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James Steinberg: Afghanistan war strategy

U.S. special operations troops greet a local Northern Alliance commander in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, on Monday.
U.S. special operations troops greet a local Northern Alliance commander in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, on Monday.  

James Steinberg is the head of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, and the author of "An Ever Closer Union: European Integration and Its Implications for the Future of U.S.-European Relations." He served as Deputy National Security Adviser during the Clinton administration, and was national security counsel to Senator Edward Kennedy. He joined the chat room from Washington, DC.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, James Steinberg, and welcome.

JAMES STEINBERG: It's a great pleasure to be here.

CNN: Northern Alliance soldiers on Monday gained full control of Konduz. What is the significance of this step?

James Steinberg
James Steinberg  

STEINBERG: I think there are two important impacts that this will have. The first is that it has shown decisively to the Taliban that the forces of the Northern Alliance combined with the coalition forces ultimately will be successful in the military dimension of this conflict, and that will send a powerful signal to those Taliban forces in the south that are continuing to resist. This will also assist in the efforts of the United States and its allies in its efforts to find the al Qaeda members in Afghanistan by reducing the areas in which they can operate, and make it more likely that we will be successful in finding bin Laden and his senior associates.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why now are we sending in so many U.S. soldiers on the ground?

STEINBERG: At this point, we don't know the full number of troops that the President intends to send to Afghanistan, but the focus now would seem to be on having sufficient troops able to deploy quickly to make sure that the al Qaeda forces do not escape from Afghanistan, and ultimately to track them down.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think bin Laden is still in Afghanistan?

STEINBERG: We can't know for sure, at this point, where bin Laden is. But the options for him outside of Afghanistan are very limited. Given the strong international support for this effort, very few countries would take the risk of harboring him. It is possible that he may have slipped over the border into parts of Pakistan which are sympathetic to the Taliban, but it is likely that he's either in Afghanistan, or close by.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: The Clinton administration is getting a lot of criticism for not dealing with bin Laden earlier. Do you have any comment on that?

STEINBERG: I think President Clinton made the effort to track down bin Laden and to break up the al Qaeda network as one of his top priorities, as it became clear that bin Laden was focusing his efforts against the United States. In response to the terrorist attacks on our embassies in 1998, President Clinton ordered a military strike at a camp where bin Laden was suspected to be holding meetings. The President initiated a number of intelligence-related activities to try to track down and target bin Laden. We were successful in thwarting a number of potential attacks on the United States during this period, including an effort to bomb the Los Angeles airport at the time of the millennium celebrations. But as the current effort shows, bin Laden is very difficult to track down, even under circumstances where we have substantial military assets deployed.

CNN: There has been much commentary about the fact that the Clinton administration was offered Osama bin Laden by Sudan after the embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, occurred. Is this true? If so, why did this happen?

STEINBERG: The administration was not offered bin Laden after the embassy bombings occurred. The discussion concerned a period of time in late 1995 and early 1996, well before bin Laden had been specifically implicated in attacks against the United States. At that time there were no charges pending against bin Laden, and no legal authority for the United States to retain him in custody. The United States did seek to persuade the Sudanese to send bin Laden to Saudi Arabia, and we also pressured Sudan to expel bin Laden from Sudan, to cut him off from his base of operations there. But if the United States had sought to hold bin Laden in 1996, we would have been forced to release him, and that would have been a setback in our efforts to weaken him and his associates. After the bombings in 1998, the US attorney did obtain an indictment against bin Laden, and had we been able to get access to him at that time, there would have been no obstacle to holding him and bringing him to trial.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: It looks like a high potential for urban warfare in Kandahar. It doesn't appear that Alliance forces can do that job alone. Are we on the verge of a major U.S. ground campaign?

STEINBERG: I think it's too soon to conclude that the Taliban will not surrender Kandahar, even without a major ground assault on the city. As we've seen in the case of Konduz, there seems to be a growing recognition among many of the Taliban, including some of the foreign fighters, that the war is coming to an end, and it's time for them to give up. So it may well be possible to take Kandahar without the necessity of deploying U.S. ground forces to accomplish that goal.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: A great deal of the antagonism that bin Laden had for the United States was because of the U.S. bases kept in place in Saudi Arabia after the Persian Gulf war. With an U.S. airbase being set up now in Kandahar, are we exasperating the feeling?

