The Taliban Are Ready to Exploit America’s Exit
What a U.S. Withdrawal Means for Afghanistan
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.
Is your experience scalable to other organizations, either in the military or outside?
I think it's very scalable, but there is a cultural hill to climb for every organization because it seems to threaten some people's definition of their personal roles. It makes things go much faster, and if organizations aren't ready to move faster, their decision-making processes become overwhelmed by the information flow around them and they have a lot of problems.
Did the tactics of the special operators under your command change in any way?
The operational change and the mental change was by far the more significant part of it. However, tactically there were some things that changed, and part of that was technological. We started with well-trained commandos. We had always had those. They shoot well, they move well, they think brilliantly. But three things changed.
The first was global positioning systems. These allowed you to be exactly where you wanted to be without fits and starts. Navigating from point A to point B wasn't a big part of the task anymore. People take that for granted now, but as I grew up in the military, half of doing something was getting there.
The second thing was the use of night-vision goggles and night-vision equipment on aircraft and other things. These allowed you to have superiority in what you can see and do in the dark. Our entire force operated with night vision, so at night we used no visible lights. We had laser-aiming lights on our weapons and infrared illumination if it was too dark for the night vision. And as a consequence, we just dominated night firefights and night operations dramatically. That was a big deal.
The third was the use of things like the Predators -- unmanned aerial vehicles -- and some manned aircraft. The big breakthrough was that we could put these up and send the downlink or the video feed down to the command or the force on the ground in real time. That doesn't give you complete situational awareness, but it lets you see a bird's-eye view of the battlefield, even though you're standing on the ground in the mud or dirt.
Traditionally, if we did a raid and we thought we were going to need 20 commandos to actually be on the target, we might take 120, because we had to put security around the site to protect it from enemy reinforcements, and we might have to put a support section and a command-and-control section there, because you need all those things to account for the unexpected. But when you have very good situational awareness and good communications, you only send the 20, because your security comes from being able to see, and then you can maneuver forces if you need them. So suddenly, the 120 commandos aren't doing one raid; they're doing six raids simultaneously, and you start to get the ability to do 300 raids a month.
And that's important, because if you're going at an enemy network, you're trying to paralyze its nervous system. If you just hit it periodically, say, every other night, it not only heals itself; some would argue it gets stronger because it gets used to doing that. But if you can hit it in enough places simultaneously, it has a very difficult time regenerating. And that's when we started to have decisive effects.
So would you argue that these tactical and operational developments had a strategic effect?
I would, but you have to link it to the larger cause. Just taking special operating forces and making them very, very effective without tying them really well to what you're trying to do in the country and in the theater proves a loser. We got effectively lashed with our conventional counterparts in the wider effort later than we should have, probably about late 2005, 2006. It was a constant improvement, but I don't think we were really as synchronized as we should have been, nested within their effort, until about halfway through.
In your book, you take a somewhat contrarian view about the changeover from the Casey era to the Petraeus era in Iraq. How decisive was the change in military leadership and the "surge," and how much of it was just a natural evolution of what had been going on in Iraq for years already?
People tend to simplify things. They try to say, "It was all screwed up here and then it got all good there," or, "This decision was decisive." I never found anything that clear. I found the move towards counterinsurgency to be one that was more gradual than sudden. It started under General Casey; he pushed it.
I will say that when the president made the decision to surge more forces, it intersected with some things which were happening. [Iraqi] Sunnis had grown disenchanted with al Qaeda, for good reason. I think the Sunnis also came to the conclusion that they were fighting the coalition, and we were beating on them pretty badly. And so I think they said to themselves, "We had better not fight the wrong war." People were exhausted, were not sure what was going on. And then suddenly, President Bush effectively says, "OK, we are going to double down." Even though people knew it couldn't be permanent, I think there was a sense that this pushes it past the tilting point.
And then, of course, there was General Petraeus, who brought a level of energy and a commitment to the counterinsurgency campaign. All of these together produced a pretty amazing result.
Eventually, you moved from Iraq to Afghanistan and ended up overseeing a counterinsurgency effort there. Did the apparent success of the surge in Iraq lead to rote implementation of the same approach in different and inappropriate circumstances? Was it folly to think that counterinsurgency could work in Afghanistan?
When I was on the Joint Staff in the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009, we did a series of big assessments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And each assessment basically came away with the conclusion, "This is hard, this is complex." The three options were to do more, do less, or do the same. The status quo was deteriorating, so doing the same was not an option. Doing less might make it get worse faster, and doing more was not very palatable.
