Return to Transcripts main page
THIS WEEK AT WAR
The Week's War Reporting
Aired December 23, 2007 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
TOM FOREMAN, HOST: Turkey strikes Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq as Iraqis take control of a key southern city from the British. If NATO can't do the job in Afghanistan, is it up to the U.S. to send more troops?
And, Iran gets a nuclear assist from Russia. Is this the groundwork for an atomic bomb? THIS WEEK AT WAR right after a look at what's in the news right now.
FOREMAN: Here is where they stand in THIS WEEK AT WAR. Another sign of progress in Iraq as British troops in the south turn over security duties to Iraqi forces. But a down arrow for Iran as a shipment of Russian nuclear fuel raises new fears there. The war is not going well in Afghanistan. And it doesn't look as if America's allies are going to be able to do the job there by themselves. And a new military strategy is saving lives in Iraq by attacking the bomb- maker instead of the bomb. That's how things stand. And here's where we're going to find out what's coming next. Harris Whitbeck is in Baghdad. We'll ask him if the Iraqi Army is ready to go it alone. Retired General David Grange has been watching the war in Afghanistan. Will an overstretched U.S. military have to send more troops to fight the Taliban? And Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr is keeping an eye on Iran. Are the Russians enabling their quest for nuclear arms? THIS WEEK AT WAR.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JULIET BREMNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Proud of their country and now a step closer to controlling it. Britain finally signed away her active military role in Iraq. A signature that spelled the end of a protractive and unpopular campaign.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOREMAN: In the south, Iraqis celebrated this week as British troops handed over security duties and moved to the sidelines. But in the north, Turkish jets reportedly assisted by information from the United States, blasted away at Kurdish rebel positions up there. So, is Iraq even close to being ready to really protect and control itself? Now, Harris Whitbeck is in Baghdad. He joins us now. And with me in our Washington studio is Sam Brannen, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I turn to you, Harris. Is Iraq getting closer to ready to really control its own land? HARRIS WHITBECK, BAGHDAD: Well, the British certainly seem to think so, Tom. Last week, they turned over control of a Basra province. That's a very strategically important province because of its port activities and because of the oil down there. They had at one time 5,000 British troops. The British prime minister said he hopes to reduce those troops to 4,500 by December and then after that there will still be 2,500 troops based at an airport in Basra. Control of the security of the city will be handed over to the Iraqi police as first-responders. The Iraqi army would be called in as necessary. And as a last resort and with the permission of the Iraqi prime minister, those British troops at the airbase would still be called upon if necessary. In general, there has been more progress made here, particularly in the security situation in Baghdad and the western provinces. So, I'd say, yes, there is some progress being made.
FOREMAN: Sam, let's turn to the map and see what we're talking about. Basra is down here. Terribly important area because of access to ports down there and frankly, for the exit route for our troops that eventually come out will be involved with that. What does this represent? Does this represent progress by the government and the military there or more of this stepping-down of the militias that aren't increasing the violence so much?
SAM BRANNEN, CTR. FOR STRATEGIC & INTL STUDIES: I think what it really represents is the withdrawal of the British from the conflict in Iraq. In a sense, the British have been doing right what we didn't do right until General Petraeus got into Iraq. They've been waging a counter-insurgency war. They've been trying to be out on the streets, on the beat, like our troops are in the rest of Iraq. So, in some ways, they may have put Basra on better footing than the rest of the country. Basra may be ahead. Although, I would say that the problems with the militias are only beginning in Basra. And my reason for that is that, for instance, Muqtada al-Sadr has said that he has, again, told his Mahdi army to step down. But, when they actually enter the conflict, that could significantly change the dynamic -
FOREMAN: Because they have to fight for control down there. Let's fly this map to Baghdad. Let me ask you about this, Sam. I want to show you two different views of Baghdad. This is Baghdad from a few years back and it shows some sort of a division in the town between the Sunni and the Shia neighborhoods. If we could bring that up it will give you a sense of what we're talking about. There they are from a few years back. But now, this is today. And you can see that the Shia have much more spread their area and their influence. What is that going to mean? Will this lead to peace because there are fewer warring factions or more war because the others are getting more desperate?
