believe something that outlandish, to present them evidence and hope that they come to the correct conclusion?

HUNTER: Yes, I think they can believe the evidence and come to a correct conclusion if we do it in the right way, get the right people to say it, and also do other things within the region.

We, I think, right now should be proclaiming a major reconstruction and modernization campaign throughout the whole region, with lots of money behind it.

We should -- at this moment the president should be appointing somebody very senior -- somebody like Henry Kissinger or Jimmy Carter -- to be the Arab-Israeli peace negotiator and get that fighting stopped.

The United States should be joining with the European Union to say we are going to make a real matter of this part of the world and help these people understand where we are coming from, rather than the kinds of things they have been fed in this incredible propaganda. Lots of things we can do. We haven't even started to do them.

PRESS: General, there's a very disturbing article in "the New York Times" yesterday under the headline, "More and More," comma, "Other Countries See the War as Solely America's."

I just want to read you one line from that article. It's talking about this problem that Tucker and the Ambassador have been discussing about the image and the perception in the Arab world about what is going on. This sentence: "Portraits of the United States as a lonely, self-absorbed bully taking out its rage on defenseless Afghanistan are on the rise."

If that is so, as a military person, wouldn't you agree that that's a serious problem, in fact more serious than how well the bombing campaign has gone?

ATKESON: No, I don't think it is, because I think that it affects a different crowd. The crowd we have to affect right now is the Taliban in the field. And we do that most effectively by killing Taliban.

And we of course lay over that psychological warfare. We have care for the people. We have put bundles of food out the back of our planes. We have dropped over a million packages of food. We're putting blankets out there. We are beginning to get people on the ground.

And as we get more acclimated in the territory, we'll be able to have more medical people come in and take part in this. You know, 15 percent of the Taliban -- of -- of the Afghan babies die before they are five years of age, primarily because men aren't allowed to look at undressed women, and they are the only people who can read and write because the women can't learn.

So what you have is this -- this terrible middle age kind of a treatment of the people. And if we can get in there and provide aid and food and care for the people in conjunction with the military activity, we'll have an unbeatable combination.

HUNTER: Bill, you said you are a young man in a hurry. If you're a young man in a never, you are never going to get out of the war on terrorism. One, because this could take years. We have to take all this period of neglect, all this period in which we did things that got us on the wrong side and reverse our actual behavior and then that will reverse the image.

PRESS: Right.

HUNTER: In terms of helping countries come into the modern world, in terms of working harder to get the Arab-Israeli conflict solved, in terms of putting in lots of resources. Otherwise, we are going to still have terrorism even after we kill Osama Bin Laden.

PRESS: By the way, Secretary Rumsfeld today said it will take months, not years, which is again another different version of how long it's going to take. We have heard different things.

HUNTER: The war itself is taking a long time.

PRESS: We've heard different things out of the Pentagon. But I want to come back to the -- to your point, General, because again, let's look at maybe -- again, what some of our allies in the region are saying.

The same article I mentioned in "the New York Times" quotes the editor of the leading newspaper in Turkey, which again, we are depending on for getting troops out of there and for air bases, et cetera saying, quote, "As long as this" -- Ismet Berkan is the editor of that newspaper, the "Radikal" -- "As long as the U.S. keeps killing civilians, it will not differ from the organizations it is fighting against. The only difference is that the U.S. apologizes."

Every day that we are bombing and every day we are accidentally killing civilians, aren't we making the propaganda war harder to win, if not impossible?

ATKESON: War is a terrible thing. War kills people and breaks things. And we can't get away from that. We have been at that for centuries untold. So people will continue to die. We try and minimize that by accurate targeting and careful selection of the weaponeering for the targets that we do go after.

We have been -- we have been very restrained. We have restrained ourselves, I think, very carefully in the process of this. But that does not mean that we are not going to pursue this vigorously and that people will become to recognize that.

Now, there are a number of other channels that we are following. As you know, this al Jazeera radio system and television system throughout the Middle East. Yesterday we had the former ambassador to Syria speaking in Arabic on that program. I myself have taken part in programs through MBC, the Middle East broadcasting system and through Kuwaiti TV. So we are getting on there. We are telling the story, and this is going region wide.

HUNTER: But -- let me put it a different way. We have to win the war. But we also have to win the hearts and minds. The second is going to take a lot longer. If we just end this war by defeating the Taliban, getting Osama and then walked away, we would have terrorism year in and year out.

We are now stuck in the area. We have responsibilities to discharge, and I think as a people we are now up to it. We have left it too long. We are going to be there for the duration.

CARLSON: Ambassador Hunter, General Atkeson, thank you both very much. Bill Press and I will be back in just a moment to wage our own propaganda war. Me more effectively than Bill. We'll be back in a moment with our closing comments.


CARLSON: OK. We had a great and deep and true quote on the show tonight from General Atkeson who said, "War kills people and it breaks things." Americans -- generals understand this and the Muslim world understands this. And I think we need to stop worrying about civilian casualties and our perception there.

PRESS: I totally disagree.

CARLSON: But truly, they understand that war entails that sort of thing.

PRESS: There's no doubt -- there's not doubt we are going to win the military war. I have serious doubts that we are going to win or even know how to fight the propaganda war, Tucker. They should hire us. We'll tell them.

CARLSON: Not likely.

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: From the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE. See you then.




Back to the top