So by the summer of 2009, when I was placed in command in Afghanistan, we were in a difficult situation. The coalition led by the United States hadn't done nearly as much as had been needed in the few previous years; in fact, our efforts to grow the Afghan police and army had been really pretty small. Because we had not done much, they had not progressed much. Because we had a small footprint, we couldn't provide security. So the confidence of the Afghan people was sliding; there were more and more Afghans with a greater sense of frustration and pessimism for the future.
I was faced with the question, "How do you stop and reverse this?" And when we talk about the Taliban's momentum, we're really talking about momentum in the mind of the Afghan people: once you've changed their confidence level, you win. When we first did the assessment, I expected that we wouldn't need additional forces, just a different strategy and focus. But as we did the math, we found that if you couldn't provide enough security in enough places to reverse the feeling of insecurity and the impending sense of doom, you couldn't do it.
And so I went back to President Obama with the sobering assessment that said, "We have to have enough American forces for long enough to let us really get the Afghan forces in a position where they can do the share of this that they should be doing and that we want them to do." It was a reluctant recognition that sometimes, if the house is on fire, you have to put a wet blanket over it. This was just pretty traditional counterinsurgency.
But traditional counterinsurgency math would have dictated sending an even higher number of troops. So it was really a kind of counterinsurgency lite, wasn't it?
It was. To do it the right way, we would have needed more than 500,000 soldiers.
So why didn't you conclude, "Gee, if it would take that, and that's not politically feasible, we shouldn't do it at all"?
Because we did the calculation that since the insurgency wasn't everywhere in Afghanistan, we could have a lesser footprint in many of those areas not threatened, focus on the most important areas, and get enough security there while the Afghans build their forces and their confidence until they can do it.
So focus on the swing districts in the swing states?
That's right. We went through almost like [the American political strategist] David Plouffe would do a reelection campaign. We found 80 key districts that mattered out of 364, and then we figured out what we thought it would take in those.
Counterinsurgency typically requires three things to work: a long time, a lot of troops, and a very sensitive, low-impact, politically aware mindset. Given that the American public doesn't like long wars, and given that large numbers of forces and a politically aware, sensitive approach to the use of violence seem to be at odds, when, if ever, is counterinsurgency going to be something that the United States should actually embark on?
That's a valid and difficult question, because there are also two other factors which ought to be thrown in. Successful insurgencies usually need an outside safe haven and access to the war zone. Pakistan gave the insurgents in Afghanistan that, and so they had something that we really needed to take away. But we couldn't seal the border.
And a successful counterinsurgency needs a legitimate government. You need to offer to the people an alternative to what the insurgent is offering. The Taliban don't offer a very compelling narrative or popular government, but the government of Afghanistan has huge problems with its popular legitimacy as well.
So in reality, what we had is a situation where we had been there a long time, the coalition was tired, the people of Afghanistan were scared, the insurgency was growing in confidence, the insurgency had a safe haven, and the government of Afghanistan was weak and somewhat conflicted about the war. So there were a lot of factors against it. And that is a very valid argument on why the success of the endeavor is certainly not assured.
You say in your book that when you took command in Afghanistan, you knew there were generals smarter than you (you mentioned Jean de Lattre de Tassigny and Creighton Abrams) who took over and improved efforts in the later stages of difficult wars and still couldn't succeed, so you knew this could fail. As you look back now, do you say, "This really was doomed," or do you still believe that it could actually have worked?
I still do believe that. I ask myself that a lot. But I did believe it then, and I still do believe it now.
What made you optimistic in the face of all the obstacles and so many others' skepticism?
The president gave me a mission to do this. He didn't send me to Afghanistan and say, "You can do this or not." So I didn't have a choice whether to do this. America had made policy statements through President Obama's speeches.
Were you ever asked whether you thought it was something that should be done?
I was never asked that directly.
Do you think that question was ever asked directly at the highest levels of the U.S. government?
I'm confident that it was. But to go back to whether I thought it was doable, there were some factors that made me think so. One was that the Taliban are almost remarkably unpopular. Their polling was about six percent positive. They weren't a nationalist liberation movement with a compelling narrative, and they were not the Taliban of old, with the credibility of being stalwart, religious young men out to get rid of corruption. They had the power to intimidate, but less power to inspire. The Afghan people really yearned for a chance to defeat them, and I don't see any change to that.
