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We Tend to Leave Things Better Than We Found Them

We Tend to Leave Things Better Than We Found Them

Source: News Transcript from the United States Department of Defense: DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Friday, November 16, 2001 - 12:29 p.m. EST. Media availability at the Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Ill. Still photographs shown during this availability are on the web.

Rumsfeld: Good morning.

Q: Good morning.

Rumsfeld: I hope that all of you were there for that ceremony. You're late. (Light laughter.)

I hope you really were all there. I just thought it was wonderful to see. You stand there and look at those young faces that, I suppose, nine and a half weeks ago arrived on a bus or a train or were dropped off, and then almost magically they become sailors and a part of something very big and important.

So I was delighted to be here, delighted to be back in my home state. And I would be happy to respond to questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, will you tell us about the ground troops in Afghanistan? I understand you even have some photographs of the -- of Special Forces participating in saber charges on horseback.

U.S. troops ride horseback as they work with members of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan

Rumsfeld: I -- yes, I can tell you about that, and I will. (Displaying photograph.) And there's a picture of them on horseback. (Chuckles.)

U.S. special forces troops are using pack animals to carry equipment as they work in Afghanistan

Q: Hold it up --

Rumsfeld: It's actually on the Pentagon web site, so you can pull it right off. What you have is, people are jokingly saying that that's part of Rumsfeld's transformation to the 21st century, and I've got it backwards. But that's not true.

The -- we have had modest numbers of U.S. military forces on the ground in Afghanistan for weeks. We -- they have been of two types. The ones in the North have tended to be U.S. Special Forces who are embedded in Northern Alliance elements and have been assisting them with communications to bring in food, to bring in ammunition, to bring in medical supplies, winter gear, and also to communicate with the overhead air power that the United States has been supplying in Afghanistan. And every time we put a Special Forces team in on the ground, they -- targeting improved dramatically, because they know how to do it, they know how to communicate, and the aircraft coming in from all -- some from Missouri, some from Diego Garcia, some from aircraft carriers, were able to do an increasingly impressive job in destroying the forces that were opposing the Northern Alliance.

In the South, the U.S. forces that have been on the ground have been in intermittently. They have been, for the most part, Special Operations U.S. military. And they've gone in to do various tasks. They've done assessments. They've done some specific jobs of going into compounds that are owned by senior people in the Taliban or the al Qaeda, looking for intelligence. More recently they have been disrupting and interdicting some roads. But they're still relatively small numbers of people. And the bulk of the people that are opposing Taliban and al Qaeda on the ground are, in fact, Afghan; they're people there who live there and who, along with the rest of the people of that country, have been badly put upon by a terribly repressive regime.


Q: Mr. Secretary?

Q: A follow up, sir? A follow up? You said that they have been doing some targeting. Have they targeted Osama bin Laden? Do they know his whereabouts? Do you believe he's still in the country?

Rumsfeld: I suspect he's still in the country. And needless to say, if we knew his whereabouts, we would have him.

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you believe that Mohammed Atef, the senior al Qaeda leader, has been killed? And can you provide and details about --

Rumsfeld: I have no knowledge about that.

Q: -- any details about those reports that he is?

Rumsfeld: I haven't seen the reports that he is.

Q: What knowledge, sir, do you have --

Rumsfeld: He was not yesterday -- the last time I had a briefing by CENTCOM. Actually, not the last time. I was on the phone with Tommy Franks this morning here, and I heard nothing of that.


Q: Do you have knowledge, sir, if any other al Qaeda operatives, senior al Qaeda operatives, such as Mr. Atef, do you know of Mr. Atef --

Rumsfeld: Oh, Atta is not al Qaeda.

Q: Atef.

Rumsfeld: Oh, Atef. Oh, I misunderstood you.

Q: Mr. bin Laden's number two.

Rumsfeld: Yes. Strike my answer.

Q: Okay.

Rumsfeld: Yes, I have seen those reports. I've seen it in writing and I've heard it orally. Do I know for a fact that that's the case? I don't. I suspect -- the reports I've received seem authoritative. And indeed, as you point out, he was, I guess, very, very senior -- number two, something like that. We have been, obviously, seeking out command-and-control activities and have been targeting them, and have targeted and successfully hit a number of them, particularly in the last five or six days.

Q: But you don't have any confirmation on --

Rumsfeld: I do not.

Q: A follow-up on that.

Q: (Off mike.)

Rumsfeld: Can't remember.

Q: What would the role of the Special Forces be -- I mean, I understand you're not confirming that that happened, but could you tell us about the circumstances in which one of those leaders would be taken out? That would have to involve Special Forces, right?

Rumsfeld: No. No, no. It would be -- in that case -- it could be. But for the most part, it's been from the air. We've been using various intelligence assets, trying to locate folks, looking for large movements of people as they're flushed out, going after caves and tunnels, going after activities and businesses and movements that look -- where we know and can tell they are military or al Qaeda or Taliban and tracking to see what they do and then going after them.

