Transcript: Interview With Gen. Stanley McChrystal

NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, about the administration's new strategy for the war. Read a transcript:

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Steve Inskeep: Before we talk about what you're going to do, I want to ask a few questions about what you have done over the last several months. What lessons, if any, did you learn from deploying 21,000 troops — extra troops — in Afghanistan this year and the operations you sent them on?

Gen. Stanley McChrystal: In fact, the forces that we received starting after the president's decision in March, we were able to do a number of things: One, we were able to go into some areas that had been held for years by the Taliban. In the Helmand River valley particularly, we were able to go in and contest those areas from Taliban control and begin to re-establish government — Afghan control. It is still in early stages.

As you know, to do counterinsurgency correctly is not something that happens rapidly, but we've got some areas — Garmsir, Nawa, Spin Majid and others — where we have established enough security so that you see a resurgence of normal life. You see bazaars open much more than they were before, you see the beginnings of effective local governance, things like that. So it allows us to, one, expand security for a number of Afghans; but, two, it allows us to demonstrate to Afghans what the future can and will be. And I think that was very important.

When you say, "the beginning of effective local governance," what does that mean in a small town in the Helmand River valley, say, that there suddenly — what does it mean to you? What do you see?

It means that the people of that area have a direct say over what they do. As you know, governance — local governance — in Afghanistan is different from it would be in the United States, but it's also different in different parts of Afghanistan.

And so typically, it involves consensus governance from a number of elders who come to gather in a meeting over Ashura, and they have a great deliberative tradition. And so they come and they talk things out and they decide ways ahead for the village, for the area. And so the ability not to have Taliban ruler coercion and to allow those things to grow back again, and then to mesh with the formal governance of the state of Afghanistan from district to province to national.

Now, that's incomplete, and it's going to take a long time for us to get to where it needs to be, but that is starting to allow the people of an area to have a say over how they're governed now and how they'll be in the future.

To complete that process, do you need to get a lot of foreign, particularly American, civilians in there to work with locals?

What we need in the long term, of course, is a combination of Afghan civil servants — in some cases technocrats, bureaucrats and political leaders — some of which are from the local area and then some of which clearly are nationally assigned. And they need to be enabled in the near term by international help — expertise, in some cases; some cases, help with just connectivity of technology, as this is — as we grow this. It's been damaged — for 30 years, it's been damaged in various ways, and so we're trying to rebuild something in a very difficult environment.

Do you have a problem in that you obviously have the strength to go in and take a town or take a valley, but holding it for any length of time with American troops is just too manpower-intensive, and perhaps even too difficult for foreigners to do over time?

I think it is something you don't want to do with foreign troops any longer than you have to do. Clearly, we can go in and clear or take any piece of ground in Afghanistan on any given day we want. But it's really legitimacy with the Afghan people that's the driver here, and it's the ultimate measure of our success.

So what we want to do is partner with Afghan forces to, first, secure or clear an area, and then as we go through the hold and build phases — which are really just a transition back to normalcy — we want to have as much as possible that provided by Afghan security forces — the army in a greater percentage earlier, and then eventually police, like it would be in any part of the world.

So what did you learn through that process of those initial operations?

Well, I think we learned it absolutely works. We knew theoretically that counterinsurgency works. I think what we have shown here is that in those areas, even those that have been contested by or controlled by the Taliban, it absolutely can work here as well, and does work. But it is going to take a consistent commitment to make that effective.

Of course, you're watching what the enemy does. Did you sense that they were learning from you as you went through your operations in this past year?

Absolutely. And if you watch Mullah Omar and some of his senior leaders come out as we put out guidance that we have to protect and respect the population, limit civilian casualties, establish relations, they are almost in parallel.

On the one hand, it is concerning because the more that they adjust their behavior, theoretically, the more effective they could become. But in the long term, the more they adjust their behavior, the less threatening they are to the government of Afghanistan, as well.