The challenge is in offering a viable alternative. The Afghan people have to believe that there is a stable Afghan government that can actually provide security. If the insurgency can intimidate the population at night, the population has no choice to support the government. It's suicide. And so there's no point in trying to blame the hearts and minds because they don't have the ability to give their heart to anyone. So you've got to get enough security. And that was what created the need for the additional forces.
Was impatience in the United States or incompetence in Kabul a greater threat to the overall mission?
They go hand in hand. I think much of the impatience in the United States was derived from the perception of corruption and incompetence in Kabul, some of which was very real. And the more impatient America looked, the more the Afghans thought they were going to be abandoned. And when people think they are going to be abandoned, they go into coping mechanisms -- they withdraw, steal money, put it in Dubai, do things which are going to take care of you when the rainy day comes or the government falls.
You seem to have had a better relationship with President Hamid Karzai than most other commanders and U.S. officials. Why is that?
I can't judge anyone else's relationship with President Karzai. I believed that a relationship with him was critical, because the route to success in Afghanistan went through him and his government. He needed to accept responsibility for defending the sovereignty of his country. For many years, the coalition, primarily the Americans, had been fighting a war on Afghan soil, and we'd been fighting it almost by ourselves. We picked the strategy. We conducted the operations. We called the shots. And we didn't invite or require President Karzai or his forces to have a meaningful role. So as a consequence, they didn't. They stood on the sidelines. I thought if we were going to change things, we had to change that dynamic. And when you have a relationship with someone and you want them to do something, it is much easier to work with them and convince them than it is to force them.
Conversely, when people talk about civilian-military cooperation, evidenced by teams such as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, they sometimes hold up your era in Afghanistan as a counterpoint, with its seeming lack of coordination between U.S. military and civilian leadership.
It's always hard to compare things because I was in Iraq for so long, and I saw the challenges of military-civilian relationships, which were exquisitely difficult during the grand percentage of that time. Ryan Crocker is an amazing individual, and he and General Petraeus formed a magical partnership in Iraq, which, of course, [Ambassador] Karl [Eikenberry] and I tried to match. But there are a lot of things that pull and push against it. In the year I was there in Afghanistan, the embassy was trying to go from, I think, 300 people to a thousand. You try to expand something that fast, that's a challenge. Plus ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] is taking a significant number of forces who were doing strategic assessment, and the whole campaign is under a fair amount of stress militarily but also stress from a policy review and whatnot. Karl Eikenberry and I maintained a great personal relationship. The relationship between the embassy and ISAF wasn't perfect, but there was a good effort made to do that.
When you took over in Afghanistan, your experience and command had been with smaller organizations doing more kinetic operations. Do you think that experience adequately prepared you for the leadership of the larger organizations doing the more politically sensitive operations of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan?
Actually, I think it did prepare me. I had been the chief of staff in Afghanistan in the early years for JTF-180 [Joint Task Force 180, the coalition military headquarters in Afghanistan]. Then I had gone back to the United States and ultimately commanded special operating forces. Although we were a focused counterterrorist force, we actually got fairly large, even just in Iraq. And in the later years of the war, really 2006 to 2008, we increasingly became enmeshed or embedded within the overall counterinsurgency campaign. That integration provided me with a lot of insights into what was happening.
I had not had the opportunity to deal with NATO before, although I didn't find that particularly difficult. I think the opportunity to work with the White House and the president directly is something that you learn in the saddle. I'm not sure anybody is prepared for that. And you go back and read Grant's memoirs as he learned to deal with Abraham Lincoln and vice versa, I think you see you learn as you go along.
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.
Some say that the Obama administration pocketed the gains of the surge in Iraq and traded the short-term improvement in the security environment there for an easy American withdrawal, caring less about the ultimate future of the country than they might have. And these people might charge that something not dissimilar is playing out in Afghanistan, where the gutting of al Qaeda has provided a benign enough environment for the United States to walk away from the conflict, getting withdrawal but leaving behind something less than great on the ground. Are they wrong?
Ultimately, this is going to be an Afghan problem solved by Afghans, in concert with their neighbors, like the Pakistanis, and so I think we are going to reduce our presence naturally, and that's appropriate. We don't want to leave large numbers [of forces] in countries like that for long period, because it's not the Cold War; you don't need to have bases to produce that sort of thing. We can help by being a confidence builder.