BRANNEN: Well, in the short-term it has led to peace. The homogenous neighborhood and the homogeneous areas of Iraq where it's only Sunni, only Shia, only Christian, those areas have been relatively peaceful and that's been enforced by the United States literally on a neighborhood-to-neighborhood basis. These neighborhoods are cordoned off from one another by a series of conflict checkpoints and by 30-foot-high cement barriers. The question is how sustainable is it? What happens is there an Iraq in which you can take those cement barriers down and actually have a sustainable peace? And we don't know the answer to that. And that's the trick with Iraq generally is when can we leave, when can the Iraqis take over their country?
FOREMAN: Harris, is there a sense on the streets of Baghdad as to when that time might be? Do people there look at Basra and say maybe we're moving closer in Baghdad? Maybe people are leaving?
WHITBECK: No, I don't -- we don't get that sense on the streets of Baghdad, Tom. And there's still - a lot of things are getting a lot better, of course, the actions by local citizen groups, the so- called "Awakening Councils" are really being seen as one of the main factors for decreasing the levels of violence in the capital and in some of the other provinces in the country. But they are seen as only one factor of this decrease in level of violence. And I -- as much as many people here would like to see U.S. and coalition troops leave here, I don't think many people here feel that the timing is right yet.
FOREMAN: Sam, I want to turn back to the map here and fly now up to the border here. This is an important part of this equation. The Kurds are generally up in this area and there have been Kurdish rebels along this border within striking into Turkey and Turkey doesn't like it much and they struck back this week. I want to listen, if we can, to sound here from a report by Barbara Starr about the U.S. role in those strikes this week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For weeks, the U.S. has been flying U2 spy planes and drones over the mountains to gather intelligence. U.S. military personnel are in Turkey, analyzing the data gathered and handing it to the Turks. The U.S. military, which controls Iraqi air space, was informed by Turkey about the strikes according to a U.S. official. The U.S. didn't oppose it.
FOREMAN: Sam, what are we supposed to make of all of this? Is this the work of the Turks, the works of America or the work of the Iraqis? Or everybody agreeing these rebels are bad for all of them right now?
BRANNEN: I think at a fundamental level, everybody agrees the rebels are bad. But this is complicated because the bombing was authorized on the basis of an intelligence sharing agreement that was signed in early November when Turkish prime minister came to the Oval Office. That intelligence sharing agreement was essentially what Secretary Gates had said earlier, there's no point in the Turks bombing the PKK if they don't know when they're going to be a target and where they are. So what we did was we provided the Turks with real-time targeting packages based on our superior collection assets, our overhead, unmanned aerial vehicles, satellite imagery and other means and we've been able to pass that along to the Turks and enable them to strike the PKK in a more precise way. And the reason we're so concerned about that is that we don't want to effect the dynamics of our excellence relationship with the Kurds. The Kurds are without doubt, the United States' greatest ally in Iraq. Not only that they play a constructive role in central government, hold together the otherwise quite fractious central government, but in northern Iraq, the oil exports are picking up. The stability -
FOREMAN: So, we're looking much, much better. (INAUDIBLE). Well, thanks so much for coming in, Sam. We appreciate it. Harris as well in Baghdad, thanks for being here.
Coming up later: Flash brief. Around the world in 90 seconds. And straight ahead: Why are the Russians sending nuclear fuel to Iran? Aren't they are our allies?
But first, please join us for a THIS WEEK AT WAR remembrance on late Corporal Joshua Blaney of Matthews, North Carolina, was killed earlier this month by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. As a young boy, Joshua always wanted to be a soldier. He was wounded in 2003 during a tour in Iraq, but that didn't stop him when the time came to ship out for Afghanistan. His mother says she takes comfort in knowing that he is in the better place now.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DIANNE MASSEY, MOTHER: I know he's up there looking down on us and saying, mom, I'm OK. I'm home now.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOREMAN: Our thoughts are with the family, of course. Corporal Joshua Blaney is 25 years old.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: We learned the hard way what happened when we allowed a failed state to emerge in Afghanistan under Taliban control.
