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Obama Visits Afghanistan; Interview with Ryan Crocker; Foreign Policy and Election 2012; Interview with Richard Williamson

Aired May 02, 2012 - 15:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

President Barack Obama's stealth mission to Afghanistan on Tuesday was clearly meant to send a message that the United States is now seeing the beginning of the end of America's longest war.

But within a few hours of his departure, as if to mock that very claim, Taliban suicide bombers dressed in burqas attacked a guarded compound that houses international contractors, and seven people were killed.

It marked one year since Osama bin Laden was killed. That trip and President Obama and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, signed an agreement to keep some kind of U.S. presence in Afghanistan until 2024.

But while many crucial details of the so-called long-term partnership agreement are yet to be worked out, the president said he's already pulling out the surge troops that he sent in. And so in my brief tonight, this question: are Americans rushing for the exits in Afghanistan and does that put what America and the rest of the international forces have fought for there at risk?

The president himself has dramatically reduced the goals of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014, counterterrorism and continued training. But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling in cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people.


AMANPOUR: As I said, all the surge forces are meant to be out by the end of the summer. The surge itself was supposed to either beat the Taliban on the battlefield or force them to the negotiating table. Neither has happened. And so will the U.S. and the international forces leave behind a success or an Afghanistan that, as one expert asked, is just good enough?

To get answers to these questions, I turned to America's ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker. He accompanied the president throughout his trip yesterday and on the helicopter ride, where he went to meet President Karzai. I spoke with the ambassador a short time ago.


AMANPOUR: Ambassador Ryan Crocker, thank you so much for joining me from Kabul.

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN: Delighted to be with you, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador, let me first ask you. The president comes. The president goes. Another suicide bombing right in the heart of Kabul outside an aid agency, a big truck bomb. How dangerous was it for the president and how secure is the capital?

CROCKER: Well, clearly it was secure enough for the president to make the trip. We looked at all aspects of that. Everybody was comfortable. It went precisely according to schedule.

Today's suicide attack was tragic. We regret the loss of innocent Afghan lives. But overall, Christiane, Kabul is a pretty normal, pretty secure city. We have these unfortunate, isolated terrorist attacks, but they don't really affect the rhythm of the city.

AMANPOUR: Except there was a very big one a couple of weeks ago. I want to ask you, do you believe that this one was timed for the president's visit?

CROCKER: We don't have the full facts yet, Christiane. It just happened some hours ago. I don't think it was. It took place in an area that was nowhere near where the president was. I think it was a preplanned attack that simply went off at the time it did, but had nothing to do with his visit.

AMANPOUR: We're hearing that there was a potential security breach some four hours before he landed. What can you tell us about whether there was a breach, and what would that have done? Was there any thought that the president might have to turn around in mid-flight?

CROCKER: Well, we were aware of the press reports. The leak, such as it was, was incorrect, and our collective judgment was that it did not propose -- pose a sufficient threat to the president that he should in any way change or curtail his planned trip, and it went off exactly as we'd planned it.

AMANPOUR: Were there any nervous moments there for you, though, when you heard that leak?

CROCKER: Well, look, Christiane. This is Afghanistan. It's a country that faces insurgent attacks that, in most cases, come from outside its own territory. There is always a risk. You can't eliminate the risk. You can manage it, and we all felt that we could manage this one and we did. It was a very successful visit.

AMANPOUR: What is the status of negotiations with the Taliban? Is there anything happening that gives you hope that there can be a negotiated end to this right now?

CROCKER: Well, first, Christiane, I learned this in Iraq. You really cannot kill your way out of an insurgency. Eventually there does have to be a political settlement. The Afghans are committed to this, but they're committed to it on very specific terms that, in order to reconcile and be part of the new Afghanistan, the Taliban have to break all ties with Al- Qaeda.

They have to completely renounce violence and they have to accept the Afghan constitution, including its protections for women and minorities. And it is an Afghan-led process. Let me emphasize that.

AMANPOUR: Except for President Karzai told me that there's no negotiations right now of any meaningful sort with the Taliban.

