Interview of General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander of NATO's Afghan mission, by Susan Ormiston of The National
December 16, 2009
SUSAN ORMISTON (SA): GENERAL MCCHRYSTAL, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE STAKES IN THIS WAR RIGHT NOW?
General Stanley McChrystal (GSM): Very, very high. Both for the Afghan people and for the coalition.
SO: AND WHAT ABOUT THE STRENGTH OF THE INSURGENCY?
GSM: Well the insurgency is strong. It has expanded its reach throughout Afghanistan but it has a number of inherent weaknesses. It’s not popular with the Afghan people.
SO: IS IT STRONGER THAN THE ALLIED FORCES?
GSM: No I don’t believe so and it’s certainly not stronger than the Afghan people.
SO: NOW YOU’VE GOT A NEW MANDATE. YOU’VE GOT MORE TROOPS, MORE MONEY AND NEW STRATEGY, AND YOU SAY YOU CAN DEGRADE THE TALIBAN AND HECKLE AL QAEDA. BUT IT’S BEEN A GRINDING LONG EIGHT YEARS OF WAR AND IT HASN’T WORKED TO DATE. WHY DO YOU BELIEVE IT WILL WORK?
GSM: I believe that the last eight years, that the coalition has been assisting the people of Afghanistan and it has been important and I think they’ve laid a foundation that is very critical. And you can look at a number of successes, I think many of which Canada has been responsible for. Efforts against….roads paved around the country, and the conduct of the number of things like the elections. Not perfect - but conduct of those. On the other hand, because we have not put the kind of resources and the effort of Afghans in growing - creating security forces or creating security forces around the country, I think there is more that we can do and I think this newest mandate, the fact that we are focused on protecting the Afghan people, we are putting resources that were committed last year I think it can make a real difference.
SO: IN SPITE OF WHAT YOU’VE SAID IN TERMS OF SUCCESSES, VIOLENCE HAS GROWN 300% SINCE 2007. THE YEARS THAT CANADA HAS BEEN THERE, VIOLENCE HAS GOTTEN WORSE. PEOPLE FEEL MORE INSECURE, AND THE AFGHANS ARE ASKING THE QUESTION, IF THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL ARMIES CAN’T BEAT THE TALIBAN, WHAT IS GOING ON?
GSM: Well, I think that points out the importance of the mission that people in Kandahar are scared and that the insurgency has grown but they are not on the side of the insurgency. They want to be protected by Afghan National Security Forces. They want Afghanistan to protect its own sovereignty, and what we need to do is to help protect that and make it grow.
SO: BUT AGAIN THAT HAS BEEN THE GOAL FOR SOME YEARS. WE’VE BEEN TRYING TO TRAIN, WE’VE BEEN TRYING TO RECRUIT, AND TODAY, DECISION RATES ARE STILL….IN THE AFGHAN ARMY, THEY ARE STILL NOWHERE NEAR THE LEVELS THAT YOU WANT AND THAT PRESIDENT KARZAI WANTS. WHAT’S GOING TO CHANGE IN THE 18 to 24 MONTHS?
GSM: I think that first off, the history behind the war, a lot of good has been done. A lot of good has been done, but not enough has been done. Not enough resourcing, not enough focused effort in the past. I think what we’ve got now is a number of things: We have adjusted our strategy on protecting the people and focused on protecting the people of Afghanistan. We’ve also stood up a number of organizations. I think we’ve stood up and have postured to be more able to put the kind of activities into place that additional for ces would allow us and it’s not all military forces. There are additional civilian personnel coming in from a number of nations and then there is additional resources, in most cases that’s money, but it’s also expertise that allows us to pursue security but at the same time govern and development which makes it durable.
SO: BUT YOU KNOW THAT YOU CAN’T DEVELOP WITHOUT SECURITY. THE INSECURITY IN THE SOUTHERN PART OF AFGHANISTAN HAS PREVENTED A LOT OF DEVELOPMENT, EVEN THE DAHLA DAM YOU MENTIONED.