STARR (voice over): U.S. commanders say about 4,000 more troops are needed and privately, they say, since NATO won't likely send any, it's the U.S. troops that may have to fill the gap.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOREMAN: That was Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr on Thursday laying out the tough choices facing U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. So, is it time for the U.S. to move more troops in there? Retired Brigadier General and CNN military analyst, David Grange is with us Chicago and here in our Washington studio, Steven Simon. He's with the Council on Foreign Relations. General, let me start with you. We've been saying for so long that there would not be more troops going back to Afghanistan. Is the U.S. government going to be able to hold with that or are troops going to go?
BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: If the ground commander, the ambassador, if they say, their assessment, that they need more troops, whether it be from NATO or the United States, and I'm sure that's the case and that's why a comment like that up front is a very dangerous thing to say. I mean, you're in war. And things do change. And so -- and the enemy has a vote. And as these conditions change, you have to adapt your tactics. You have to adopt your strategies some other times. And it has to be tied into the rest of the region. And so, there's a good probability that more troops will be needed. If they are needed, they should be sent.
FOREMAN: So, general, you're saying the dangerous comment is for a political leader here of either party to say ahead of time, we won't be sending more troops or we'll have to send more troops?
FOREMAN: All right. Steven, let's turn to the map here, for a minute here as we move on. Afghanistan is a big area. If you dropped it on the United States, it would cover a lot of ground here. Why has it been so hard for this to be brought under control with the troops that are there?
STEVEN SIMON, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Well, in part you need a lot of troops to control a given space. There are generally, force to population ratios that the military goes by. You know, the number of soldiers you need on the ground to control a certain number of the population, and we're not anywhere near that ratio.
FOREMAN: I want to bring up an alternative map here which shows the tribal areas here where these allegiances in many cases may be much stronger than the country allegiances in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is in Pashtun alone in this area and there are many others around it. How much does that complicate the equation?
SIMON: Well, it complicated the equations considerably because on the Afghan side, about 40 percent of the population is Pashtun. On the Pakistani side, about 15 percent is Pashtun. They share a culture, they share an ethnicity, they share a way of looking at the world and, you know, if they don't take the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan very seriously. For them, that whole area is essentially Pashtunistan. It's the land of the Pashtuns. So, that border is, in effect, open and that creates real security problems for the U.S. and Afghanistan.
FOREMAN: I want to turn to a fact file if we can to give you on idea of what we have right now in Afghanistan, which is about the size of Texas as we understand it. There are about 26,000 NATO troops there now. About 24,000 U.S. troops. Six thousand three hundred people killed in 2007, the worst since 2001. And we always talk about opium productions. It's up an awful lot there and 93 percent of the world supply comes from there and that provides funding, very often, for criminal endeavors and terrorist endeavors. When you look at these numbers, General Grange, would you want to be in charge of the force that had to control that or would you be saying I need more?
GRANGE: Well, I'd probably say I need more, but not just troops. See, because of the things you just mentioned in this operating environment, the commerce part with the -- with the locals needing to grow the poppy, the intermediaries that buy it, move it, as it goes into the heroin trade, lines of communications, people educating others in villages and understanding to get the tie-in between the tribes, establishing these cultural relationships. It takes more than a GI, though the GI is a big piece of it. So, I think the whole operation is done on the cheap, and that it needs an insert of not only soldiers, but State Department officials, USAID, non-government organizations, volunteer organizations and et cetera in a more robust way than we have there today if we want to succeed.
FOREMAN: You know, general, you're bringing up a point that we've talked about many times here. Steven, I want to get your reaction to this. From the beginning of this war and the war in Iraq, many people have stood here and said, we are not doing a good enough job on the other part of the war -- the social side, the government side, the diplomatic side. Are we getting any better at that? Are we going to get any better at it?
SIMON: No, we're really not. And as much as we need more troops for Afghanistan, it doesn't make sense to put them in unless it's part of a broader diplomatic and economic strategy. This means getting the situation with Afghanistan under control; getting that border under control, which requires the cooperation of Pakistan; getting the Iranians to play ball with us in Afghanistan, which is hard because diplomatically, we're at odds with Iran in so many, so many fronts; and it needs more money.
FOREMAN: Listen to what President Bush said on Thursday about this -- a big concern.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH, UNITED STATES: My biggest concern is that people say, well, we're kind of tired of Afghanistan, therefore, we think we're going to leave.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOREMAN: General Grange, isn't a fair measure that often the team that wins any war is the team that is willing to stick it out and hang in there? And I must say, the president raises, I think, a fair point. A lot of people of this country are just tired of war right now.