CROCKER: There are contacts between Afghan government representatives and different factions of the insurgency. I can't tell you that they have been conclusive, but there are contacts.

AMANPOUR: Are there any times that you lie awake at night and you worry that all this effort, 10 years, America's longest war, may be at risk in a sort of rush for the exits?

CROCKER: Well, Christiane, given the pace of my days, absolutely nothing whatsoever keeps me awake at night, I can assure you, the few hours I get. I was here after the fall of the Taliban. I reopened our embassy at the beginning of 2002, have always had an interest in Afghanistan for its own sake and for the sake of American security. That's why I came out of retirement to return here as ambassador.

I think the one thing that can really defeat us here is ourselves. If we decide we're tired, we don't want to do this anymore, that we're just going to pull the troops and we're going to go home before the Afghans are fully capable of assuring their own security, then we can lose this.

AMANPOUR: The president in his speech to the American people last night said that there must be a way to ensure that there are no safe havens for any terrorism into Afghanistan in Pakistan.

What do you think is going to make sure that that happens, because right now it's still continuing. There's still cross-border attacks, attacks planned from there, and at the same time a practically broken relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan.

CROCKER: Christiane, I am hopeful that the enduring strategic partnership agreement we've just signed with Afghanistan is also going to be reassuring to the Pakistanis. I was ambassador there five years ago. I know how traumatized the Pakistanis were by our abrupt withdrawal after the Soviet defeat in 1989. They felt they were victimized by that. I think they've hedged their bets because they think we'll pull out again.

Disagreement with Afghanistan is an indication to them, as well as to the Afghans and to the Americans, that we're not going to make the same mistake twice. We're going to be around.

AMANPOUR: But do you think they can and will turn off that tap?

CROCKER: Well, I think they have to. They are suffering as much from terrorism in the tribal areas as we and the Afghans are. They've lost thousands of Pakistani troopers to the same terrorists who come across and attack Afghans and international forces.

So, the president has this exactly right. The Pakistanis are going to have to find some way to subdue those safe havens, for their sake as well as for that of Afghanistan and the international presence here.

AMANPOUR: President Hamid Karzai told me a couple of weeks ago that after 2014, any time, Afghanistan would not be used to allow drones to be launched to conduct counterterrorism against militants in Pakistan. How much does that hamper the ability to go after those militants?

CROCKER: Well, there's nothing in the agreement, we concluded, that restricts the inherent right of self-defense of either party.

2014 is a long way off, and before we get to 2014, of course, we will be negotiating a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan that is going to determine, you know, the presence, status and activities of our forces, so these are all questions really for the far future. My definition, frankly, the far future in Afghanistan is about a week from Friday.

AMANPOUR: I can hear what you're trying to say, but does it worry you that the president of Afghanistan is on the record -- so is his foreign minister -- as saying that they will not allow their territory to be used for what has become America's most powerful and main counterterrorism tool? Those are the drone strikes.

CROCKER: At this point, I feel that we are conducting business as usual, including the necessary defense of Afghan civilians, our own forces and Afghan forces, and I do not see any hindrance or restrictions put on them. The future? We'll see.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador Crocker, thank you very much for joining me from Kabul.

CROCKER: Thank you, Christiane. It was a pleasure.


AMANPOUR: So talking about President Obama's policy in Afghanistan, we also want to know what his opponent's foreign policy is there, now that he's running for president, Governor Mitt Romney is running against President Obama, and his chief adviser on foreign affairs will join me when we come back.


AMANPOUR: Foreign policy has not played a major role so far in the American presidential campaign, but international issues, from Iran to Syria to Afghanistan, as we've heard, and beyond will be key priorities for any administration. And so it's critical to understand the global view of a Romney administration.

Richard Williamson is a key foreign policy adviser to Governor Romney. He served under President George Bush as ambassador to the United Nations, and as a special envoy to Sudan.

So Ambassador Williamson, welcome to the program. Nice to see you.


