Transcript: Former Defense Secretary James Mattis on "Face the Nation," September 8, 2019

Mattis on Taliban talks: "Verify, then trust"

The following is a transcript of the interview with former Defense Secretary James Mattis that aired Sunday, September 8, 2019, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to Secretary Pompeo's former colleague Secretary of Defense James Mattis. He is also a retired Marine Corps general and the author of Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. Thank you for being here, good morning to you. 

GENERAL JAMES MATTIS: Good morning, Margaret. Good to be here. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thousands of Americans have died at the hand- hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. They gave safe haven to Osama bin Laden to plan the 9/11 attacks. Did you ever think you'd see the day when the Taliban was invited to Camp David?

GEN. MATTIS: Well, it was a surprise, Margaret, but I would say that all wars eventually come to an end and I salute efforts to try to end that war. No doubt. Secretary Pompeo, just before we are speaking here, he mentioned that we have to stay true to first principles. And I think that we are seeing what he said come true.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you were involved from the very beginning of this war, in the invasion in 2001. In your experience can the Taliban ever be trusted to make a clean break with terrorists and honor a diplomatic deal?

GEN. MATTIS: Well, you're going to the heart of the issue right there: can they be trusted? You remember when we reduced nuclear weapons with Russia we talked about trust, but verify. In this case with this group, I think you want to verify then trust. We've asked them- demanded that they break with Al-Qaeda since the Bush administration, they've refused to do so. They murdered three thousand innocent people. Citizens of 91 countries on 9/11. We should never forget that, that the Taliban hid those people among them, refused to break with them, and have refused to this day to break. So I think Secretary Pompeo say- saying go back to first principles is exactly the right thing to do.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But every single Democrat running for president is promising to bring the troops home. President Trump campaigned on bringing the troops home. 

GEN. MATTIS: Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're saying just pulling out is the wrong decision. 

GEN. MATTIS: Margaret--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Can you remind people why there needs to be a continued presence there?

GEN. MATTIS: Right. The- the fact is we need to maintain an influence there until the government of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan are strong enough to deny Afghanistan as a safe haven. Now one--

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Taliban control so much territory right now.

GEN MATTIS: Well they do. And- and wars go like that sometimes. But the point is that you may want a war over. You may even declare a war over, but the enemy gets a vote. A- a fact brought home to me repeatedly over my 40 years of service.

MARGARET BRENNAN: If you had to fight this war again, and I know you don't get do overs, but would you have done something differently?

GEN. MATTIS: Well, you can always look back and hopefully learn from what you did, learn from the lessons of the- of the reality on the battlefield that sort of thing. But I think the fundamentals of forcing Al-Qaeda and terrorist groups out of those safe havens, ensuring that the Taliban do not give them safe havens, those goals should be foremost and any other goals we then attach to those should be secondary. Don't let them distract you from that primary goal.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you think America got distracted?

GEN. MATTIS: I-I believe we did whether it was the war in Iraq or we are back there and we're trying to do perhaps some people say too much in the country. You have to embrace the culture you're in. You don't surrender what we're about, but you cannot walk in and say you're going to turn another culture around in a matter of a couple of years from things that they've stood for over the generations. So, you just have to accept at times you have to have limited goals, but you should not have limited resources. You should put in whatever resources are necessary so when our diplomats negotiate they negotiate from a position of strength.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You have made clear that you will not speak ill of President Trump. You will not speak about him. You say out of respect. In your book you do talk about policy disagreements with past presidents that you served under, with Bush and with President Obama as well. With- draw down from Iraq. You wrote about Vice President Biden and you said you were telling him what you were seeing on the ground in Iraq and warning him of what a pullout would do. You wrote, "he exuded the confidence of a man whose mind was made up, perhaps even indifferent to considering the consequences were he judging the situation incorrectly."

GEN. MATTIS: Yes. Well, I was writing a history book at that point, Margaret, because I started writing this book in 2013. It was done pretty much by version five, by 2017. Had I known the former vice president was going to run for office, I assure you, I would not have probably been that- that forthcoming. Why do I do that--

MARGARET BRENNAN: What should people understand about what you meant there? Were you raising questions about his judgment?

GEN. MATTIS: I think the Obama administration- President Obama's administration had made the decision to leave Iraq despite what the intelligence community was telling us would happen. They were very clear that an Al-Qaeda associated group would rise, that the Iraqi government, the Iraqi people, the Iraqi nation was in a post-combat, pre-reconciliation phase. We needed to keep our influence there a little longer and draw down year by year. Not draw everyone out at one time. The intelligence community was very clear. They forecasted the rise of a group, you and I know it as ISIS, and we should have taken their advice on board.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think that your resignation did help to stop the withdrawal from Syria because U.S. troops remain there now?

GEN. MATTIS: Well I'll- I'll let the historians sort that out. I- I don't know what all went into the decision to reverse that- that call. The "pull everyone out." But I- I- I just I- I can't answer that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You write that Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world, from your perspective. 

GEN. MATTIS: Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What is the biggest national security threat?

GEN MATTIS: I think the biggest national security threat can be broken into two segments. One is external, and clearly those nations Russia and China that are trying to impose their authoritarian models and decisions over other countries whether it be in the South China Sea or in the Ukraine, in parts of Georgia that Russia is occupied. They've mucked around in our elections. So, externally I would look at those two and that's why we rewrote the National Defense Strategy to acknowledge the reality of those nations. Not the nations we wanted to be dealing with, but Russia of Putin. The reality. The Russia, President Xi or excuse me- the China President Xi. 

But internally, my bigger concern is two-fold. It's- it's our growing debt that we're going to transfer to the younger generation with seeming no fiscal discipline and more than that it's the- it's the lack of friendliness. It's the increasing contempt I see between Americans who have different opinions. I mean we're going to have to sit down and remember if we want this country to survive we're going to have to work together. And- and that- there- there's no way around that. That's the way a democracy is set up. So, I would- I would break it into those two fundamental difference threats right now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: On that note, we will leave it there. I think a lot of people would agree with you, like everyone to be a little bit friendly these days. One other thing before you go though, I want to wish you a happy birthday.

GEN. MATTIS: Oh, thank you, Margaret.