AC360: Extreme Challenges - President Obama

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An AC360 special in the "Extreme Challenges" series, this program focuses on the issues facing the incoming president. In three segments, Anderson Cooper hosts a panel discussion with Michael, Christiane Amanpour, Peter Bergen, and David Gergen. The first segment covers Iraq, the second Afghanistan, and the third Iran.

This is exactly the kind of discussion a lot of us have been waiting to hear... unfortunately, its only airing to date has been at five in the morning the day after Thanksgiving. Hopefully it will get some prime-time respect in the near future.


OBAMA: I will end this war. Not because politics compels it. Not because our troops cannot bear the burden, as heavy as it is. But because it is the right thing to do for our national security and it will ultimately make us safer.


COOPER: President-elect Obama is inheriting two wars -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- both with huge challenges. So how might the U.S. strategy change under an Obama administration? Here to talk it over, CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour; CNN's senior political analyst and a former presidential adviser David Gergen; also, CNN's Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware and CNN's national security analyst Peter Bergen.

Barack Obama has made a lot of promises on Iraq and also on Afghanistan. On Iraq, he's promised within 16 months U.S. troops coming home; perhaps one battalion every month. Can he still live up to that?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN BAGHDAD CORRESPONDENT: Well, in many ways Anderson, it's already in train. I mean, the timetable that's being set between Baghdad and Washington by the Bush administration is not that different a timetable to what President-elect Obama wants.

Under the current agreement, U.S. forces have to retreat to their bases by the middle of next year. And under the agreement --

COOPER: So does that means, what, no patrols?

WARE: This is what we're still going to have wait and see. Basically, U.S. forces are going to be stuck in their bases and they're going to have to coordinate with the Iraqi government to basically seek permission to go out and conduct massive operations.

COOPER: How does that jibe with the Petraeus strategy of having smaller forward operating bases in communities?

WARE: Well, they're going to have to define which bases, how many bases are going to work, but there's certainly the JSSs within Baghdad itself, these tiny outposts I would suspect they're going to have to be shut down and handed over to Iraqi security forces.

Now, if you're going out hunting and you've gotta to ask permission of the Iraqi government, well, many of your targets are linked to the Iraqi government.

Plus, U.S. forces have to be out of that country by the end of 2011. Now, that's only two years away. And Obama wants people out in 16 months. So there's not a great deal of difference in the timetables.

The question is, what are you going to do to backfill the vacuum that you're leaving? 140,000 U.S. troops currently are the referee in the ring of a heavyweight bout with at least three contenders there if you don't include Iran which is the real story.

COOPER: Well, you also have these Sunni groups which are still are armed, still are trained, still have their hierarchy in place, they've just been paid to be on our side.

WARE: Well, they're the American militia. I mean, this is the Sunni insurgency who basically came to the Americans in 2003 and said, we don't want to fight you. But the American administration at that point wasn't listening. So eventually after four years you put 100,000 Sunni insurgents, form buffers on the payroll. They were then sent out as an indirect assassination program that eliminated al Qaeda in Iraq and reduced them to what they are now. They're also an American counterweight to the Iranian-backed militias and the Iraqi government. They are a stick with which to beat that administration because that administration is more closely aligned with Tehran than Washington.

Now, what are you going to do with them, they're handling them under the Iraqi government, the government hates them. These U.S. allies hate the Iraqi government.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think Obama also will vastly benefit from the deceleration of anti-Americanism. The enemy was anti-Americanism over the last eight years and that is going to have the knees, the legs knocked out from under it because Obama will present a different vision of American foreign policy. And I think that will help him a lot, particularly in these very difficult deals that he has to make and decide.

COOPER: In his vision, though, the central front on the war on terror has never been Iraq, it is Afghanistan. And also I guess to a lesser extent Pakistan. What are his options in Afghanistan?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: They're pretty limited right now, because even when he assumes office on January 20th, even if he said let's move a lot of people to Afghanistan which I think is unlikely because of problems they would have in Iraq --

COOPER: But that is -- during the campaign -- some of what he said. Some of these troops from Iraq would be going to Afghanistan.

