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Powell on 9/11

The decision to go into Afghanistan and the “global war on terrorism.:” Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Jeffersonian democracy. General Colin Powell in conversation with Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson from the aspen institute and i'm here with General Colin Powell when you were secretary of state 911 happens walk us through that in the decision to go into Afghanistan I was in Lima Peru that morning attending conference of the Organization of American States we're talking about cotton textile quotas and when notes started to be handed to me that the plane had hit one of the towers a small plane then it became a big plane then it became the second tower has been hit and that's when I knew I had to get home so we went and started the plane crew ready to go home and took me eight hours to get home with lousy communications on the way I landed checked into the department my deputy mr. Armitage had everything under control went to the White House joined the president and over the next 48 hours my job was to assemble a political coalition to condemn what had happened and to join us in whatever we might have to do the Organization of American States NATO invoking article 5 the self-defense you know if anybody's attacked we all respond first time in its history you name any international organization you wish to and they express support and that was my job and then that first weekend we went up to Camp David and I had general Schwarzkopf with me and we talked about what to do the president wanted to know what military response should we take and the the general view after a lot of discussion was that the party that did this resided in Afghanistan sama bin Laden and the Taliban was protecting him so that had to be the political objective to do something about that there was some in the room who said let's go after iraq and i found that bewildering but nevertheless it got discussed and the president came down on the side of you know Afghanistan is where we have been attacked from and then we broke up and the following Monday president told us what we should think about doing and that was we have to take military action against the al-qaeda forces in Afghanistan and I recommended to him that in order to avoid a war if we could we didn't care about the Taliban last week why do we care about the Taliban running the country this week 911 is the only reason and so give the Taliban the Afghan government three days to turn over Osama bin Laden or if they don't were coming and he gave him the three days told Congress that and they didn't turn him over so in we went it was an interesting operation in that it started out principally being a CIA operation and then the military caught up as best it could and within a short period of time as military force built up Taliban were ejected from Kabul and headed into the mountains and it's the sanctuaries in Pakistan and we started to build a new government what we didn't fully understand at the time is that this like so many countries in that area is tribal it has its different parts never been colonized really and that you couldn't simply convert this into a functioning Jeffersonian democracy that easily we made a mistake by turning an objective of ejecting al Qaeda and its Taliban projectors into a mission of rebuilding a nation-state in Afghanistan that was a mistake you know I didn't say it was a mistake I'm just saying that's what happened it was a choice we made and we didn't think through that choice in sufficient detail to understand that it's not clear where we will be in five or 10 years from now because it's still basically a very very tribal nation but we gave it a government we helped give itself a government we then help them develop a constitution and put in place the elements for a representative form of government there so struggling with that representative form of government they may make it work but it is not the kind of thing where we're going to suddenly say this is now a democracy of the kind we like and there will be no further problems forever in addition to trying to nation build in Afghanistan the administration also decided that we had to fight a global war on terrorism think was the phrase was that the proper formulation of it call it what you want global war on terrorism war on terrorism more an extreme terrorism or Islamic extremists I don't know that the words make a lot of difference the reality is that there are people out there who will use the name of Islam incorrectly in my judgment to attack the countries that they are in as well as to attack the United States and other nations in the West if the opportunity presents itself what we have been able to do is to put up quite an effective defense here in the United States against that kind of attack and we need to continue focusing on that that is probably more important than chasing them everywhere they pop up throughout the world the whack-a-mole is it's often called Fareed Zakaria had a column not too long ago reminding us that since nine eleven only 42 Americans have been killed by terrorist activity and thirty-two thousand Americans have killed each other with guns thank you very much