Some kind of presence, some kind of assistance to both the government and maybe the military in a training role is appropriate. I think that you navigate from where you are, not where you wish you were. I think al Qaeda is very much weakened, although clearly not gone. The greatest al Qaeda threat, arguably, may not be from western Pakistan in the next few years, as it has been, but it might be from places such as Mali and elsewhere that are struggling to maintain control of their terrain.
Anywhere you have undergoverned or ungoverned areas, organizations like al Qaeda have a tremendous opportunity to get a foothold. And when they can get a foothold, they can start to operate and spread from there.
So what do you do with places like Mali and Yemen?
Well, you can't solve all of them. You certainly don't want to put Western forces in all of these countries. The initial reaction that says, "We will simply operate by drone strikes" is also problematic, because the inhabitants of that area and the world have significant problems watching Western forces, particularly Americans, conduct drone strikes inside the terrain of another country. So that's got to be done very carefully, on occasion. It's not a strategy in itself; it's a short-term tactic.
It seems like the methods you pioneered in Iraq have been embraced by the U.S. government and the American public as a general approach to managing small-scale irregular warfare, and doing so in a way short of putting lots of boots on the ground or walking away entirely. Some would argue that this is the true legacy of Stan McChrystal -- the creation of an approach to counterterrorism that is halfway between war and peace, at such a low cost and with such a light footprint that it's politically viable for the long term in a way that war and disengagement are not. Do you disagree?
I question its universal validity. If you go back to the British tactics on the North-West Frontier, the "butcher and bolt" tactics, where they would burn an area and punish the people and say, "Don't do that anymore," and simultaneously offer a stipend to the leader while saying, "If you will remain friendly for a period of time, we'll pay you" -- that approach worked for a fair amount of time. It managed problems on their periphery. But it certainly didn't solve the problems.
The tactics that we developed do work, but they don't produce decisive effects absent other, complementary activities. We did an awful lot of capturing and killing in Iraq for several years before it started to have a real effect, and that came only when we were partnered with an effective counterinsurgency approach. Just the strike part of it can never do more than keep an enemy at bay. And although to the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain, at the receiving end, it feels like war.
Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly -- I don't think we do, but there's always the danger that you will -- then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that's what they can respond with.
So it's incorrect for someone to say, "I like the Iraq Stan McChrystal of raids and drones and targeted strikes, but I don't like the Afghanistan Stan McChrystal of clear, hold, and build and counterinsurgency; I want to deploy the first but avoid the costs and difficulties of the second"?
I would argue they should like all the Stan McChrystals. If you look at the role I had in Iraq, it is sexy, it is satisfying, it is manly, it scratches an itch in the American culture that people like. But I was doing that as part of a wider effort in Iraq, and it was that wider effort that I took control of in Afghanistan. And those wider efforts were about people. The whole point of war is to take care of people, not just to kill them. You have to have a positive reason that protects people, or it's wrong. So while I did what I had to in Iraq, and did a lot of that in Afghanistan, too (because we had a significant effort along those lines there), the broader purpose is what's important, and that's what I think people need to be reminded of. The purpose is the Afghan kid. The purpose is the Afghan female. The purpose is the 50-year-old farmer who just wants to farm.
Did the success of your efforts in Iraq lead to an overemphasis on the use of direct action by Special Forces, raids and drone attacks and targeted killings, rather than indirect action, such as training and building local capacity?
My wife Annie and I are not golfers, but some years ago, we took part in a golf tournament in our unit. After having significant trouble, on one of the tees, Annie used a Kevlar driver. She hit this amazing drive straight down the fairway, and she was elated. For the rest of the afternoon, the only club she used was the Kevlar driver. She chipped with it. She putted with it. She used it for everything.
That's the danger of special operating forces. You get this sense that it is satisfying, it's clean, it's low risk, it's the cure for most ills. That's why many new presidents are initially enamored with the Central Intelligence Agency, because they are offered a covert fix for a complex problem. But if you go back in history, I can't find a covert fix that solved a problem long term. There were some necessary covert actions, but there's no "easy button" for some of these problems. That's the danger of interpreting what we did in Iraq as being the panacea for future war. It's not.
Histories of World War II had to be rewritten when the full scope of Ultra became clear after it was declassified. Will people writing 30 years from now about the "war on terror" and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan be revising the stories that we tell ourselves today because of what has been declassified in the meantime?