GSM: That’s absolutely correct and as an Afghan elder told me down in…a few months ago he said. Security is the mother of all development and that’s correct. We’ve got to provide a secure enough environment with our Afghan partners so that all of the other development can begin. The development you talked about that can allow farmers to get goods to market or a place of work and do the kinds of things that provide Afghans with what they deserve.
SO: ARE THEY HAVING TO UNDO WHAT WAS DONE…DID THEY MAKE TOO MANY MISTAKES?
GSM: I think everybody makes a lot of mistakes. I know I’ve made a heck of a lot of them. I think as we go forward what we have to do is be very careful of what we do. Air strikes are a great example of that. Afghan people expect and desire for us to protect them against all kinds of threats from explosive devices and protect them from unintentional harm or damage to their property from our actions and I think it’ s very important that we operate in a way that builds their confidence. That we cannot only protect them but that we will take good care doing that.
SO: WERE THERE MISTAKES MADE? WERE THERE TOO MANY AIRSTRIKES BY THE BRITISH AND U.S. FORCES?
GSM: As I said Susan, there are always mistakes made. In cases where we have made mistakes, it is very important that we learn from them and we talk to the Afghans and that they understand what our intentions are and that we prove it with our actions, not just with our words.
SO: HOW DO YOU ACTUALLY SEND THAT MESSAGE DOWN? IT’S A MATTER OF DISCIPLINE, ISN’T IT? IN KANDAHAR, YOU SAID EVERYTHING CHANGES FROM THIS MOMENT. WHAT DID YOU MEAN?
GSM: That’s’ a great point, because I think everything has changed. I think the international community has decided after eight years that we are going to make an increasingly focused effort. We are going to put more resources, we are going to show real resolve for the Afghan people. This is an effort that is going to demand much of them. I also believe that it communicates to the insurgents that we are going to focus on them, to push them away from the people and to offer them an opportunity to re-integrate if they want that, but to deny them the ability to be victorious. I think everything has changed. I think it opens possibilities for the future that may not have been available to them before.
SO: AT THE SAME TIME THAT YOU HAVE SAID EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED FROM THIS POINT FORWARD, EXECUTING NEW STRATEGY, THE PRESIDENT HAS PUBLICLY SAID IN 18 MONTHS THEY’RE GOING TO PULL BACK. CAN YOU BLAME THEM FOR SAYING WHY, SHOULD WE SUPPORT AND HELP THE FORCES IF THAT MEANS WE COULD BE KILLED?
GSM: The first is, President Obama has offered and guaranteed the Afghan people a strategic partnership for the long term, well past any dates. On the other side, we just also committed 30,000 additional U.S. forces and he’s done that to help us turn the momentum against the Taliban and to provide common space for Afghan National Security Forces to grow. Afghanistan has got to be secured by Afghans. In my view if I would see the long term partnership guaranteed by the coalition, I would see a short term threat to my existence as an insurgency and I would see a growing Afghan capability and I would see that there is not going to be an option for me.
SO: HOW MUCH PRESSURE WAS THERE ON YOU TO PUT IN THE EXIT STRATEGY IN YOUR PLAN?
GSM: As we worked through the entire campaign plan, there was always pressure on me to provide my best military advice and I did that at every turn.
SO: WAS THERE PRESSURE TO SAY; GENERAL MCCHRYSTAL, WE NEED A WAY TO GET OUT OF THIS WAR. WE ARE NOT GOING TO BE THERE FOREVER?
GSM: There is always a discretion of shared responsibility. What’s achievable and I think we came up with a very outcome.
SO: WOULD YOU HAVE PREFERRED IF THE PRESIDENT DIDN’T MAKE A DEFINITE OUT DATE, EVEN IF IT WERE FOR JUST SOME TROOPS?
