September 11, Bush and Putin

Bob Woodward’s book, Bush at War, is a fascinating study of how President George W. Bush and his national security advisors made the decisions that led the nation into war against Afghanistan, following the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Using “inside sources,” including the records of the National Security Council, together with extensive personal interviews of all the key government leaders, Woodward writes a captivating story with lively prose and thoughtful analyses. The book gives insights into the pressure-filled environment of the White House following the attacks, and the difficult challenges of balancing the desire for an immediate response with the need for careful planning in order to avoid an even worse predicament for the wounded nation – a defeat in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Putin’s Call

Woodward’s description of the first contact between President Bush and President Vladimir Putin is incorrect. While Woodward notes that President Bush called Putin on the morning of September 12, along with the leaders of France, Germany, Canada and China, in order to build an international coalition against terrorism, we now know that President Putin had called the White House shortly after the attack to offer his support. As the first foreign leader to call, this made a major impression on President Bush and encouraged him to pursue a friendship with the leader of the Russian Federation.

A few days after the attack, President Bush sent two of his key advisors to Moscow to seek help from their top diplomatic and intelligence officials. Knowing that Russia considered Afghanistan in their sphere of influence, these officials wanted to be sure that Russia would not obstruct the CIA’s initial operations in the country. Although the Russians warned the Americans about the difficulties of fighting a war in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, they did more than just agree not to block any effort by the U.S. military – they immediately sent a team of Russian experts to the CIA to provide extensive on-the-ground intelligence about topography and especially about the cave systems used by Taliban forces.

Right from the start, Putin made it clear that Russia would be an ally of the United States in this fight against terrorism and that Russia was willing to play a central role. One of the key issues was access to military bases in the Central Asian republics that constituted part of the former Soviet Union. White House advisors knew that the Russians would be leery about granting the United States access to these bases in nations that they viewed as clearly in their sphere of influence. This was tricky. Uzbekistan, for example, was thoroughly alienated from Russia and would be offended if the United States asked Russia for permission to use bases in their country. Tajikistan, on the other hand, was thoroughly in the Russian camp and would not agree to anything without Moscow’s approval.

Bush & Putin

On the weekend of September 22-23, 2001, Bush called Putin, and the two presidents talked for 42 minutes. Once again, Putin made it clear that Russia was “going to support you in the war on terror.” The Russian President agreed to give the United States clearance to fly military aircraft over Russian air space and offered to provide search and rescue support, if needed, for downed American pilots in northern Afghanistan.

Putin also granted Bush’s request for assistance in securing basing rights in the Central Asian region, a critical factor for the war effort against Afghanistan; Putin’s only condition for this access was that it would be made clear that U.S. forces would not establish permanent bases there. Woodward notes that the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, Condoleeza Rice, was surprised by Putin’s “concession” and commented that he clearly wanted to become a partner in the battle against terrorism. The former Cold War enemy was offering more assistance to the United States than many of this country’s traditional allies.

Woodward also notes that Vice President Dick Cheney, who had always been deeply distrustful of the USSR and even the Russian government under Yeltsin and Gorbachev, soon shifted his position when he realized from Putin’s responses that the Cold War really was over, and that a new friendship was emerging out of this crisis.

As the United States prepared for war with Afghanistan, teams of CIA agents and elite military teams were sent to Afghanistan to gather on-the-ground intelligence about the enemy they were preparing to attack. Repeatedly, the Russians helped CIA teams enter Afghanistan through Tajikistan. In addition, the Russians provided weapons to the Northern Alliance, a decision that the U.S. considered essential to the success of their operations. Who would have imagined this kind of cooperation before September 11?

Allies in Crisis

Many Americans are not aware of the significant role that Putin’s government played in assisting America’s war effort in Afghanistan. Woodward’s book sheds helpful insights on this partnership, a partnership that has continued between the two presidents. From my perspective, critics have been too quick to exaggerate negative trends in Russia’s development and to forget Russia’s painful past. Speaking the truth is important in building a relationship between allies, but the truth demands integrity and understanding with no double standards or “cheap shots” to win domestic political points.

Leaders in both nations are committed to pragmatically resolve differences and to prevent these differences, when they emerge, from becoming the cause of major confrontations. The national interests of Russia and the United States will lead to tensions on certain issues, but the two countries share many interests in common. The attacks of September 11 and the continuing war on terrorism have made this clear.