Yeah, they will, and they won't be right. There will be a tendency to find a piece of information that says, "We had the technical or human ability to collect X or do Y." And people will write books about that, and they'll say, "That was the decisive point," and they will be grossly oversimplifying. Bits of information will come out that make people say, "Wow, we did that and got that result." But at the end of the day, there was no single thing like that. There was no single person, no mad genius in any of our intelligence agencies or forces that pulled it all together. It was this puzzle painstakingly constructed of thousands and thousands of pieces, some of which were pretty darn interesting, some of which were extraordinarily hard to make happen, but none of which was decisive by itself.
So the story we can piece together now, in broad terms, is still the accurate story we'll be telling ourselves later on, down the road?
The story coming from the people who are accurate now, yes.
There's a debate going on about the role of torture in American policy, what constitutes it and how important and necessary a tool it is in counterterrorism. What's your take?
I teach a seminar at Yale on leadership, and in one of the classes, I decided to bring up the issue of torture to rouse their indignation at the idea. And more than half the class said, "Well, if you need to do it, it's OK." And I was shocked.
I've never been in a position where I had a detainee or prisoner who knew where a nuclear weapon in New York was and if I was able to get the information out of him in three hours I could save millions of people. So for me to say I would never torture anyone under those circumstances, I don't think anyone can answer that question, particularly if my family was there or something.
That said, I think torture is an absolute mistake, and I made that clear within our organization. Whether or not torture works is an academic argument I don't even want to be a part of, because at the end of the day, I think the torturers are weakened. They're weakened internally individually, and they're weakened strategically as a cause.The thing that hurt us more than anything else in the war in Iraq was Abu Ghraib. When the pictures came out in the spring of 2004, many Americans felt our government was being honest -- that we had a problem with a platoon operating in the prison mistreating prisoners. The Iraqi people viewed it very differently. Many of them felt it was proof positive that the Americans were doing exactly what Saddam Hussein had done -- that it was proof [that] everything they thought bad about the Americans was true.
So what we thought of as an exception, they thought of as the rule?
That's right. They thought that was the broader reality. And there were hundreds of foreign fighters that came in [to Iraq] because they were responding to Abu Ghraib. Using torture is ultimately self-defeating. It's morally wrong, and it's a strategic mistake.
Do you have any regrets or moral qualms in retrospect about things that happened under your command in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere?
Yeah. When I took over [the Special Operations] Command, we were still very new to running operations, holding detainees, and so forth. We weren't manned with the right interrogators; we didn't have the right facilities. People were doing their best, but we were doing what I'd consider an unsatisfactory job. We weren't actively torturing people, but we weren't treating people the way that we should have been. We started cleaning that up right away, correcting that. My biggest regret is that it took us about nine months before we got it to the point where it should have been from the beginning. That's slower than it should have been.
You've spent your life in service to your country. Do you think that's something that all Americans should do?
Absolutely. I think that the act of contributing, whether it is mandatory or whether it is voluntary (I think it ought to be mandatory), does something for the individual. When you contribute to something, you put more value on it. If I made you pick up trash on the street out front, you'd be more upset with people who littered, and you would own that street more. I think paying taxes to a nation is not enough. That's too clinical. Having the opportunity to actually go and do things for the nation that are inconvenient or unpleasant or even unsafe binds you to the larger group more deeply than before.
America suffers right now from the fact that many Americans don't meet or deal with anybody outside their social or cultural circle. It may be economic, it may be geographic, it may be religion. I think one of the great things about forced national service, like World War II, was that it blended people across the different parts of our country, made us a better melting pot than we would have been otherwise. I think mandatory national service would have a huge effect to help us in that direction.
So was it a mistake to move to a volunteer army?
I'm not sure it was a mistake, because the volunteer army I served in was this extraordinary fighting machine. But having said that, I now believe we need a draft. America's defense should be performed by a representative cross section of the population. With a draftee army, there'd be some new challenges, but I think we could solve that.
What would the consequences be for American foreign and security policy if everybody had skin in the game?
Oh, I think it'd be much better, because right now, there's a sense that if you want to go to war, you just send the military. They're not us. But if you wanted to go to war and your son or your daughter had a very high chance of going, you'd be more invested. It wouldn't be just tax money; it would be emotional.
So we'd go to war less often and take it more seriously when we did?
I think that would be the outcome.
What a U.S. Withdrawal Means for Afghanistan
Failure to Act Will Lead to a Failed State
It’s the Best Hope for Balancing China in the Indo-Pacific
Washington Needs to Craft New Rules for the Digital Age