Editor Gideon Rose interviews General Stanley McChrystal about the transformation of U.S. military strategy.
You've taken pride throughout your career in being a warrior rather than a bureaucrat or a politician. You mention in the book the mistrust that ended up emerging among so many different dyads -- civilian-military on the ground, military versus the White House, and so forth. Do you think that you may have been a bit naive, because of your lack of previous political experience, about what sorts of things might contribute to this lack of trust, such as the leaking of your memo [advocating troop increases] or your comments at the [October 2009] International Institute for Strategic Studies conference?
Probably so. I had loved to read history all my life. I'd studied things, and you read about that. But until you are involved in it, until a document that you and your staff has produced is leaked -- not by my staff but in D.C. -- until that happens, you don't expect it actually to happen.
So you didn't realize that you were dealing with a pit of vipers who would seize on anything to fight bureaucratic wars over the fundamental nature of the mission?
I didn't fully appreciate the complexities of all the different players involved, of the different forces at work -- media, politics, personal positions as people wanted different roles, and so forth. As the weeks and months passed, I certainly learned from experience. But when I started, I probably was so mission focused and convinced that if two plus two equals four and that's the right answer policywise, then that's going to be a compelling argument, that I was probably slow in appreciating it completely.
What lessons did you learn in your Iraq and Afghanistan tours?
In Iraq, when we first started, the question was, "Where is the enemy?" That was the intelligence question. As we got smarter, we started to ask, "Who is the enemy?" And we thought we were pretty clever. And then we realized that wasn't the right question, and we asked, "What's the enemy doing or trying to do?" And it wasn't until we got further along that we said, "Why are they the enemy?"
Not until you walk yourself along that intellectual path do you realize that's what you have to understand, particularly in a counterinsurgency where the number of insurgents is completely independent of simple math. In World War II, the German army could produce x number of military-aged males. In an insurgency, the number of insurgents isn't determined by the population, but by how many people want to be insurgents. And so figuring out why they want to be insurgents is crucial. And that's something we had never practiced.
Second, it's all about teams. Nobody wins the war alone. We had a culture in our force, and in many forces, of excellence. It was, "How good can I be at my task? How good can I be at flying an airplane, dropping a bomb, locating an enemy target?" But that's not as important as how well those pieces mesh together. The real art is, if somebody builds a bridge, you have the people ready to drive over it and take advantage of that. It's cooperating with civilian agencies, it's cooperating with conventional forces, it's tying the pieces together. That's the art of war, and that's the hard part.
How do you think Afghanistan looks now, where is the U.S. presence there going, and what will be left behind when we leave?
Security in many parts of the country has gotten better. Places like Helmand and Kandahar, which at one point seemed to be on the brink of falling, aren't that way now. Despite things like green-on-blue killings, there is undeniable security progress in parts of the country.
There is still a great deal of uncertainty on the political future within the Afghan government. I think people within the Afghan population aren't sure exactly where it's going. But the Taliban are suffering significant internal strife, too. They don't have either the clear narrative or the clearly-wired-together command and control to be the threat that they could be or they might have otherwise been. And there are indications that the government of Pakistan is now rolling up the welcome mat.
And so maybe the approach of 2014 is forcing all the players to make a decision: "We better try to sort something out because once the American force is small, much smaller, [the responsibility is ours.]"
Wasn't that the approach adopted in the early years of the last decade, which led to all the troubles you had to fix?
I don't think it was effectively attempted. I don't think we attempted anything very effectively. We were just too small and not very well informed. We were full of good intentions but not very effective actions.
So you're optimistic about the future of Afghanistan after 2014?
I'm cautious. I certainly worry about the Afghan people. I mean, if you were to have a breakdown in order, if the Taliban were to take over, 15 million women would certainly be disadvantaged. If it were to break into civil war, children and women always pay the highest price. So I worry about that. But at the same time, the Afghan people are practical survivors. They will adapt to the situation on the ground. And after this amount of time, I think there is a very good chance that they won't opt for civil war.