Were the Taliban to continue to evolve far enough, then I think that their willingness to use coercion and other things against the government of Afghanistan wouldn't be there anymore. So I don't think they're willing to go that far; I don't think they can go that far. I think they're an unpopular insurgency that can try to put a mantle of popularity on themselves, but I don't think at the end of the day it'll be legitimate with the Afghan people.

Are they becoming more effective at targeting your troops while not killing civilians — the same thing you would like to be more effective at?

Most of the — or, the greatest number of casualties from improvised explosive devices are Afghan civilians. And so the degree to which the insurgents have gone to asymmetric warfare to try to do that, in fact, has produced more Afghan civilians — and suicide bombers have targeted more Afghan civilians than they have Afghan military, government or coalition forces. So while they are making efforts to do that, they're not being successful in that.

And as they take measures like IEDs, those limit freedom of movement of Afghan civilians. And it has a coercive, intimidating effect but it also has an effect that undermines any support they might get — popular support from the people. So they are trying to do that, but I don't think that they're being particularly successful.

When I listen to our correspondents' descriptions of the effect of improvised explosive devices, of course your forces try very hard to limit casualties, and, as tragic as some of the casualties are, it seems like almost the greater cost for you is the time spent — troops having to spend all day to travel 2 miles. It's almost as if you have an entire unit that's out of action for the day, again and again and again and again.

That is what the purpose of IEDs really are. They are to limit peoples' freedom of movement, instill fear and a sense that the government cannot control or secure the area. They become very labor-intensive for counterinsurgency forces, as your correspondents have seen, and we must do that because, as we clear roads, we're not just clearing them for counterinsurgency forces; we're clearing them for the farmer who is moving product to market.

So it's a tactic that, in many ways, is very effective in that it ties down a lot of resources. But, to go back, it also has a negative effect for the insurgent because the people recognize that. The people get tired of the fact that they can't travel from their village to an effective market without waiting for a security force to clear the road — or they go and they, in fact, suffer casualties en route. So anything that they do to undercut the government, but that actually works against the population, at the end of the day, works against the insurgents.

Is this in some very real sense a political campaign? You've got a province like Helmand in the south. You've got a governor; you want to support him; you want people to vote with their feet, so to speak, and support that governor. They've got a shadow governor. They want more support for that shadow governor.

It's absolutely a political campaign. All insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are a struggle for the support of the people. To say it's winning the hearts and minds is overly simplistic. It's really winning credibility and legitimacy with the people. It's — for the government, it's convincing the people that they can provide for their basic needs — that they can provide basic justice, security and that the people recognize that government as representative to them, legitimate.

The counterinsurgent — or the insurgent tries to undercut that. He tries to prove that the government cannot provide that. And then they try to offer an alternative concept. The Taliban's weakness is they have a track record. They did govern Afghanistan, and they didn't do it very well. And they have very extreme views that are not shared by the majority of the population.

So unlike some political challengers in this debate, they have a history that it's hard for them to ignore.

Is your side's weakness also that the Afghan government has a track record and is not seen as very credible in a lot of parts of the country?

It's the biggest challenge. In fact, the government of Afghanistan has got to understand — and I think it does — but it needs to address the fact that it must be credible and legitimate. If it — to the degree to which it struggles with that, it will remain difficult.

How would you evaluate the quality of the Afghan Security Forces at this moment?

Getting better all the time. As you know, they are growing in size — both the Afghan army and the Afghan National Police. But they are still in a stage in which there is — significant development still needs to occur. The Afghan National Army, which was really reborn in 2002, is further along. It is — over 90,000 soldiers assigned to it. The kandaks, or battalions, they fight well and they fight aggressively. Afghans are natural warriors, historically.

We still need to help mature systems of command and control and logistics and, of course, make the army stronger. The police need to go further. Police are typically — like in any country — police are distributed around to provide protection for the population in small groups. And, therefore, you need a tremendous amount of — number of leaders so that you have leadership at every level.

And you've got a shortage of Afghan leaders who are trained, don't you?

We have a shortage of leaders who have been formally trained, and we need to continue to develop discipline and processes so that they can make themselves better over time.