AMANPOUR: Thank you. Let me ask you a hot topic right now. As you know, the Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, who was being housed inside the U.S. embassy, has caused something of a diplomatic incident, especially as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner are in China.

What would you have advised a President Romney to do about this situation? How would you advise that to resolve itself?

WILLIAMSON: Well, the first thing I'd do -- and Governor Romney made this clear in his speech in Citadel, is he'd make human rights more central to animate our foreign policy. As you remember, when Secretary Clinton first went to Beijing in 2009, she was asked about whether she's raise human rights, and she was dismissive.

She says no, because we know what they'll say. So I think the administration didn't send the right signals at the beginning, and that lays the foundation. Now you're in a difficult position. He sought asylum, but because of threats, apparently, to his wife, according to reports, he left.

It's a very messy situation, but I think we have an obligation to try to be helpful, to try to stand up and be public in our support for the dissident and I was disappointed a few days ago when President Obama was asked and he made generalities and didn't address this specific case.

AMANPOUR: I just think that hopefully we're clear on this. I don't believe he asked for asylum. I think he wanted security of safe passage and safe activity inside China.

But just to follow up, you know, many presidents, many candidates have talked about human rights, successive administrations, whether they be Democratic or Republican, and certainly for the foreseeable path, that has taken a back seat. Are you saying that a Romney administration would put human rights right back on the front burner?

WILLIAMSON: Yes, let me be clear. Governor Romney understands this first obligation when he's elected president is our national security. Secondly, he has to deal with other vital interests, many of which are economic.

But like Ronald Reagan, he feels our values have defined the country and should animate our foreign policy and when possible we should try to protect and advance them, but always we should be willing to speak out for the values we believe in. And that's in contrast to the back burner, the secondary role they played under President Obama.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you think about Iran. Let's turn to Iran. Obviously there's been a lot of somewhat heated rhetoric about what to do about Iran. You know there's been the idea of potential military strike, perhaps Israeli-led, and now that there are sanctions and there's diplomacy under way, I want to play a clip from one of the debates in which Governor Romney had this to say.


FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, one thing you can know and that is if we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.


AMANPOUR: So Ambassador, that was Governor Romney. I want to play you now a response from Vice President Biden.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The only step -- I think it's fair to say the only step we could take that we aren't already taking is to launch a war against Iran.

That's what Governor Romney means by a very different policy. He should tell the American people. He should say so. Otherwise, the governor's tough talk about military action is just that, talk. And I would add counterproductive talk.


AMANPOUR: So, Ambassador, I see you shaking your head. But Governor Romney seemed to put himself in a box, potentially committing himself to a war with Iran. Is that his policy? Is that what you would advise?

WILLIAMSON: Absolutely not. He'd like to have a negotiated solution to this vexing problem of Iran's continued efforts and success at moving toward nuclear breakout. But let's look at the record. In '08, Senator Obama and Senator Biden agreed that, among the greatest threats to world peace and U.S. security was nuclear breakout by Iran.

Two, when he came in, there was a na

And then he continued to go to the U.N. with a "Mother, may I" approach, with -- to allow China and Russia to decide what sanctions could go forward. Christiane, there is no one in Tehran that believes the U.S. has a credible military option on the table today, nor should they.

Look, I know it's a political campaign. I know that Vice President Biden's job is to be a bit of an attack dog. But the fact is, this president doesn't have a credible military threat out there. And as Bismarck said, diplomacy without the threat of force is music without the instruments. And the first thing you'd have with -- yes?

AMANPOUR: I just want to ask you --

WILLIAMSON: The first thing you'd have with --

AMANPOUR: There has been this military option on the table, and of course the Israelis have spoken a lot about it as well.

But I wanted to ask you about the diplomacy, because you raised that. You hope that there would be a negotiated solution. That is obviously going to take more than just public rhetoric. It's going to take the U.S. giving as well as demanding from Iran.

Do you -- would you advise a Romney administration to enter the kind of negotiations that are not just punitive but also give some recognition, for instance, of a nuclear program by Iran?

