Q&A: Rumsfeld on the War, Iraq, and High-Tech Help (extended)

When he took the job of Defense Secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld thought his biggest challenge would be modernizing the military. Instead, he finds himself overseeing the war in Afghanistan for President Bush. On Dec. 4, the Pentagon chief met with BusinessWeek Washington Bureau Chief Lee Walczak, Pentagon Correspondent Paul Magnusson, and national-security writer Stan Crock to discuss the lessons of the war. Here, in edited excerpts, is an extended version of the conversation with Rumsfeld that will appear in the Dec. 17 issue of BusinessWeek.

Q: It looks like the battle for Kandahar is at a climactic point. Will U.S. Marines be needed to secure the city?

A: The Marines were put in to establish and hold and protect the forward operating base that is being used for a host of different things, [including] resupply and the interdiction of some of the roads that go toward Iran. And obviously it could be used for lots of other things, and we have made it a point to not talk about what we might do. And we don't rule out what we mightn't do.

Q: Some rebel commanders in Afghanistan are granting amnesty to Taliban troops, but you don't want Taliban leaders to be set free. Is this a potential problem within the alliance?

A: The people involved fall into several categories. [There are] a handful of Taliban leaders, thousands of Afghan Taliban fighters, and the al Qaeda leaders and fighters who are from Arab countries [and] Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, and China. We are interested in having all of the foreigners captured or killed. With respect to the fighters, [some] are going to be put in prison. The opposition may let some go, [or] recruit some into their own forces. Some may melt away and just disappear.

Q: The Afghan war has been a blend of high-tech wizardry and low-tech special operations. Already, some analysts conclude that the Pentagon may not need all of the expensive hardware it is seeking, such as 3,000 new strike fighters. Your response?

A: It is always a mistake to pull one flower and ask what does this say about the garden. We are in Afghanistan. The next thing we do may be totally different. The way our country can best contribute to peace and stability is to have a full range of capabilities.

Q: How confident are you of finding Osama bin Laden?

A: Oh, I think we will. [And] we're not just looking for him. If he were gone today, he has a lot of lieutenants who could carry that fight on. He has activities in 40 or 50 countries. A lot of [al Qaeda] people have been killed, and some have been captured. That's all to the good. But when or how it will all sort through, I don't know.

Q: How long can the U.S. tolerate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction?

A: Those questions are above my pay grade. We've got 6 to 10 countries on the terrorist list. [Some] already have chemical and biological weapons programs. A number have been pursuing nuclear capabilities. When weapons were less lethal and [casualties] involved thousands instead of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people, you could make a mistake and it wasn't terminal. [Now,] when you're dealing with that many countries and with the close linkages [among] terrorist networks...it forces you to make different calculations.

Q: There are reports that Vice-President [Dick] Cheney, normally your ally, may not share your fervor for going after Iraq. Aren't you and Cheney normally in the same place?

A: Yeah, we do tend to be in the same place. I don't know of any differences on the Iraq question. But then we have not, as an Administration, taken any position. The reports you refer to are just speculation by people reading tea leaves.

Q: Given the escalating violence in the Middle East, is there any hope for the new U.S. peace initiative?

A: You just can't see that many innocent men, women, and children killed by terrorists and not have your heart break. When it will end? I don't know. Israel does not have a big margin of error. It is a very small country. To have a good negotiation, you need parties that can deliver.

The biggest thing delivered [to date] is the agreement between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin. They made an enormous step when they signed a peace treaty and transferred a big piece of Israel away. [Palestinian Authority President Yassir] Arafat is not Sadat. He has not been able to deliver anything to the Palestinian people.

Q: You met with technology executives in the wake of September 11. What's on your mind?

A: This department used to be the investor that caused the development of some of the most important technological advancements, from the Internet to computers. Today, I doubt that it is. It used to be an advantage to be connected with the [Pentagon], because there would be technology transfer that would benefit the private sector. We've just got to find ways to get connected with the [tech] sector. Maybe there should be some kind of [advisory] board. There are an awful lot of smart people out there.

Q: To boost weapons innovation, a Rand Institute study last year suggested focusing more on R&D and low-rate production instead of long-term production, which is the profitable part of the weapons cycle. If you do that, how will you keep the defense industry healthy?

A: Good question. A lot of the people who deal with the [Defense Dept.] are just simply not getting a return on their investment. So we have to find a way. If we're going to benefit through interaction with the private sector, the private sector has to be able to say to an investor that they got a return that's better than nothing. We also have to be sensitive to the fact that we do need an industrial base and behave in a way that enables them.

Q: With the growing closeness of President Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, are joint U.S.-Russian weapons projects a possibility?

A: If you start down a path, you don't know where it's going. But there's no question but that Russia has faced a fork in the road, and they are doing a number of things that look like they're turning West. If I were Russia, I would do that.

Their choice is to look at the world and see all the countries that are doing pretty well for their people -- Western Europe, North America, and others. Then you look at the countries that they've had historic relations with, like North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Syria, Libya. Which road do you want to go down? Do you want to spend your time with the world's walking wounded or go where the energy and the innovation and the creativity and the return and the opportunity for people is?

And I think that they're reaching down and saying, "Maybe that's where we ought to go...." And if they do that, we're better off. The Russian people are going to be better off. The world is going to be better off.

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