Q: Mr. Secretary, there are reports that other bin Laden lieutenants have been captured. Can you confirm that, or --

Rumsfeld: I've seen those reports. And I'm sure that's the case, and I'm sure a number have been killed. But I do not have a laundry list of their names or really good validation of that.

Q: Mr. Secretary?

Q: -- the troops on the ground. You said this morning that none had been killed. Have any been wounded?

Rumsfeld: Sure. I think I've been over this. There have been two American soldiers who were in a helicopter in Pakistan that landed in a dusty situation, tipped over, and two crewmembers were killed and one or two were injured. They were on standby to go in and extract some American forces that had parachuted in in a Special Operations activity.

The people who went in on the Special Operations activity have parachuted in, and with any parachute drop, you end up with broken toes, broken ankles, broken fingers and that type of thing. So those are wounds, if you will. In addition, they used some explosives to break into a compound of a senior Taliban official, and in the process, some of the materials in the compound exploded, and fragmentation hit people, and they had modest flesh wounds.

Q: We knew about those, but I meant, sir, in any of the fighting that you were talking about this morning -- the interdiction, the coming upon Taliban who won't surrender. You mentioned that.

Rumsfeld: To my knowledge, no one has -- there have been no casualties, dead or wounded, on the part of the Special Forces or the Special Operations Americans who are functioning in the country, except for the ones that I've specified.

Yes, sir?

Q: The Taliban seems to have withered fairly quickly. Is this the collapse of a house of cards, or is this in fact a retreat by the -- (inaudible) -- just hiding in the caves where they want to be?

Rumsfeld: I would guess that probably all of the above. If you think about it, these folks -- the ones that have a problem are the foreigners that are in there, that come from other countries, particularly the al Qaeda, who are mostly from the Middle East, some from neighboring countries, and they are less likely to successfully fade into the communities or to defect and change sides. On the other hand, Afghans do change sides, and have, some of them on a number of occasions over the decades. And they also can fade into the community or they can go up in the mountains and hold out. Anyone who does that, anyone who goes across a border, can come back. Anyone who fades into the community can come back. Anyone who fades into the mountains can come back. Anyone who defects can re-defect. So one can't say that the circumstance is necessarily permanent in that country.

On the other hand, what you have is a -- clearly, a group of people in that country who are delighted that the Taliban is on the way out, and that they have left, a good portion, and that they're moving away from a number of cities. Their rule has been notably, even for Afghanistan, notably vicious and repressive.

Q: Mr. Secretary?

Rumsfeld: Yes?

Q: Can you go back to the Atef reports? Is it your report that he was killed in an air strike?

Rumsfeld: To the best of my recollection, it was -- the incident you're referring to involved an air strike, as opposed to action on the ground. That's my best recollection.

Q: Another follow-up. Do you put any credence at all in these reports that both Omar and bin Laden have been flown to Pakistan?

Rumsfeld: I have not seen the reports. I doubt them. It is possible. We have taken out most of the transport planes, most of the MiGs that Afghanistan had, probably most of the helicopters, although helicopters are a lot easier to hide. And we've disrupted, I think, every airport in there, although airports are repairable, and a helicopter doesn't need a runway. So I don't doubt for a minute that there are some well-hidden helicopters that we can't find and that they are undoubtedly available to the senior people, as opposed to the junior people, and that it is possible to run down a ravine and not be seen. It is also possible to climb on a donkey or a mule and just walk across the border. These borders are -- there's no guards there. It's not like there's a big barrier up. People have -- nomadic tribes have been moving back and forth across the borders of Afghanistan since time began.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what are the United States options if, in fact -- I think it's also been reported, for example, that out of Kunduz there have been some planes that have departed in the last 48 hours, allegedly carrying a leader of the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement into Pakistan. What are the options that the United States has if al Qaeda --

Rumsfeld: Well, if we see them, we shoot them down.

Q: But what's their impact if they are in Pakistan? What are the options?

Rumsfeld: Well, the government of Pakistan is not enamored of al Qaeda or Taliban. They are supporting and helpful to us. And to the extent they are able, and we are able, obviously, we would seek them out and find them there.

Q: So American forces could cross the border in pursuit?

Rumsfeld: I didn't say that.

Q: Is that an option?

Rumsfeld: One would have to talk to the government of Pakistan to see if that were an option. I mean, they have an army, they have capabilities, and they could do what the Northern Alliance has been doing in Afghanistan. The president of the United States is aware of the four or five thousand people that were killed in New York and Washington. He is aware of the threats that exist today against our country and, indeed, against the West and our interests around the world. And he is determined to find the terrorist networks and to stop them and to deal with countries that harbor them. And that is not an easy task.

It is not something that's going to be over in five minutes. It is something that is going to take a lot of time; steady pressure all across the globe, and that is what we are doing. And it does not matter much where they are, we will be pursuing them. And we intend to make life very difficult for them, and we intend to create an environment where they have less money than they have now. And we intend to try to keep gathering intelligence and arresting people and interrogating people to get more information that will make their life still harder. And we intend to try to make the life of the countries that harbor them harder. And that is what's been happening.

Q: Sir?