BERGEN: You can't get them there magically. You know, it takes -- it would take them probably until July just to show up in terms of redeploying, there's logistics involved. That's a problem because the new Afghan fighting season begins in the spring of next year.

It's also a problem because the crucial presidential election is in August, at least it's scheduled in August of 2009 and that election is the most critical part of, you know, the next Afghan political cycle.

So according to U.S. military officials the best that they can be done is two brigades by the spring. Two brigades is not a game changer. That's 7,000 combat soldiers with support staff. That's not a game changer in Afghanistan so obviously it's a campaign promise but there are some realities about the size of the U.S. military right now.

COOPER: Up next, keeping America safe. What can President Obama do to reassure the more than 55 million people who didn't vote for him that he'll keep us safe at night? Our panel weighs in on that, coming up.

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COOPER: Joining us again: CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, CNN senior political analyst and former presidential adviser David Gergen, as well as Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware and national security analyst Peter Bergen.

GERGEN: My question to you guys is, does President Obama have to lower expectations about Afghanistan? He keeps talking about winning Afghanistan.

WARE: Yeah, and destroying al Qaeda. Well, he's going to have to change those expectations.

AMANPOUR: Well, no, no, you have to win. You have to win.

WARE: Well, they're not doing what needs to be done.

AMANPOUR: Soft power. Yes, you can. You can do it. It is a question of re- strategizing, re-prioritizing. You can.

WARE: Agreed. Agreed.

AMANPOUR: Afghanistan was almost won.

WARE: True.

AMANPOUR: It is a massive, huge -- right here in the middle of this volatile region -- a massive block of receptive Muslims. Many of them moderate. This has to be won and it can be won but it really has to have its eye kept on the ball. It has to have a proper military, both hard power and soft power, which Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, has talked about over and over again and it has to have the focus on it.

The reason it is the way it is right now is because the eye was taken off the ball to Iraq.

COOPER: Can the same strategy in Iraq work in Afghanistan in terms of --

WARE: No. The surge?

COOPER: The surge or trying to turn over some Taliban elements negotiations.

WARE: Well, this is where we get to. The problem of Afghanistan is not here. The problem of Afghanistan is here.

COOPER: Pakistan.

WARE: In Pakistan.

Now, General Petraeus -- the new CentCom commander -- the GAO back in May, everyone says, it's agreed, that the Al Qaeda leadership including Osama is here.

COOPER: North Waziristan.

WARE: Northwest Pakistan, yes, the tribal areas and also here in Baluchistan with the Taliban. Now, they said that the leadership is there, it's regenerated and according to the GAO, they said they've reconstituted their ability to attack America.

Now, you're not going to get at any of those people physically there. Because you can throw as many troops as you like at the Afghan mountains but they swallow divisions whole and they can't cross the border. And --

GERGEN: So can you win?

WARE: You can win but you've got to do lot of things and primarily the first target has to be the Pakistani intelligence agency, basically Islamabad's CIA.


WARE: The ISI, because elements within that are very closely aligned to the Taliban and al Qaeda. And the civilian government in Islamabad has very little control over these guys.

AMANPOUR: They're fundamentally linked. Hamid Karzai says that they are reaching out to the Taliban even to Mullah Omar. They are apparently Saudi sponsored talks, which is very similar to the Sunni awakening in Iraq. We'll see how that goes.

America doesn't like it. Because they think it's negotiated from a position of weakness, to an extent it is. But that process may be under way and that's really, really important to be able to try to see whether they can bring those people on board.

COOPER: But the urgency, though, is there, and Peter, you've traveled there a lot. We have been there together. It is deteriorating rapidly. I mean, the number of attacks, the number of suicide attacks; something you really never used to see in Afghanistan back in 2003, 2004. Something you see now all the time.

BERGEN: A classified review by the White House is going to conclude that the situation is dire. It is in fact somebody involved in the review said to me that the media -- this is an unusual thing for somebody in the Bush administration to say -- is actually not portraying how bad it is in Afghanistan right now.