GSM: I feel very comfortable with what the President came out with and I felt even more comfortable with the process as we go back after we did our initial assessment. It was a very in-depth process that questioned every assumption, looked at every recommendation that we made, and even the opposing views, and that is very powerful. And when we came out, I think we all understood where the President’s thinking and more commitment.
SO: SOME WOULD SAY HIS THINKING ON THIS IS HE’S NOT FULLY COMMITTED TO THIS WAR. HE HAS ONE FOOT OUT ALREADY. DOES THIS UNDERCUT WHAT’S LEFT OF ENTHUSIASM ON THE PART OF YOUR ALLIES TO STICK IT OUT?
GSM: As I deal with our allies, I sense a lot of commitment and resolve and I think President Obama’s clear message for 30,000 ….allies and Afghan people, I think that’s a great and very clear message.
SO: HOW DO YOU SEE CANADA’S ROLE GOING FORWARD?
GSM: Well, I’d first like to talk about Canada’s role to date. I’ve been honoured, since 2002, to work with Canadian Forces, and it is humbling to watch the courage that they have shown, and the expertise that they show on a daily basis. Of course it’s not been without significant cost, so I offer my condolences, and one of the reasons for my visit here was just a chance to express, in person, to the people of Canada, just how much I treasure that. And so we’ve been together for a number of years, and I watched the Canadian Forces. They bring an expertise beyond just conventional military expertise, at which they’re very good. They also bring a nuanced maturity to counter-insurgency.
The Canadian Forces operate beyond traditional military security. They have pioneered the development of stability organizations, which…bring in the governance and development, and marry it to security elements to go forward. And it’s really the holistic view that effective counter-insurgency takes. The rest of the coalition has learned a lot from the way the Canadians operate, and as we go forward, I’m sure we’ll continue to.
SO: IF YOU APPLAUD OUR EFFORTS SURELY YOU’D WANT US TO STICK AROUND LONGER THAN 2011 IN A COMBAT ROLE.
GSM: You always feel good when you get a Canadian at your shoulder. In the next 18 months, the next high speed as we can.
SO: AND BEYOND THAT?
GSM: That is a policy issue that I didn’t address during my visit here. I’m very appreciative of what has been done so far and what will be done over the next 18 months.
SO: WOULDN’T IT HELP YOUR EFFORT IF THE EXIT DATE FOR THE TROOPS WAS EXTENDED?
GSM: That’s a policy issue. I think that as a military guy, I would tell you how good Canada has been. The coalition speaks for itself.
SO: YOU'RE NOT GOING TO BITE ON THAT.
GSM: No ma’am. Susan - Wise man.
SO: TELL ME - THE WORKING RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE CANADIANS AND THE U.S., WE HANDED OVER CONTROL OF ARGHANDAB IN AUGUST, I WAS THERE. NOW THE CANADIANS ARE AGAIN COMMANDING SOME U.S. FORCES IN ARGHANDAB WHAT IS GOING ON DOWN THERE, AND WHAT ROLE WILL CANADIANS BE PLAYING IN THIS BIGGER STRATEGY?
GSM: I think that says so much about the partnership as we adjusted some months ago the battlespace and we put some strikers in. We’ve adjusted it again we didn’t think about the nationality of who’s in charge and as we put in the battalion or paratroops in the army - the Canadian leadership - we didn’t worry about that at all .We just said, what makes sense on the ground…under Canadian command and just like the Canadian …RC (Regional Command) South and up, it shows just how much we are beyond the nationality part.
SO: BUT BIGGER PICTURE, IN TERMS OF THE FIGHT, AGAIN, YOU’VE GIVEN IT MORE URGENCY. MORE "WE’VE GOT TO SEE SUCCESS SOONER FASTER". SHOULD CANADIANS PREPARE THEMSELVES FOR MORE DEATHS?
GSM: I can’t rule out that there won’t be more deaths across the entire coalition and of course our Afghan partners, as well, who die at a higher rate. I suspect that we’re going to have a hard fight ahead…for the cost of comrades, but I believe it is the entire focus to understand the importance of what they are doing matters.