GRANGE: I think the people are tired of war. Part of it has to do with the society, the fast pace of the global information environment today. But the truth of the matter is that when you commit yourself to war, you have all of these second and third order effects that many -- most times are not accounted for. For instance, V.A. benefits, hospitals. We're going to stay a long time because this type of conflict takes a long time. You almost have to look at something like Afghanistan, bordered by Pakistan and Iran and the strategic part of the world for us today, it's almost like you look at the DMC (ph) in Korea. This is a long-term commitment if we want to win. And my personal view is, we must win.
FOREMAN: And Steven very, very briefly, if you had to predict how long we'd be in Afghanistan if we want to do it right, how long would it be?
SIMON: Ten years.
FOREMAN: Wow. Quite a time.
SIMON: It will take a long time.
FOREMAN: Thanks so much, Steven for being her and general as well, good discussion. General Grange will stick around to talk about U.S. military strategy that is saving lives in Iraq today. We'll ask him why it wasn't used earlier.
But first: A look at the work of combat photographers in THIS WEEK AT WAR. Mohammad Sheik Nur (ph) was on a rural road in Somalia as this government soldier displayed the components of a remote- controlled bomb. A simple cell phone call would have set off a land mine, a common tactic in fighting there. An Iraqi girl demonstrates for the freedom of a Shiite who's being held for 14 months without charges against him. Kareem Kadim (ph) took this image of rage in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. On Monday, an anonymous photographer took this picture of a man grieving over the bodies of his family killed in clashes with insurgents near the Iraqi city of Baquba. And finally, boy, does this image speak volumes about the emotions that stand in the way of any peace process in the Middle East. Sebastian Sean (ph) watch as a Palestinian demonstrator faced off literally with an Israeli soldier near the West Bank city of Ramada.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED U.S. ARMY: The building we're in right now, it's a torture facility. It's got a lot of chains up on the ceiling. It's also got the chains where they would shackle the people up there. (INAUDIBLE). We had several different torture -
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOREMAN: A horrific discovery made by U.S. troops at an al Qaeda hideout north of Baghdad. A point of reminder of what finally drove many Iraqi insurgents to make deals with coalition forces. Now, deaths are down, IED attacks are down, and apparently, it all could have happened years ago. In Chicago, once again, we're joined by CNN military analyst, Retired Brigadier General, David Grange and with me in Washington, "USA Today" military reporter, Tom Vanden Brook. Tom is one of the authors of an investigative story in "USA Today." The headline says it all: Strategy that's making Iraq safer was snubbed for years. And Tom, let me start off with you. What are you talking about?
TOM VANDEN BROOK, USA TODAY: Well, Tom, what we're talking about is essentially beginning early this year, U.S. strategy shifted from standing up Iraqi security forces and us standing down to us being in charge of providing security for the Iraqi people. And I just returned from Baghdad last week, where I spent a week with the fourth Infantry Brigade Combat Team and I saw how it worked. Essentially, what you have are walled enclaves of about 10,000 people. And these are 15-foot-high concrete barriers. There's a checkpoint that allows people in and out and that prevents insurgents from moving weapons, bomb-making materials.
FOREMAN: And how is this different from what we were trying to do for several years?
VANDEN BROOK: Well, we would clear an area, clear a neighborhood, and then stand up the Iraqi forces. They were the ones in-charge of holding and building. The problem was they weren't capable of that.
FOREMAN: Why, general, did this not work for so long over these years?
GRANGE: Well, I don't think we understood the operating environment. And it could be very many reasons for that. You know, things do change. So, it may not have been a perfect strategy at the very beginning but some violation of doctrine did take place. For instance, you have to secure the population before you can have any kind of quality life, any kind of human services. It just doesn't happen unless they're secure. And that is just a prerequisite. You must do that. And the next piece is on training, you have to show who you're training, how to do it right before you ask them to do it. You can't do it and leave. You have to do it, they see you do it, they're with you, then, you transition maybe. But we didn't do that, I don't believe, up front properly.