And a very leading indicator is that support for international forces has dropped by 33 percent in the last few months according to this review that is going to be published by the National Security Council.

GERGEN: It's dropped within Afghanistan?

BERGEN: Within Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: Because of the killing of the civilians.

BERGEN: Civilian casualties is an enormous kind of problem. We just -- 40 people at a wedding party.

COOPER: Because there haven't been enough U.S. forces, because there's concern about going into some of these regions, they've been using air raids to go after targets but there's a lot of civilians getting killed, as well.

AMANPOUR: Correct and that the one Hamid Karzai said that has to stop in order to keep the goodwill. It's happening in Pakistan, too.

COOPER: Which is something that Barack Obama referenced during the campaign and got hammered for by McCain and Sarah Palin.

BERGEN: No, so the situation is not good as Christiane said, it's still winnable. Afghanistan still, you know, there's still favorable views of the American-led invasion unlike in Iraq from pretty much the beginning. And in counterinsurgency, the center of gravity is really what the people think.

We're losing -- the United States and its allies is losing some of the goodwill but there still remains I think a reservoir on which it can be built. And by the way Obama, when I was in Afghanistan in July, just doing informal polls with the Afghans, I mean, they love this guy. They think that he's going to take it to Pakistan and sort of be more aggressive there which --

WARE: Yeah, good luck with that.

BERGEN: He may or may not do. But that's their view; he is very popular politician --

GERGEN: But he now seems to feel that Karzai is actually a reliable partner in all of this.

AMANPOUR: Interesting you say that.

GERGEN: One keeps understanding that he's corrupt and he's weak and he's lost the support of the people.

COOPER: There's been allegations about his brother in the narcotics trade.

WARE: No allegations; it's fact. I mean, to survive in Kandahar as a power player, you have to be a warlord. And his brother is currently the head of the Karzai tribe. So to lead their tribe, you think he can disrupt the peoples' opium fields? Do you think he can disarm his men? If he does he's got no stake at the table.

COOPER: Right now 95 percent of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: But again, that was something that had been lower in 2001 and could have been turned around to do other kinds of crop harvests and another kind of economy and again, the eye was taken off the ball.

WARE: But what ability does he got to extend power beyond Kabul? I mean, he's in this tiny little enclave here.

GERGEN: Can we get to victory with Karzai? Or we have to have somebody else?

AMANPOUR: He is who you have right now. You have an election coming up that he says despite what the Americans want which is to delay the elections that he says he doesn't want to. And I think the strategy has to be reshaped and you can bet your bottom dollar that's what General Petraeus is doing right now. He's just recently been there and they're looking at it and trying to figure out how to turn it around. And I don't think it's impossible.

COOPER: Up next, we continue to look beyond our borders. How can President Obama boost our image in the world and at the same time handle potential nuclear threats like Iran and Russia? We'll dive into those challenges in a moment.

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OBAMA: And all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular but our destiny is shared. A new dawn of American leadership is at hand.


COOPER: Let's look at some of the other extreme challenges in terms of foreign policy for Barack Obama. Russia. North Korea. What are the other major challenges?

AMANPOUR: Iran, of course.

WARE: Yes. That's who you're really at war at.

AMANPOUR: Might be number one because none of this, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the Middle East -- in the considered view of many former U.S. officials, Secretaries of State and many people in the region -- will not be fully resolved and solved without a mature relationship of some sort based on mutual interest with Iran which believes itself to be the superpower in the region and is certainly acting as if it is.

WARE: Yes, regionally it is a super power. As Tehran tells the visitors from Iraq, from the Iraqi government, "we are a regional superpower. We will be a nuclear power of some sort and unlike the Americans we're never going anywhere." So they're the practical political realities within that region.

AMANPOUR: And from all my conversations and deep reporting over the last couple of years and particularly during this campaign, I believe that they want to do business with the United States.