SO: IS IT FAIR TO SAY, GENERAL, AS THE MAN THAT LOOKS AT THIS COUNTRY NOW WHERE IS THIS FIGHT GOING TO TAKE PLACE? WILL THE RATE OF CASUALTIES AMONGST OUR SOLDIERS BE GREATER OVER THE NEXT 18 MONTHS?
GSM: Well, Susan, I can’t say that with confidence. What I can say is that we will turn the momentum of the insurgency in the South. They think they have to win. I think they view Kandahar as critical ground - I expect them to contest it. But I don’t make predictions on casualties but we will do what it takes to…we will do what it takes to be successful there.
SO: GENERAL MENARD SAYS THERE WILL BE 20% MORE CONTACT WITH THE FIGHT,GOING FORWARD. THAT INDICATES A TOUGHER FIGHT…
GSM: But we will have vastly more forces there Canadian, American…and significantly more Afghanistan Security Forces during the ability to dominate ground which is hard when you don’t have that, so I believe that we will have a significant advantage before we go.
SO: GENERAL, I’M SURE YOU ARE AWARE OF THE DETAINEE CONTROVERSY IN THIS COUNTRY. ARE YOU AWARE THAT AFGHANS WHO ARE DETAINED ARE ABUSED OR TORTURED BY AFGHAN INTERROGATORS?
GSM: I’m not aware of any specific incidents…I do know that detainee operations are very important for counter-insurgency, For a number of reasons. First, you need to be able to take insurgents from out of the fight and stop them from killing. Second, there is an intelligence component from detained individuals…defeating insurgency. This is something that over time must be an Afghan-led process. They must control their own detainee operations, all detention operations, and I think it is important to move to that as fast as we can. And we have to do it in a way that is credible to their people and credible to the international norms.
SO: EVEN THOUGH LEGIONS OF ORGANIZATIONS HAVE SAID IT IS A ROUTINE PRACTICE FOR AFGHAN PRISONERS TO BE ABUSED, PERHAPS TORTURED. YOU HAVE NEVER BEEN AWARE OF ANY INCIDENTS OF IT?
GSM: I’m not aware of any specific incidents. I’m aware of allegations of that, Susan. It is important that we look at how do we improve Afghan capacity to do this as well as possible within correct norms of how people should be treated international guidelines.
SO: DO YOU THINK CANADIANS SHOULD BE TURNING PRISONERS OVER TO AFGHAN INTERROGATORS?
GSM: I think, eventually, Afghanistan has to have responsibility for all and their ability …their capacity to do that…Afghans must secure their own country, therefore they must develop all the capacities to do that …
SO: AS THE COMMANDER OF NATO FORCES, WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE GOING FORWARD IN TERMS OF HANDLING DETAINEES?
GSM: I think detainee operations are important for a number of reasons. One, I talked about the intelligence value and the importance of getting them off and it is important for our credibility as nations and as a coalition respected by the international community and the Afghan people. I think it is something that we’ve got to pay tremendous attention to so we meet and establish appropriate norms for how humans should be treated.
SO: YOU COMMANDED SPECIAL OPERATIONS IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ. IT WAS MY UNDERSTANDING THAT SOME OF THE TROOPS UNDER YOUR COMMAND IN IRAQ WERE ACCUSED OF AGGRESSIVE INTERROGATIONS, CAUSING A LOT OF FRICTION IN ANOTHER COUNTRY, IRAQ.
GSM: That’s absolutely correct that your credibility is on the line so every time you had an allegation of mistreatment or any kind of inappropriate action you’ve got to investigate that. It is important inside your Force but also after.
SO: YOU’VE GOT CROSS-BORDER ISSUES IN BALOCHISTAN AND IN. WAZIRISTAN IN PAKISTAN. HOW CAN YOU ACHIEVE SUCCESS IN AFGHANISTAN IF YOU CAN’T EXTEND YOUR MILITARY OPERATION ACROSS THE BORDERS?