FOREMAN: Tom, what you write about this article is something we've talked about a number of times in this show. The idea that there were Sunnis, for example, who for years were saying, we want to cooperate with you, we want to make a deal with you. But. we were so hell-bent on this idea of a central government reaching out and doing it our way. I mean, this really seems like a squandered opportunity.
VANDEN BROOK: It may have been. Although, now you see -- and I talked to an Iraqi cardiologist, for instance, a Sunni and he was telling me that they weren't willing to give tips to the American soldiers because the American soldiers would leave and they're left with the insurgents. Now, that the American soldiers are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they feel more confident that if they give them a tip, the soldiers will follow up on it.
FOREMAN: How much is that a result of the surge, that there are more troops to do that, and how much of this adoption of a new technique that said, we must be out there, that fit into this awakening?
VANDEN BROOK: I think that General Petraeus said it recently that it's more how the troops are used as opposed to the numbers. The numbers are up certainly, 30,000 over this point last year but it's the way they're being used.
FOREMAN: Let's take a look at something that was said in your article. The White House spokesman said, "Throughout the war, many people have come forward with various suggestions and ideas from more troops to get out now. The president has listened to the commanders on the ground and the Defense Department." General Grange, one of the complaints about this war, obviously from the beginning, was that the White House and an awful lot of politicians in Washington either didn't listen to the generals on the ground well enough, to adopt these strategies that might work or the generals on the ground didn't get it themselves. What do you think it was and what do you think the cost was?
GRANGE: Actually, it was a combination of both. There's military leaders that don't understand unconventional warfare. They were never trained in it, properly. And so the effects that they were trying to get, they used means that were not appropriate for a regular warfare or unconventional warfare. And then the leadership, the decision-makers, in civilian clothes in Washington, D.C., in the administration, Department of State or Department of Defense didn't understand it. The result? We lost more people, both American and Iraqi, than hadn't to be lost if they would have been trained and started this doctrine, this strategy earlier on.
FOREMAN: Tom, there really does seem to be a sense of this just went on for years and there were so many lives lost and so much time and good will toward this war lost. How much do you hear frustration over that?
VANDEN BROOK: Well, you do hear frustration about it. And one place you hear that is this mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that commanders in the field have been asking for two years ago. It's only now that they're starting to arrive in great numbers. And these vehicles with a raised chassis and a V-shaped hull allow troops to survive IED attacks better. It seems like a very basic, simple thing that could have been done and in fact, was asked for. So, you know, that was a squandered opportunity. Now, they're arriving, commanders in Iraq told me they wished they'd had them a year ago.
FOREMAN: Same question to you I'd just asked the general. Was the fundamental fault here the reason we didn't get to this policy sooner because the generals on the ground didn't understand it soon enough or because the politicians in Washington were insisting on their way?
VANDEN BROOK: Well, that's hard for me to tell, Tom. All I can tell you is that there was an insistence here that the insurgency was in its last throws. You saw that from the top of the government here in Washington. And there a real desire just to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible. And the thought was, you'd do that by standing up the Iraqi troops very quickly and having our troops stand down.
FOREMAN: And it seems like, now, we're finally on what seems to be the right course now, but it costs along the way.
VANDEN BROOK: Right.
FOREMAN: So much. Tom, thanks so much. And general as well, appreciate your joining us. OK. Did you know that the first cyber-war happened in 2007? That's not the only thing you missed. Stick around. We'll tell you about all the stories that went by in 2007.
FOREMAN: The war in Iraq, Iran's nuclear ambition, the turmoil in Pakistan, all these stories got a lot of attention this year. But there were some important international stories that you probably missed. "Foreign Policy Magazine" has listed it on their website and managing editor Will Dobson is here to give us a crash course on what we should have already known. This is a fascinating article. Let's start right up front with armed robots take the field in Iraq. What are you talking about?
WILL DOBSON, "FOREIGN POLICY MAGAZINE": That's right, in June, the U.S. army rolled out a new generation of fighting machines. These are armed robots that are seen in combat in Iraq. Right now we have three. But these aren't just normal machines. These are machines that can fire a machine gun and hit a target 3,000 feet away. Now, apparently they're going over pretty well because the U.S. military has ordered another 100. Expect those to come on soon. We've also committed $1.7 billion to advance this program in the years ahead.
