Interview of the Vice President by Juan Williams, National Public Radio
The Vice President's West Wing Office
Q: As you've been traveling around the country this campaign season, you've been making a case for why Iraq matters. Here I quote, you saying, "The terrorists want to seize control of a country in the Middle East so they have a base for launching attacks. . . they've declared their intention to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, and to cause mass death here in the United States."
If the threat is that serious, why not send hundreds of thousands of troops to defeat them?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, the problem we're faced with out there is -- obviously, there have been problems in Afghanistan, problems in Pakistan, problems in Iraq, problems in Saudi Arabia, and the key to success is getting the locals into the fight on the right side. That means both from the standpoint of political systems in Afghanistan and Iraq where we've had to stand up new governments, get them to take on responsibility for their own governance. It also means training and equipping their own forces.
In the final analysis, the U.S. cannot take on direct military responsibility for all of those countries. It would not be sound policy or sound strategy. What we can do is help them get up and running so they can do it themselves. So we're working now on sending up 70,000 Afghan nationals in the new Afghan National Army. We're working on what -- 325,000 is our target for the security forces inside Iraq. We obviously cooperate in places like Pakistan where we work with the Pakistani intelligence services against the target.
It depends, country by country, on what you do, but ultimately the struggle, if you will, with the more radical elements of Islam, represented by al Qaeda, can only be one if you can, in fact, get a substantial portion of the Islamic world actively in the fight against the extremists.
Q: But I was talking about Iraq specifically. Why not put a larger force on the ground?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, because the judgment has been up until now that the key for us in Iraq is to get the Iraqis into the fight. And we've got 140,000 roughly troops there now, U.S. and coalition forces, and we've worked very aggressively to stand up, and we're -- I think George Casey said today, we're about 75 percent of the way there in terms of getting an Iraqi force that's able to provide for their own security.
The sooner we do that, the sooner we can reduce our own presence and turn things over to them. But that's -- you know, it's a tough process. It's difficult right now. A key to it, lots of times, is getting American personnel embedded in those Iraqi units so that they fight alongside them, and we're able to impart training, and knowledge, and experience, and so forth to their units.
They're doing better all the time. They've still got a long way to go before they'll be in a position where they can take over prime responsibility themselves.
Q: Do you think you're getting good advice, good estimates from the generals who tell you that they have enough men on the ground and women on the ground to get the job done?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think we get honest advice from them. I think George Casey gives it to us straight in terms of what he thinks he needs, and that if he thinks he needs more troops, we'll send him more. We have, in fact, beefed him up on a couple of occasions in connections with holding elections, for example, or moving in a brigade we had positioned in Kuwait and sending it up into Iraq to help, or recent adjustments we made in terms of putting more troops, U.S troops into Baghdad to help with the Baghdad security problem.
So we'll give him whatever resources he thinks he needs. And my experience with George Casey is he's a first class officer, and he tells us what he wants. When you put American forces over there on the ground, there's all the support mechanism and so forth that goes with them. It costs a lot of money, relative for example, to say, having Iraqi forces up and trained.
And so the sooner we can get everything turned over to the Iraqis, the better off we'll be. That's our ultimate strategic objective, but you can't do it right away because they're not sufficiently trained and equipped yet to do it. A lot of their units are, but they're still got a long way to go before they'll be up to the full strength, as well as taking lead responsibility.
Q: But given what you say about the threat that's posed by the chaos in Iraq and the continuing, in fact, rising death tolls we've seen, you've got to wonder if the generals are telling you the right information about what they need, or whether they're simply trying to limit (inaudible) you consider --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I -- I spent some time as Secretary of Defense myself, Juan. The men that we've got serving at the upper levels of the U.S. military today I think are some absolutely outstanding individuals. George Casey, John Abizaid sort of have the lead responsibilities in Iraq and for that region -- are outstanding officers. They know the region very well. Abizaid even speaks the language. They are, I think, very good advisors to the President, and they're the guys on the ground who have to, in fact, execute on the policy. And so I think --
Q: -- want to hear?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No.
Q: Same thing with intelligence, with CIA and with the relationship and the quality of intelligence that you're getting here.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, the quality of -- intelligence is a different proposition. It's rarely 100 percent in terms of accuracy. And obviously there were problems with intelligence in Iraq early on -- had problems back in '90 and '91. I can remember, when I was Secretary of Defense and the run-up to Desert Storm. We got estimates on the extent of the Iraqi nuclear program at the time that underestimated how robust the program was and how far along they were.
You never get perfect intelligence. Once in a while, they'll be -- the events of World War II that led up to the Battle of Midway, when you know exactly where the enemy is and when they're going to be there. But that's rare. And especially in these kinds of circumstances, you're working with the best you can do. We get a lot better intelligence now, I think, that we're inside Iraq, that we've got a lot of people on the ground. The Iraqis have got an intelligence service stood up themselves.
