Part of The Best of Print in 2013

Generation Kill

A Conversation With Stanley McChrystal

The general in Washington, D.C., July 2010. (Getty)

In July 2010, General Stanley McChrystal retired from the U.S. Army after almost three and a half decades in uniform. Soon after graduating from West Point, McChrystal had joined the U.S. Special Forces, and he eventually led the Rangers, the Joint Special Operations Command, and all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. Author of the recently published memoir My Share of the Task, he spoke with Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose in December. 

A knowledgeable author wrote in a recent issue of this magazine that "as head of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command . . . , McChrystal oversaw the development of a precision-killing machine unprecedented in the history of modern warfare," one whose "scope and genius" will be fully appreciated only "in later decades, once the veil of secrecy has been removed." What did he mean?
I was part of a [special operations] effort that we can call Task Force 714. When the counterterrorist effort against al Qaeda started, it was narrowly focused and centralized; you only did occasional operations with a high degree of intelligence and a tremendous amount of secrecy. That worked well for the pre-9/11 environment, but in the post-9/11 environment -- particularly the post-March 2003 environment in Iraq -- the breadth of al Qaeda and associated movements exploded. This gave us an enemy network that you couldn't just react to but actually had to dismantle. It also gave us a very complex battlefield -- not just terrorism but also social problems, an insurgency, and sectarian violence.

So the first thing we did when I took over in late 2003 was realize that we needed to understand the problem much better. To do that, we had to become a network ourselves -- to be connected across all parts of the battlefield, so that every time something occurred and we gathered intelligence or experience from it, information flowed very, very quickly.

The network had a tremendous amount of geographical spread. At one point, we were in 27 countries simultaneously. Inside Iraq, we were in 20 and 30 places simultaneously -- all connected using modern technology but also personal relationships. This gave us the ability to learn about the constantly evolving challenge.

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