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CNN SATURDAY

Interview With Dana Priest

Aired March 1, 2003 - 18:40   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Many people are questioning whether America's troops are being spread too thin. And it's a topic "Washington Post" reporter Dana Priest knows a lot about because she wrote her book primarily on that topic. It's called the mission. And Dana joins us now. Thank you very much, Dana, for being here tonight.
DANA PRIEST, "THE MISSION": My pleasure.

LIN: There's your book that we wanted to show folks. And I want to ask you and pick up on the Saudi Foreign Minister's point, how is it that 250,000 American troops are going to be able to maintain social order in a place that we know very little about. We don't' really know exactly what is going to happen in a post-war Iraq, or how people are going to be able to respond.

PRIEST: That's right. And that point was driven home this week by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz who said, to the surprise of many people, that they don't even know what to expect. They don't know how many troops they might need. They don't know how much it will cost. The planning right now called for a general to be in charge, for it to be a military occupation in the short run and for them to turn it over to civilians as quickly as possible. Now, if you look at history, however, quickly as possible means that it doesn't get turned over to civilians.

If you look at Kosovo, our troops have been in there several years, and Bosnia, where they have been several years before. There usually is not really a civilian authority to turn the job over to. Even in Kosovo where everyone agrees that the United Nations is in charge, the United Nations doesn't have the manpower, doesn't have the efficiencies, doesn't have the resources that the American military does. And what that has usually meant is that the town's people who are depending on somebody to help them with humanitarian relief, and setting up a civil society, everything from schools to legal systems, turns to our military to do that. And they are not well trained in that sort of task.

LIN: Well, exactly, because militaries are trained to fight wars. They are not trained to build societies, and really not much has changed since Somalia, actually, when the military first started trying to impose social order on a country.

PRIEST: Well, you're right, after the Cold War ended and the Clinton administration turned more and more to the military to do these sorts of nation building things. The army, in particular, went kicking and screaming into the mission. But it eventually accepted it, more or less. However, it does some training of its troops, but it's rather spotty. It doesn't still consider it the core of its mission. And as a result, you are really sending in, in the most part, 22-year-old fresh-faced infantrymen to try to figure out what to do in situations that they have never been trained for.

LIN: So, Dana ...

PRIEST: Solving this ...

LIN: I'm sorry -- let me interrupt you here, because we are a little bit short on time, and I want to at least get your thoughts on where this is likely to go if there is a war with Iraq, if there is a post-war regime with the U.S. military. Is there a model out there that we can look at? Will it look like Afghanistan, for example?

PRIEST: Afghanistan is not at all what the president said. There are not as many troops out there as he committed himself to. As a result, the civilians have too afraid to leave Kabul for their own safety. If you use that model, then you can be sure that Iraq will be in great distress for many years, and people out in the countryside will not have the security that they'll need to stop sort of fighting, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) fighting that people expect.

On the other hand, if they want a secure place, they are going to have to send tens of thousands. The chief of the army said several hundred thousands of American troops out into Iraq. And that will mean that they will be there for many years. That will greatly tax the army, which only has 10 divisions. And this could take two to three every year.

LIN: Dana, I wish we had more time. Thank you for joining us today. Dana Priest, the author of "The Mission."

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