STEINBERG: I think that although bin Laden has talked about his objection to the U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, it's unlikely that he would desist in his terrorist activities, where those bases to be removed. At the same time, I do think that it would not be wise for the United States to maintain a long-term military presence in Afghanistan after the current mission of supporting the coalition forces, and rooting out the al Qaeda network is completed, because there is a danger over time that we could come to be seen as an occupying force, rather than supporting the efforts of the indigenous population.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How can we be certain that the Northern Alliance forces aren't becoming influenced or driven by former Taliban members?

STEINBERG: I think the composition of the future government is a matter that should largely be left up to the Afghans themselves. We should work with the Northern Alliance and other opposition forces to make sure that the leadership of the Taliban, who were responsible for harboring terrorists, are held to account. But we should not try to micromanage the process of trying to begin an effort at reconciliation in Afghanistan, following the ouster of the Taliban.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think the Taliban and al Qaeda will now launch a long term fight from the mountains now that they have lost Konduz and other places? Will the Taliban surrender or will they continue to fight, possibly launching a guerilla war out of Afghanistan's mountains?

STEINBERG: I think there is a risk that some hard core elements of the Taliban and al Qaeda will take to the mountains, and seek to launch guerilla attacks, but I think their efforts will not be very successful, if the various opposition leaders can succeed in developing a reasonably workable political coalition, and the rest of the international community works very hard to provide humanitarian and economic support for reconstruction. Because if that happens, the Taliban resistance in the mountains will find itself isolated from the people, and unable to reassert any effective political strategy to go along with guerilla raids, and over time, they will become increasingly marginalized.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Has there been any sense of what the Pashtun majority in Afghanistan feel about the war in Afghanistan?

STEINBERG: I think it's safe to say that the majority of Afghans from all of the different tribes and clans, resented the heavy-handed dictatorial rule of the Taliban and their dependence on outside fighters, the so-called Afghan-Arabs, to prop up their regime. So, for most of the Pashtun, the departure of the Taliban will be welcomed, but there will certainly be concerns that representatives of the Pashtun community have a significant say in the development of a new government in Afghanistan, one that reflects the significant portion of the population that is Pashtun.

CNN: Talks begin this week in Germany on establishing a broad-based interim government in post-war Afghanistan. What do we expect to come out of these talks?

STEINBERG: The talks will be difficult, given the long history of conflict among the groups, and suspicions that have built up over many years. But we can hope that the prospect of significant outside economic and political support will provide an incentive for the various leaders to put together a sufficiently coherent coalition to begin the task of restoring order, and meeting immediate humanitarian needs. Over the longer term, many have pointed to the Afghan tradition of a Loya Jirga [Grand Assembly] as a means of convening representatives of all segments of Afghan society to choose a new government and adopt a new Constitution.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are their any officials for the women of Afghanistan being represented in Germany for the talks?

STEINBERG: There is at this point only limited representation of women, but I think it's commendable that the Bush administration has pushed for greater representation of women in these discussions, because they have a critical role to play in the process of creating stability and beginning reconstruction.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is the role of the Marines to support the Special Forces?

STEINBERG: I think that we still don't know precisely what role the administration plans for the Marines. But they could prove useful in operations to prevent Taliban or al Qaeda forces from fleeing Afghanistan, or to support special operations efforts designed to track down Al Qaeda members who may have gone into hiding.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Considering its past support for the Taliban, should the coalition restrain Pakistan from seeking to get influence in a future Afghan government ?

STEINBERG: I think that Pakistan has a legitimate interest in making sure that the new Afghan government is not hostile to Pakistan and does not provide a base of operations for those who are against the Pakistani government. More generally, it will be important to try to take into account the fact that many of the neighboring countries have ethnic groups from their country represented in Afghanistan, and therefore will be concerned about their welfare. At the same time, much of Afghanistan's problems over the years have come from outsiders trying to force their vision on Afghanistan. And so, the effort should focus on allowing the people of Afghanistan to choose their new leadership, while providing assurance to all of the neighbors that the new government will not pose a threat to them.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How has the UN responded to the Northern Alliance's insistence on handing over foreign Taliban fighters to them?

STEINBERG: The UN has been reluctant to take on a role in handling prisoners of war, or other prisoners, in this conflict, because there are no UN military or police on the ground in Afghanistan. Rather, the UN has focused its efforts on urging the parties on the ground to respect the Geneva conventions on the humane treatment of prisoners.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

STEINBERG: I enjoyed very much the opportunity to chat with the audience. The questions were very thoughtful and reflected considerable knowledge about the important issues we now face.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

STEINBERG: Thank you. Take care.

James Steinberg joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Monday, November 26.


• Afghan Loya Jirga

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