WILLIAMSON: Christiane, 25 years ago I was ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, engaged in nuclear non-proliferation negotiations all over the world. Then I served as a member of the president's general advisory committee on arms control under the first President Bush. I know a little bit about negotiating in arms issues.

They have to be credible and they have to be verifiable. And a credible step with Iran is to be firm, that there can be no enrichment, no enrichment. But last Friday there were meetings, principal meeting in the White House about fallback positions that dealt with 31/2 to 5 percent enrichment. Look, you have to have no enrichment.

This is what the U.N. Security Council has demanded repeatedly in resolutions. You have to have additional protocol from the IAEA for additional detail, more intrusive inspections.

Without that, you have a phony deal, just like the deal in North Korea that was made on February 28th of this year, and didn't even last two months before the North Koreans violated it. So you can't be looking for a deal for a deal's sake, for political posturing. You need real results.

AMANPOUR: Let me turn to Syria, where obviously we've all been witnessing, for more than a year now, the assault, really, by the Assad forces against so many civilians, and how much worse it's getting, because it looks like so-called bad actors are getting involved, those suicide bombings, et cetera.

Let me quote one of your own foreign policy team, Alex Wong, who said recently that on Syria, what we've seen is the Obama administration has been shamefully absent from this crisis. It's almost as if the Obama administration doesn't understand both the humanitarian cost as well as the strategic blow this would be to Iran, because Syria is Iran's Arab ally.

So what would Governor Romney or President Romney do any differently than what President Obama is doing? Would you take, for instance, Senator McCain's position that there needs to be some kind of intervention, at least arm and train, maybe even airstrikes?

WILLIAMSON: Well, what the governor has said for a long time is the need to support the opposition forces. This administration stayed with Assad, in fact, even after the violence began 13 months ago.

Secretary of State Clinton called it a reformer Bashar al-Assad. We have not spent the last year trying to work on the ground with the opposition to help them unify, to help them be trained to be more effective. At the same time we were calling for a regime change. So there are things on the ground that could have been done to try to help the opposition --


AMANPOUR: What specifically would you suggest?

What specifically, because they are doing this Friends of Syria and all the other?

WILLIAMSON: Christiane, for 13 months they did not have people on the ground working with the opposition, unlike what they did in Tunisia, which I applaud, where they started to reach out to the TNT and work with the opposition. They did not do that.

They have not helped them develop a more coherent political body nor given them advice on military competence. There's more that could be done.

AMANPOUR: All right.

WILLIAMSON: Is it a difficult problem? Absolutely. But more could have been done, more should be done. And the governor's also talked about helping arm the opposition.

AMANPOUR: All right. Ambassador Williamson, we will continue this conversation. Thank you very much indeed for joining us.

And regardless of who becomes the next U.S. president, improving relations with Pakistan will be a top priority. When we come back, how to focus on rooting out terrorists when Pakistan's military is literally frozen in a decades-long stalemate with India.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back. We spoke earlier with Ambassador Crocker about safe havens for the Taliban inside Pakistan. As the U.S. said, coalition exits from Afghanistan, rooting out those safe havens must be a top priority. And yet where is Pakistan sending its soldiers? To a decades-long standoff with India.

Imagine a war at the top of the world. It's called Siachen, a Himalayan glacier 22,000 feet above sea level, on the northern border of Pakistan and India, where temperatures can drop to -40 degrees Celsius. It's the highest, coldest battlefield on Earth.

And since 1984, the two sides have spent tens of millions of dollars per month just to maintain their armies in a frigid stalemate, some 8,000 soldiers have died on both sides. But far more deaths have resulted from hypothermia, high altitude illness and avalanches than from battlefield wounds.

Pakistan's obsession with India is draining its valuable military resources just when they're needed to fight the enemy inside its borders.

And on the subject of Pakistan, I don't think I've ever sparked more curiosity online than last year after a clip surfaced from 2008, where I was explaining that Osama bin Laden was most likely living in a villa in Pakistan, not a remote cave. And that was three years before he was killed. To get the backstory, go to That's it for tonight. Thank you for watching.