Q: Mr. Secretary, it's possible that bin Laden crossed over the border into Pakistan. I know there's nothing -- no confirmation right now.

Rumsfeld: Anything's possible. There certainly isn't. It would be wrong to assume you know where he is. You don't.

Q: Would the Pakistani government, the military, be actively searching for him in their country, even though it's not been confirmed, is that a possibility? Have they indicated such?

Rumsfeld: Well --

Q: You said how easy it is to cross over the border. Are they actively looking for him, even though they don't know if he's in their country?

Rumsfeld: I doubt it. One tends to get up in the morning and work off best information, and there isn't any reason to believe he's in Pakistan. There's every reason to believe he's in Afghanistan. And -- as is the case, undoubtedly, with Omar. There are lots of places bin Laden could go. I mean, he used to be in Sudan -- it was his headquarters; used to be in Somalia. He could go across into Iran or into Pakistan. There are countries that have harbored terrorists, like Syria, Iraq and Libya and Cuba and North Korea. They're all on the terrorist list. We know who they are. So he could -- he could -- he could do something like that. But I think it's -- I think it's chasing the wrong rabbit to assume that he's fled yet.

Q: Summing up, sir, this significant week, obviously extraordinary developments this week in terms of the retreat of the Taliban. May I ask, number one, did that surprise you, sir? And number two, in terms of timetable, did those extraordinary developments increase at all or move up your military timetable in terms of your goals?

Rumsfeld: We always believed that we needed to apply pressure across a broad spectrum, and that we would not know when that pressure would have the effect that we knew it ultimately would have. And we don't -- we can't know if part of the problem in -- with respect to the Taliban was things that we did in other countries that caused pressure, that people we arrested in other countries, that provided information, that caused concerns.

It's more like the Cold War than World War II. If you think of World War II, it ended with a signing ceremony on the USS Missouri. The Cold War ended kind of with a collapse internally, because of constant pressure over a sustained period of time, and eventually they crumbled from inside.

I think the Taliban is -- I would -- I think it would be a mistake to say that they've -- that they're gone and have disappeared. I -- these are people that are quite determined. I do think that they -- what has happened is that the opposition forces have found a hospitable environment to move forward. The people there want the Taliban out, and they want other people in, which is a good thing --

Q: Mr. Secretary --

Q: Mr. Secretary --

Rumsfeld: Well, make this the last question.

Q: Why do you think we have achieved in Afghanistan in a matter of weeks what the Soviets could not achieve in what was it, 10 years?

Rumsfeld: There's a lot of differences. The Soviet Union was an expansionist power that took over other countries and wanted Afghanistan. The United States is not. We covet no one's land. We want no real estate. Everyone in the world knows that. Indeed, we would prefer not to be there. (Chuckles.) We are there not because we sought out this activity but because we were attacked, and we had no choice, in self-defense. And the Afghan people know that.

Second, we tend to leave things better than we found them, which may not be the case with the Soviet Union.

(Cross talk.) Just a minute, just a minute, just a minute. I'm going to finish my answer.

Q: I'm sorry.

Rumsfeld: The Soviet Union, when it was trying to take over Afghanistan, was opposed by a superpower, the United States, that did not want them in there. There is no superpower opposing us.

The Taliban is a particularly repressive regime, and therefore the environment in that country to heave them out is much more positive in this case than in the prior case. So there are a lot of differences, and it's a mistake -- and furthermore, it's not over. The Taliban are still there. A lot of them are going to be in the mountains. A lot of them are going to be in the neighboring countries. But they haven't -- we've killed a lot. Don't get me wrong. But there's still a lot of them.

Q: Mr. Secretary, about the atrocities, there's a growing concern about the Northern Alliance as they move into these cities, as they take over the cities. Yes, there is a hospitable atmosphere for them, but there are reports coming out of Afghanistan that they are committing atrocities and that they are killing people, telling the Arabs who are there that you can surrender and be killed. I mean, that's --

Rumsfeld: Come on, now!

Q: Well, that's the reports.

Rumsfeld: It is -- there's reports on anything you want to find and repeat. The fact of the matter is that it is perfectly proper for the Northern Alliance and anyone else, including American soldiers, to tell people either to surrender or be killed. If you're in conflict, that is what you do. And if they refuse to surrender, as they're refusing to do in Kunduz right now, there's going to be fierce battles, and a lot of people are going to be killed.

Second: Where the Northern Alliance has gone in, insofar as I am aware, it is a misstatement of fact to say what you said the reports are saying. There was some looting as the Taliban left in Kabul, I am told. I am told that the -- a relatively small number of the total Northern Alliance forces available went into Kabul. They stopped the looting.

I don't doubt for a minute that there are people dead in there. But the Taliban killed people as they were leaving. We have no information that suggests that there has been the kind of thing you've cited on the part of the forces going in. Indeed, the bulk of the forces have stayed out of the city to avoid that. And I think it is unfortunate if people fling around rumors and allegations about behavior that are not demonstrated, not proved, and in my judgment thus far, not factual.

Q: What do --

Rumsfeld: And I am going to take my leave. It's nice to see you all.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).