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Gen. Wesley Clark: U.S. military retaliation options

General Wesley K. Clark was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 1997 to 2000, and was also the Commander-in-Chief, United States European Command. General Clark is an Armor Officer who has commanded at every level from Company to Division. He joined the chat room from Washington D.C.

CNN: General Clark, some say that military retaliation could come at any moment, others believe it may not start for weeks. What are your thoughts?

CLARK: Well, I wouldn't speculate because it really depends on the decision of President Bush. He has to weigh three considerations. First, he has to consider the significance of whatever targets might be struck in view of advancing our long-term interests. Second, he has to consider the impact on his diplomatic efforts to form a coalition. Many around the world are fearful that an American attack that kills innocent people will fuel more terrorism. And the third consideration is the expectations of the American people.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Thank you for your honorable service. In this chat room, there are people from all over the world and many of them express a concern that the U.S. will act irresponsibly. Can you give them some reassurance that we will not be wanton in our response?

CLARK: Well, the response will be determined by the president of the United States, but he will consult with allies around the world. The president has said that this is a different kind of war and he wants to build a coalition. I think there's every reason to believe he will consider when to strike. However, the overriding concern will be the safety of Americans and others around the world. And if he determines the strike is necessary now in order to disrupt preparations for an ongoing terrorist attack against us, he might well decide that it is necessary to strike.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What will happen to the Afghan people who are opposed to the Taliban if the U.S. decides to attack? I read yesterday that the Afghan people will support the U.S. with 15,000 men and a few helicopters, as their resources are limited. Should the war be fought on their grounds?

CLARK: The answer is that the U.S. will probably encourage others to increase their support to the Afghan forces opposed to the Taliban.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will Saudi Arabia permit coalition troops to be based there?

CLARK: We will ask the Saudis for whatever support is necessary. Right now it is not required to move troops to Saudi Arabia.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there any plans to support Pakistan long term if they continue to assist us?

CLARK: Yes, the U.S. government will undoubtedly increase its support for the government of Pakistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Given the terrain of Afghanistan, wouldn't sending ground troops there be like sending them into a firing squad?

CLARK: Our soldiers can take care of themselves in any terrain. But, we also know that there is no inherent advantage in occupying Afghanistan. Our objective is to end international terrorism, not to conquer countries.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What kind of lessons can we learn from the Russian conflict with Afghanistan?

CLARK: The Russians attempted to occupy the major cities, mistakenly believing that control of the cities would give them control of the countryside. It became clear that they could control neither the cities nor the countryside.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Judging from the recent mobilization of 35,000 reservists, how much farther do you think the commitment of U.S. forces, particularly conventional forces, could go?

CLARK: This is unknowable at this time. But this war will be largely be fought by diplomatic personnel and intelligence forces.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What other countries are housing terrorist organizations?

CLARK: Terrorist cells have roots in perhaps as many as 60 countries including the U.S., most countries in Europe, many in Africa and, of course, the Middle East and Asia. The question is the degree of government complicity in support for these acts of terrorism. That remains a major intelligence issue.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why isn't covert activity the major thrust of our retaliation?

CLARK: Covert activity probably will be a major part of U.S. action. But because it is covert, it won't be discussed.

CNN: Who is the actual enemy here? Will this be all over when Osama bin Laden is either captured or killed? What happens if we attack and he still isn't handed over?

CLARK: Well, our objective is to dismantle the terrorist network. But, we will quickly find that the network that directed this tragic attack is connected to many other networks.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Hello, and greetings from the United Kingdom. What do you think will be the long-term implications of this, say 20 years down the line, for relations with the Middle East and the surrounding area?

CLARK: We don't know that yet. It depends on the nature of this campaign. The possibilities range from a resolution of the Middle East dispute and tranquility, to the most nightmarish visions of regional conflict. We're engaged in an action/reaction cycle with terrorists in Middle Eastern countries, and both sides, or all sides, will have an impact on the outcome.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think that the followers of bin Laden have already infiltrated into the four corners of the world, and that in the event of a strike against bin Laden, his followers will be able to strike into the hearts of many cities in the world?

CLARK: Yes. There is great concern about follow on terrorist attacks.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today, General Clark?

CLARK: I hope that people will understand that this is a threat to Western civilization, not to the U.S. And it is a threat that cannot be appeased by apologies or changing policies toward Israel. It is derived from fundamental conflicts within Islam itself, and the impoverishment and tragedy that has befallen Afghanistan.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

CLARK: Thank you very much. I've enjoyed being with you today.

Gen. Wesley Clark joined the chat room by telephone, and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Tuesday, September 18, 2001.

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