In other words I think they want a paradigm shift. I think the door is open. You saw from the letter of Ahmadinejad, I know people in the United States tend to laugh at that, but it was unprecedented that an Iranian president sent a letter of congratulations. And just recently after that, the speaker of the parliament in Iran has told all his MPs not to talk to the foreign press. They don't want to make a mistake.

BERGEN: I think his biggest test is going to be potentially a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Because I don't think that Israel -- at a certain point they regard it as existential, the nuclear program in Iran. And they are not necessarily going to ask permission.

And so what happens when you get either information or intelligence leading to believe -- this obviously changes the game enormously in Iraq. American military commanders in Iraq are extremely concerned about such an attack because they believe that the Iranians would interpret it as something that we have sanctioned.

COOPER: How likely do you think such an attack is?

AMANPOUR: Well, there's been a lot of fear about it. And not just the Israeli attack but an American attack. Both the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff here in the United States and seniors officials like the outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had sort of walked military resolution back.

In other words, Olmert has said, all these hard liners, all these people in Israel who are talking about a military solution to Iran, they need to really think carefully about -- he said that in an interview on the record. Remarkable.

WARE: I don't even think there is a military solution.

COOPER: Striking Iran is not like striking Iraq.

WARE: No, no it's not going to work.

AMANPOUR: And the truth of the matter is that the Israeli part of this equation will put pressure on the next administration and it will be more difficult to open dialogue with Iran because they do -- they are suspicious about that.

GERGEN: Does that mean the first task of the next Secretary of State should be to take all this on?

AMANPOUR: For the Middle East peace process.

GERGEN: The Middle East peace process.

AMANPOUR: I think it's going to take a very considered, very careful look because obviously, Iran, both inside Iran and inside the United States is a very political hot potato.

You've got hard liners on both sides who don't want it to happen. In Iran, you've got a presidential election that's coming up that both sides, reformists and hard liners seem to want to use opening the American door to benefit themselves.

On the other hand, very, very senior people in the U.S., all the Secretaries of State that we've interviewed have all said --

GERGEN: You had five.

AMANPOUR: Five. Across --

GERGEN: Republican and Democrat.

AMANPOUR: Republican and Democrat from Powell to Baker, to Christopher, to Kissinger and Albright, all have said that that must be a priority. Sensibly, properly, the right way but without preconditions to start some kind of change of paradigm here, a change of relationship.

GERGEN: A dialogue.

AMANPOUR: A dialogue, yes, of course.

GERGEN: A serious dialogue. A diplomatic offensive.

AMANPOUR: Absolutely.

WARE: And I've actually sat down with the man America has been talking to so far. It's the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad. Now, he himself is a member of the Quds Force, the very elite military unit that's been helping kill the American soldiers in Iraq.

Now, while as stony-faced or as poker-faced as he is in that embassy or in the two talks he's held with the American ambassador, the fact that he is there, the fact that he's shaping a framework for any kind of a discussion, even though it may not have progressed too far yet is a positive sign. They're there to listen but they want to see what you got to put on the table and unfortunately for them that's mostly about leverage within the nuclear issue.

AMANPOUR: And just very quickly, it was Iran that helped the United States in Afghanistan.

GERGEN: How important is it to get to Russia engaged with the Iranian issue?

WARE: It's vital.

GERGEN: Do we need Russia as a partner in all of this and therefore all these other issues we have got with Russia become -- you know, complex?

WARE: Absolutely. Russia's also looking for its own leverage.

COOPER: Russia's already testing Barack Obama. I mean, threatening to put missiles on their border if the U.S. goes ahead with a defensive missile shield.

AMANPOUR: They are. They're breast beating, chest beating. Again, I think they also will have a problem because up until now, for the last several years, they have been able to capitalize internally on virulent anti-Americanism that has spread over the last eight years of the Bush administration. That's going to decrease and it's going to be more difficult for them to use the American bogeyman to justify their actions.

COOPER: Up next, your health, your wallet. As president, Obama has said he wants to make sure insurance is available to everyone who wants it. With the shaky economy, though, can he still follow through with that promise?