FOREMAN: Wow. Just amazing. Dear Osama, we're breaking up. Another one of your headlines. What does that mean?
DOBSON: That's right. In September, a very prominent radical cleric in Saudi Arabia denounced Osama Bin Laden. This is important because this is a man who once mentored Osama Bin Laden. So this is a very important shift because it suggests that there's real fissures, differences of opinion even in the corners of radical Islam and a place like Saudi Arabia.
FOREMAN: When you look at things like the awakening movement in Iraq, do you see that as being related to this?
DOBSON: Well, it's clear right now that there is a war within Islam of ideas going on right now. And so this, we may look back at this as being a turning point where people began to ask questions. And this is important because this is a real blow to Osama Bin Laden's ideology and following.
FOREMAN: A very controversial idea is your next headline here. American Jews turn away from Israel. What do you mean?
DOBSON: Well, as we know, the U.S. foreign policy is made up by many different lobbies and one of them that's often credited that's being particularly powerful is the Israel lobby. Well, right now in America, a new study that really was just completely overlooked, it appears that though Americans, young American Jews, are beginning to feel less of an attachment to Israel. In a survey that was done, young American Jews, 48% under 35 said they would not consider it a personal tragedy if Israel was destroyed. That's compared to 77% of those 65 and older. Likewise, 54% of young American Jews said that they felt no - they were even uncomfortable with the notion of a Jewish state compared again to 81% of those 65 or older. So what's clearly there is a shift, a generational shift going on in the Jewish community in America today.
FOREMAN: Well, that must cause enormous angst among the older Jewish community. So many of whom have memories of World War II and who feel like Israel was so hard-won to the young people saying you must understand your heritage.
DOBSON: That's exactly right. I mean, clearly what we're seeing and the authors of the report said one, this is a by-product of intermarriage between faiths. People are feeling less of an attachment to the homeland. And it's also a little bit of distance from history. They don't remember the holocaust as being the personal experience that their grandparents do. And so clearly, it's causing a weakening among Jews in America of seeing their jewishness as a collective identity.
FOREMAN: And your last headline, the cyber-wars begin. What are you talking about?
DOBSON: Well, in September, the U.S. Air Force very quietly started a cyberspace command. Why did they do that? Because it's quite possible that we're going to look back at 2007 as being the beginning of cyber warfare, a bit large really. In April, from Russia there were attacks on Estonia's government offices, police force and banking sectors. This was something that caught everyone by surprise.
FOREMAN: All through computers?
DOBSON: All through computers. Over the summer, the Pentagon accused the Chinese military of trying to hack into Secretary Gates' network that is used by his top aides in the Pentagon. Just last month, British intelligence warned the CEOs of major multi-nationals around the world that the Chinese military was probing the defenses of their own firms. So, clearly, there's been a very large, sudden uptake in this type of behavior and the United States military is trying to respond to it by preparing for the worst.
FOREMAN: You've got to figure just like we used to hit the radio stations and the TV stations when we were involved in actual war, that this crippling of computer networks will be a real art.
DOBSON: That's right.
FOREMAN: That was terrific. Thanks for coming in, Will. Interesting articles.
DOBSON: Thanks for having me.
FOREMAN: OK. Now that we've covered the easy stuff, the graduate course is next. What's really going on in Iran? But first, CNN photo journalist Bethany Swane was at Arlington Cemetery last weekend as volunteers took part in a simple ritual there that has grown every year since it was started by (moral whisper) 16 years ago. A guy who just happened to own a wreath company.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had two 18-wheelers full of boxes of wreaths. It only comes out in a box of eight. We just uncrated them and everybody came up.
We have 2,000 people all wanting to grab a wreath and take it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a little hectic at time.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who needs them?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just a rush of people.
The crowd wasn't quite as big back 16 years ago as it is right now.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I definitely wasn't expecting this many people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We gather here today to place approximately 10,000 wreaths to remember the fallen. Honor those who serve. And teach our children the value of freedom.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Lovely. I love this idea.
This lady's name is Irene, and that's my name. Oh, Irene. I'm sure she has some stories.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Being in the military, it's a totally different way of life than most people realize.
