Circling the Lion's Den

Thom Shanker

Pentagon correspondent, The New York Times


Thom Shanker is Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. He joined The Times in 1997, and was assistant Washington editor, responsible for managing the newspapers coverage of foreign policy, national security and economics from the Washington bureau, before being named Pentagon correspondent in May of 2001.

Prior to joining The Times, he was foreign editor of The Chicago Tribune. During his lengthy career as a foreign and national security correspondent, Mr. Shanker was The Tribune's senior European correspondent, based in Berlin, from 1992-1995. Most of that time was spent covering the wars in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Mr. Shanker was the first reporter to uncover and write about the Serb campaign of systematic mass rape of Muslim women. He also wrote about European integration, NATO policy, nuclear smuggling and the withdrawal of American, British, French and Russian troops from Berlin following the reunification of the German capital.

He was The Tribune's Moscow bureau chief from 1985-1988, covering the first years of the Gorbachev era as well as issues of superpower arms control. From 1988-1990, he was The Tribune's Pentagon correspondent. Mr. Shanker returned to Moscow from 1990-1992 to cover the death of the USSR and the collapse of the communist empire in Eastern Europe. He also spent one year as the foreign and military affairs writer on The Tribune editorial board.

Mr. Shanker spent two years in the master's degree program at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University, specializing in strategic nuclear policy and international law, passing his masters orals with Highest Honors. He graduated Cum Laude in political science from Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

He has written on foreign policy, military affairs and the intelligence community for The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The American Journalism Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, an anthology published by Norton. Mr. Shanker lives with his wife and two sons in Washington.

October 2001 we decided to do interview with him as a journalist who is each day in center of decisions in Afghanistan operation: 

I see Pentagon satisfated first results of operation in Afghanistan? What do you think about these results?

The Pentagon reported today that it is generally pleased with the results of the campaign so far. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the United States has established air superiority over Afghanistan, and is creating the conditions for future operations -- which means taking out air defenses, military airports and massed armor in the field. The operation appears to be moving from striking a list of set targets to seeking out "emerging targets," which means Taliban forces and members of the Al Qaeda organization on the move.

How do you estimate Pentagon's plan of this war?

Clearly, bombs and cruise missiles alone cannot halt global terrorist operations based in Afghanistan. The President's plan certainly utilizes military power, but the White House has promised a broad-based campaign against terror, hoping to squeeze terrorist finances as well as to arrest terrorists and their supporters. Those, of course, are jobs for law enforcement and intelligence officers.

What do you think, how long does bombing take?

American bombers, fighters and naval forces are steadily moving through the planned list of targets in Afghanistan, and will probably complete those within days. Afghanistan does not offer more than a few targets of high value that can be attacked by air. This is in great contrast to the war against Iraq, when a whole series of targets could erode the "center of gravity" of Saddam Hussein's military and organs of power, such as ministries, power grids, banks, military compounds, factories and the like. Afghanistan is a poor nation, and in a military sense is quite "target poor."

Your forecast of countries' participation in operation except US and UK. What kind of participation for each country do you suppose?

Canada yesterday volunteered ships and planes and troops. Five AWACS airborne warning and control planes from NATO will fly to the United States to help patrol American skies, which will free up five American AWACS for missions overseas. France will deploy AWACS to the Balkans to help fill the gap left by those NATO surveillance planes. Other countries may be assisting in the areas of intelligence and law enforcement but, for domestic reasons, may not wish their roles made as public as those of the NATO allies. Britain has already participated in the attacks on Afghanistan.

What does Pentagon think about China's position?

China has not yet become a substantial issue in this military campaign.

Does Pentagon afraid of repeating the USSR's sad experience in Afghanisnat or not? How is Your army going to use USSR 's experience?

The painful Soviet experience in Afghanistan is well know to the American military. But there is absolutely no talk at the Pentagon of attempting to actually occupy the territory of Afghanistan or to be the minute-by-minute power behind any new Afghan government. So, at present, the most difficult aspects of the Soviet attempt to occupy, pacify and govern Afghanistan are not in any way on the American agenda.

Obviously that if we excluding aviation it is special forces that will  play the main role there. It was USSR's special forces: Spetsnaz of KGB and GRU that had succeeded last in Afghanistan. Do US and Russian special operation forces exchange the experience?

There is very little way of knowing the extent of sharing between U.S. and Russian special forces at this time. But President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld have said over and over that special forces will be an important part of this military campaign.

What does Pentagon think about involving Russian division in operation?

The United States government is attempting to build a broad coalition against global terror, with different members of the coalition participating in different aspects of the campaign, whether military, intelligence, law enforcement or simply support by allowing overflight. I think that the opportunity for U.S.-Russian cooperation in this endeavor could truly open a new chapter in relations between the two nations. Some already are predicting that the last vestiges of the cold war could be washed away by a new alliance against terror that threatens Moscow as well as Washington.

Thom, it became obvious after September 11 that US intelligence community is imperfect. Will be there held any reforms in American secret services and what: may be creation of common centre against terrorism, etc?

Those questions are being debated even today in Congress, as well as in the Bush administration. New officials have been put in charge of counter-terrorism and cyber-terrorism on the National Security Council, and no doubt there will be serious consideration given to what reforms may be necessary to refocus American intelligence.

You have been writing about military conflicts since 1988. What is your opinion about the level of censorships during this campaign? Is it reasonable?

In general, there is little military information about an operation before it starts, because the Pentagon fears that any early release of troop movements or operational plans could threaten the safety of men and women in uniform. But we have seen that since the operation began on Sunday, there have been daily briefings that, at least in a general way, describe the kinds of targets selected, aircraft and naval vessels involved in the missions, and weapons used. At the risk of understatement, the balance between the military's desire for operational security and the public's right to know is always dynamic. And the administration has on an almost-daily basis explained the broad outlines and goals of the campaign against terror.

In Russia we have opinion what now american (and not only) soldiers have to pay for FBI and CIA failure befor 11 september. Your opinion?

I do not believe that the American people are yet in a position to lay blame for the attacks of Sept. 11, beyond of course the terrorists and their sponsors responsible for these murders. There will certainly be time in the months ahead to assess the extent of lapses in intelligence or law enforcement.

How long it will take to win over Talibs? Do you believe that it is possible to win over this country?

I do not believe that it is the goal of this military campaign to win over Afghanistan. However, I do believe that the United States government would be pleased if the people of Afghanistan, led by soldiers of the various opposition groups in the north and in the south, drove the Taliban from power and ended the ability of terrorists to operate from Afghanistan. That is why every member of the Bush has repeatedly said that this campaign is not against the people of Afghanistan, but the Taliban.

By Andrey Soldatov