We've got a lot of people obviously working that account as well, too, but you still -- lots of times, you're in the business of judgments, of assessments, of doing the best you can with the available information. And lots of times, the enemy may be especially difficult to penetrate in terms of getting any human intelligence from it. And they do everything they can to obscure what their plans and intentions are so we can't find out. So -- but we're getting -- I think we're getting -- I would say we're significantly better today than we were, say, before 9/11 in terms of the quality of our intelligence on these targets.
Q: There was a story about you sending coordinates over to David Kay about where to look for weapons of mass destruction. I saw that, I thought, is it the case that you think you have intelligence -- separate sources of intelligence, as opposed to what's coming through Central Intelligence, established intelligence --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, I didn't send any coordinates. Somebody on the staff may have been in touch with him. But I wasn't in the habit of calling David Kay at 3:00 a.m. in the morning to give him coordinates that -- where he needed to go look.
There may have been a request come in through a congressional office or something like that, that somebody had heard from somebody, or somebody suggested that there were weapons hidden in a particular spot, then that would have been passed on to the appropriate people to check it out, that kind of thing. But I have not been involved in making those kinds of calls.
Q: You accused the Democrats of self-defeating pessimism. The whole question about what is cut and run, given the conversations that are taking place here at the White House (inaudible) have you redefined what that means, cut and run?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I would define it in terms of what the strategy is of our opponents, and that -- keep in mind, and I think General Casey made this point this morning in his briefing -- we've never been defeated in a stand-up fight in Iraq in over three years. What the enemy is banking on is that they can break our will, that the American people don't have the stomach for the fight.
And Osama bin Laden has believed this for years. He goes back and cites the experience of Beirut in 1983, where after we lost 240-some people, we then withdrew from Beirut and so forth. He cites these examples to validate his strategy. And when we see the Democratic Party recommending that we withdraw from Iraq, that we say, oh, it's too tough, we better pack it in and come home, that basically is validating the al Qaeda strategy. It says, yes, Osama bin Laden is right, the American people don't have the stomach for the fight.
We can't afford to let that happen. And, in fact, our success in place like Afghanistan and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia I think is put in jeopardy if, in fact, we don't get the job done in Iraq. If you're Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and you put your life on the line every day just going to work as the President of Afghanistan, given that there's still Taliban activity there and so forth, if he looks over and sees that the Americans don't have the stomach for the fight and decide to bail out on the Iraq proposition, what's that say to him? Can he count on us in Afghanistan, will we stay the course in Afghanistan? Are we willing to, in fact, follow through on our commitments and complete the mission?
So there's a lot riding on this, and the notion that somehow we can separate out Iraq from all of the other activity that's involved in the region, I just think is a foolish one. You don't have that luxury that, in fact, if we were to do that, all we would do is reinforce the basic al Qaeda strategy and probably incur even more attacks.
Q: So what do you do in terms of benchmarks or timetables? What is the consequence, what's the stake at the end in terms of the U.S. putting pressure on the Maliki government?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's got to be conditions-based, in terms of what we do with respect to how long we have to stay. I don't think you can just set an artificial timetable. I think, in fact, with respect to the Maliki government, it's very important we make the point to them repeatedly that both politically and from a security standpoint, they've got major responsibilities here. They've got to deal with the political situation themselves. We can't really do that for them. We can help, and we can try to facilitate. They've only been in business six months. That's as long as Maliki's been prime minister.
And so I think we have to be a little bit understanding here that these are extraordinary circumstances they're trying to operate under, and they do have a very difficult assignment. But it also -- we have to make it clear to them, just like we do everybody else out there, to the Afghans, as well, too, ultimately you're responsible for your own country. You've got to control the sovereign territory of Iraq. You've got to be able to guarantee that it's not a safe haven for terrorists, and provide for the security your people need in order to be able to go on with their daily lives, and that means you've got to reach political decisions and judgments, as well as engage in creating the kinds of armed forces that you're going to need to be able to defend the nation. That's our objective.
Q: One last question, do you think -- this business about last throes of the insurgency, do you think they're in the last throes now?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I can't say that. I made it clear earlier that I would have expected that the political process we set in motion, the three national elections and so forth would have resulted in a lower level of violence than we're seeing today. It hasn't happened yet. I can't say that we're over the hump in terms of violence, no.
Q: Okay, in terms of civil war, would you call it that?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I don't think it's a civil war. You've got a united government, a unity government in place. You've got united military forces in terms of the army, and to some extent the security force. When I think civil war, I think Antietam, Gettysburg. I don't think we're there yet. But there's no question there's a lot of sectarian violence, a lot of Shia on Sunni violence.
Al Qaeda's strategy after all was to go in and try to provoke exactly that kind of thing, and they obviously have had some success. But I also think six months this government has been in business; it's been a little over three years since we went in and took down the Taliban -- Saddam Hussein's regime; and we've made a lot of progress. We still have a long way to go. Nobody should underestimate how difficult it is, but just because it's difficult doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. We need to do it. We have to do it.
Q: What about people that suggest partition (inaudible) partition is an idea that you would consider?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'm going to leave it right there. Okay?
Q: Thank you, Mr. Vice President.
Richard B. Cheney, Interview of the Vice President by Juan Williams, National Public Radio Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/285919