Editor Gideon Rose interviews General Stanley McChrystal about the transformation of U.S. military strategy.
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.
People hear most about the targeting cycle, which we called F3EA -- "find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze." You understand who or what is a target, you locate it, you capture or kill it, you take what intelligence you can from people or equipment or documents, you analyze that, and then you go back and do the cycle again, smarter.
When we first started, those five steps were performed by different parts of our organization or different security agencies. And as a consequence, each time you passed information from one to another, it would be like a game of telephone, so that by the time information got to the end, it would be not only slow but also corrupted. We learned we had to reduce the number of steps in the process.
In 2003, in many cases we'd go after someone, we might locate them and capture or kill them, and it would be weeks until we took the intelligence we learned from that and were able to turn it into another operation. Within about two years, we could turn that cycle three times in a night. We could capture someone, gain intelligence from the experience, go after someone else, and do three of those in a row, the second two involving people we didn't even know existed at the beginning of the night.
In August 2004, in all of Iraq, our task force did 18 raids. And we thought that was breakneck speed. I mean, we really thought we had the pedal to the metal. These were great raids, very precise, a high percentage of success. But as great as those 18 raids were, they couldn't make a dent in the exploding insurgency. Two years later, in August 2006, we were up to 300 raids a month -- ten a night. This meant the network now had to operate at a speed that was not even considered before, not in our wildest dreams. It had to have decentralized decision-making, because you can't centralize ten raids a night. You have to understand them all, but you have to allow your subordinate elements to operate very quickly.
But then, we had to be able to take all of that and make it mean something -- because it's not just about capturing and killing people; it's about synchronizing into the wider theater campaign. And that took us longer. We really didn't mesh completely into the conventional war effort [in Iraq] until 2006, 2007.
So that was the revolution. I didn't do it. The organization I was part of became this learning organization. If I take any credit, it is for loosening the reins and yelling "Giddyup!" a lot. I allowed, encouraged, required the team to push forward. And they just rose to the occasion.
Was this a technological revolution or an intellectual and organizational one? Could you have done it a decade or two ago, with less modern information technology?
We could have done parts of it before. You could have used radio calls and faxes. But the ability to, say, pump video teleconferences everywhere enabled the change. There were cultural things to overcome, though. People weren't comfortable with it. People feel that they lose autonomy if they are constantly connected and they're pumping information out, and they like autonomy. But if you want an organization to operate as a network, connection is key.
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