My father is a retired Air Force. And my brother is in the Air Force. I know what it's like not to have your dad home at Christmastime.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here Melissa. Come put this down.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is very special.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here is Michigan. You were born in Michigan. Oh, my goodness. She died the year I was born.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They did it, and you forget about them. You're busy trying to get to Wal-Mart to buy something, you know, for Christmas.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Walter Costello. 29th division, World War I.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wanted to introduce them to their grandfather. It's a very moving place. That wreath right there is all the way from Maine. I would have brought one on my own, but it's even better that someone else who I don't know in a different part of the country made this and donated it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of these people have given everything that they could for this country.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's our way of showing respect to our veterans.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOREMAN: This is only one of the stories CNN photo journalists have shot in the past week for a special online presentation "Holidays in Focus." It is at CNN.com. It is really worth watching. Check it out. We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN, CORRESPONDENT: The milestone on the road to Iranian nuclear energy or a dangerous step towards weapons of mass destruction. Despite this worrying uncertainty, the start of fuel deliveries from Russia means Iran's the first atomic power station at Bashir could soon be operational.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOREMAN: CNN's Matthew Chance reports on Russia's delivery of enriched uranium fuel rods to the Iranian nuclear power plant in Bashir. The rods are technically under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but there's no getting around the fact that they could be used to make weapons. It's just another part of a very complicated relationship that Iran now has with the outside world. To help explain it all, I'm joined by Joseph Cirincione from the Center for American Progress and CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Joseph, let's start with these rods. Is this moving us closer to a peaceful deal that we control what they do or further away from it?
JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: It depends how you look at it. They can't physically use the rods themselves for weapons. But theoretically, they could either take the rods, break them down into their components and feed that into their centrifuges to produce some highly enriched uranium or burn the rods in the reactor and then extract them and take some of the plutonium that's produced out of the rods. But either one of those are a very highly- visible process. Unlikely that they would actually do that. The real impact of this move is that it seems to validate Iran's position that there is no weapons issue anymore. That we're being accepted by the international community and we are further progressing on our peaceful civilian program. It takes a lever away from us to force Iran to come completely clean about their past activities.
FOREMAN: Let's take a look at the map real quick and get a sense of what we're talking about. Russia is up here. Iran is down here. When you move into Iran, you can see the different nuclear facilities they have all around the country. And we're going to zoom in on Bashir as we talk about this, Barbara. I guess one of the big questions from the Pentagon, obviously, would be do we really know where all their facilities are and what they're really doing and how ready they are to take that next step?
BARBARA STARR, CNN, CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, the national intelligence estimate we saw just a few weeks ago may throw a lit of a wrench in what we really do know. Because of course, that report from the intelligence community said they've given up a good deal of their effort to develop a nuclear weapons program. But all these facilities are still out there. What are they doing? What are their activities? How are these facilities constructed? If the U.S. were to find some absolute threat that it needed to attack. By all accounts, all the planning to continue to understand militarily what all of this is about still goes on at the Pentagon.
FOREMAN: I want to bring up a quote here from President Putin in Russia. In "Time" magazine. "What gets Putin agitated and he was frequently agitated during our talks is his perception that Americans are out to interfere in Russia's affairs. He says he wants Russia and America to be partners, but feels the U.S. treats Russia like the uninvited guest at a party. We want to be friends with America. He say, sometimes we get the impression that America does not need friends but only auxiliary subjects to command. Joseph, I can't help but think part of the equation here has little to do with Iran. It really has to do with Russia saying to the world, we will show you that we do what we want."
CIRINCIONE: I think that's exactly right. And one of the reasons Putin is so popular in his country, 80% approval ratings, is that he's been seen as standing up to America and that America has been seen as the aggressor, starting to meddle in what has traditionally been Russia's backyard. Putin standing up and pushing back. Here's the good news and something to look forward to for next year. Russia and China seem to be playing a more aggressive, diplomatic role with Iran saying look, here we are, we're now providing you with the fuel. We are protecting you from further sanctions. But it's time for you to come completely clean. I'm looking next year to see more declarations from Iran.
FOREMAN: Do Russia or China want Iran to have nuclear weapons?
CIRINCIONE: No. They are not interested in a military nuclear arms race in the Middle East. They'd like to have Iran sort of be recognized as someone you can do business with and bring them into a normal set of relations, both with their neighbors and with the United States.