GSM: My mandate does not go beyond the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but on the wider strategic concept, I think both Afghanistan and Pakistan are fighting against insurgency …and…I think both have to be successful for the other to be secure…I don’t believe Pakistan can be successful if Afghanistan is not without threats that their problem returns. So I think the strategic objectives of both are in tremendous alignment. Bleed over in both ways. So I think looking at cross-border ops, we need to talk about strategic partnerships.
SO: WILL YOU BE TACKLING THE MIDDLE LEVEL DRUG TRADE IN AFGHANISTAN? WILL YOU BE ABLE TO SPECIFICALLY TARGET THOSE WHO ARE RUNNING THE DRUG LABS IN THOSE AREAS?
GSM: Our mandate is, where there is a linkage between the insurgency and traffickers, then that’s absolutely appropriate, because there is a significant - we can go after that middle level. It is not effective to go after poppy growers, it just turns people against you. But it is effective to go after the traffickers, but I would say if you want to get rid of the drug trade, you have to establish security and governance in areas that are ungoverned and growing poppy. That’s really the long-term solution for this.
SO: A LOT OF PEOPLE IN BOTH OUR COUNTRIES WANT TO HEAR - WHAT IS YOUR MEASURE OF SUCCESS? HOW DO CANADIANS KNOW WHEN THERE IS PROGRESS?
GSM: In the long term, it is the Afghan people to choose and shape their own lives. In the nearer term, it is the Afghan government having the capacity to assume a greater capacity to provide their own security. Within that, of course, they’ll provide long-term and the capacity to assume a greater role for providing their own security. I think they’ll need international security.
SO: BUT YOU ARE FIGHTING FOR A GOVERNMENT THAT MANY THINK IS CORRUPT TO THE CORE, THAT CONSIDER IT AS MUCH AN ENEMY AS THE TALIBAN BECAUSE THEY HAVEN’T DONE ENOUGH FOR THEM. .
GSM: I think the government is going to have to improve as they go along, and they’re going to have to work to build their own credibility and legitimacy as well.
SO: I’M ASKED THIS QUESTION WHEN I RETURN FROM AFGHANISTAN AND I’M SURE YOU’VE BEEN ASKED COUNTLESS TIMES - IS IT WORTH IT?
GSM: To me, that is very easy to answer. And I’ll answer it on multiple levels. The danger of Al-Qaeda is absolute and they will come in, given the conditions on the ground, regional stability and the affect on Pakistan. We no longer have places in the world that doesn’t matter. Afghanistan matters to regional stability and to worldwide stability. As you go down and you deal with farmers and families that just want to live and girls that want to go to school, I think it’s hard to look at that and say it’s not worth it.
SO: SO IF IT IS WORTH IT, FOR HOW LONG?
GSM: I think they have to stand up and accept responsibility for their own security, but I believe we can help do that.
SO: CAN I ASK YOU TO BE REFLECTIVE FOR A MOMENT. WHAT DO YOU WORRY ABOUT?
GSM: I worry about our Forces. I’m responsible for a tremendous number of coalition Forces, I’m responsible to their families, I’m responsible to our comrades. By definition, my responsibility means I have to put them in harm’s way, but I have to bring them home safe.
SO: DO YOU WORRY AT ALL THAT YOU WILL GO DOWN IF AFGHANISTAN FAILS?
GSM: This isn’t about me.
SO: TALKING TO CANADIANS, WHAT CAN YOU TELL US AT THIS JUNCTURE?
GSM: What I tell Canadians is, be proud of your Armed Forces. Understand the price they are paying on the battlefield. It is also the soldier who comes home with post-traumatic stress disorder. The family who goes through Christmas with their loved one gone. Be proud of it.
SO: AND WHAT IF WE LOSE FAITH?
GSM: I can’t see Canadians losing faith.
SO: THANK YOU SO MUCH.
SO: PLEASURE TO MEET YOU.