FOREMAN: It doesn't seem at all clear what we think of Iran these days. Let's look at two headlines from this week. Iran may now be cooperating with U.S. in Iraq. That's "USA Today" on Monday. And just a couple of days later, the "Washington Post," Iran continues to support Shiite militias in Iraq. Do we know militarily what to make of Iran these days?
STARR: Well, you know, there's Iran and there's Iran. There is the central government in Iran. There's the Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran. There are many entities, and the U.S. does not have a clear understanding really of who's controlling what. They hope the Pentagon, that is, that they're reducing their meddling, if you will, inside Iraq. But even Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the jury is out, in his words. He still can't really be sure. And fundamentally, that is the problem for the U.S. military with Iran. They can't be sure and they can't predict what Iran may do next.
FOREMAN: If Russia and China are left a little bit more, Joseph, to be the controlling forces of Iran, will that make our relations better with Russia and China because they will say, look, you're trusting us to deal with the problem that you have an interest in.
CIRINCIONE: This has been a miserable year for U.S.-Russian relations. The effort to put missile bases in Poland, the Czech Republic really riled the Russian up. The quote you read from Putin, we seem to be ignoring him in this triangular relationship - Russia, U.S., Iran. Russia wants to be seen as playing a role and wants to play a constructive role and be recognized as a partner in this. I think Russia is actually the key to getting Iranian compliance of these non-proliferation issues. We just have to be smart enough to understand how important Russia can be to us.
FOREMAN: That's going to be another tricky year, I think. Thanks Joseph. Thanks, Barbara. Barbara, if you can stay right here. We'll do the flash brief in a just a little bit look at the world in 90 seconds.
But first, our weekly tribute to some of those who fell in this week at war.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP OF "THE FALLEN")
FOREMAN: It's time now for "Flash Brief," around the world in 90 seconds. Looking at all the stories that you probably ought to be looking at in the week to come. And Barbara Starr is here from the Pentagon help us out. A lot of talk about the Chinese military. What's going on?
STARR: Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to smooth out relations with the Chinese. Look for a new phone hotline to be established between Beijing and the Pentagon.
FOREMAN: Shockingly enough, talk in Israel right now about a possible peace deal with Hamas.
STARR: Well, maybe Hamas will stop its rocket attacks into Israel. If Israel stops it incursions into Gaza. It's a beginning.
FOREMAN: Talk now about Al Qaeda in Pakistan. We thought they were operating along the border region. What's the truth?
STARR: Growing indications that Al Qaeda is actually spreading its area of influence. Now operating in major cities in Pakistan, a big concern to the U.S. FOREMAN: News from Australia that a dangerous man may be afoot. What's that?
STARR: David hicks, once at Guantanamo Bay and then released back to the Australians for custody in that country. Now, getting out of jail. He will have some restrictions, but we'll see how that goes.
FOREMAN: We'll have to see. And new orders for some of our troops in Iraq. And maybe very meaningful orders.
STARR: A real change there. Notices being posted for U.S. troops doing those road-side patrols, those checkpoints. Now consider approaching Iraqi vehicles on the road to be friendly. Assume it's civilians, assume no hostile intent. Big change for the first time.
FOREMAN: Enormous change. Thanks so much. Barbara Starr from the Pentagon for the "Flash Brief."
Look around the room that you're in and chances are you will find the gift there left by the Secretary of War more than 150 years ago. We'll help you identify it in just a moment.
FOREMAN: We think we cover the world's wars pretty well here, but no matter how much you've watched this program, you probably don't know about President Martin Van Buren's Secretary of War. I can't blame you. He served 170 years ago. But this dashing man from South Carolina enjoyed many adventures dealing with wars and rumors of wars in Latin America. And along the way, he found a lovely plant in Mexico called the flora de la noche Buena. The flower of the good night, because its leaves become brilliant red and green at Christmas time. That Secretary of War is Joel Roberts Poinsett. He brought some back to the United States and we have filled our homes with them at Christmastime ever since. Yes, they are poinsettias.
We hope that your home especially for all of our military families are filled with beauty and peace this week. Thanks for joining us on "This Week at War." I'm Tom Foreman. Straight ahead, CNN's "Special Investigations Unit: "Czar Putin."
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com