Is that discipline and that leadership of captains and majors, say, more important than the fighting experience or the fighting spirit of the troops themselves, given that you're trying to do a counterinsurgency campaign, which is very complicated?

I won't say it's more important, because the fighting spirit is critical. But the largest number of casualties in this counterinsurgency are suffered by the Afghan National Police. And their courage is not in doubt, in my mind. And that is important.

On the other hand, I think that that leadership, the maturity of the leadership — the sergeants, the captains, the majors are critical for the long-term stability of the force. So I think we need to build upon the natural willingness to serve and sacrifice that we have in the force, the heart of the force. But we need to increase its maturity.

If you wanted to grow, say, a thousand U.S. Army majors who were skilled and competent and well-trained, how many years would you want for that task? You'd want seven or eight years, wouldn't you?

It takes a long time. And an army is — when we look at an army, we look at what's on the battlefield and we look at battalions, brigades, companies and whatnot. What you don't see, but what is so important — for example, the U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, Air Force — it starts with bringing soldiers in, training them. It is a very detailed education system for noncommissioned officers; for officers, repetitive schooling, training, graduate programs, leadership culture, values. And it goes all the way to retirees who come back to help reinforce that in the force.

We have more than 200 years of building ethos into the force, values, expertise. And we work very hard to maintain that. So it will take a long time for the Afghan national security forces to get to that level. But they have a history. I mean, history didn't start in 1979 with 30 years of war; there is tradition before that as well. And we pull some of that forward, and then we pull the rich culture of the Afghan people. So all of the pieces are there. But, after 30 years of war, they need time and assistance to help pull those together.

There has been a lot of discussion in the last several days about the 18-month window that you have here. You have — and others have — worked to clarify: That's the beginning of a drawdown, not the end of the engagement. I want to understand a little bit better the length of time that you're really thinking about to make a significant difference here.

Afghan officials have said maybe in five years they are ready to take over. Is that a more realistic window for getting closer to the end of this project — five years?

I think it's all stages. I think, first off, the end of the project is when Afghanistan is absolutely able to provide all of their security without any external assistance. But I think that we in the international community — not just the United States — have offered a strategic partnership to Afghanistan, to the people of Afghanistan, that guarantees them that we are there for them over time.

And I think it's a number of years. And I won't put a number on it, but it's a number of years. But, in the future years, I think it is a partnership that is much more like advice, some resources; it's very much not like combat forces, because I don't think they'll need them.

You don't think they'll need them five years from now, say, three or five years from now?

I won't address actual years there, but I think as we evolve into the strategic partnership, the need for any external combat forces goes down pretty significantly. President Karzai, in his inaugural speech, expressed the aspiration that in five years he would like to have the lead for security of his country — assuming that he'd need some assistance from us. And I think that's probably realistic.

Do you imagine that, in several years, that advice role is going to be American soldiers and Marines integrated into Afghan units, helping to lead them, helping to fill that gap of the lack of trained leaders? So it's not like there is an American brigade fighting as an American brigade, but there are, perhaps, thousands of American soldiers still in harm's way, still in combat a number of years from now.

Hard for me to predict that. I think it depends upon the evolution of the insurgency. I think it depends upon the evolution of the Afghan national security forces. I think the strategic partnership that we described evolves over time such that we go from a period where we're putting significant combat forces in to provide time and space now and partnering with Afghan forces toward something that is a description of advising as we go forward. Some of — I can't say that there wouldn't be any international forces in harm's way in that advisory role, but I think that decreases more and more over time with clearly the Afghans in the lead for their security.

How effective have the Taliban been at degrading the effectiveness of the Afghan National Police, whom you've mentioned a couple of times as being especially under pressure?

They have put a severe amount of pressure on the police, particularly in areas where security is immature. And so the police have borne the brunt of a terrific amount of insurgent pressure, which increases police casualties, which attrites leaders, which makes it harder for the police to rebound. I think that that has been a very conscious effort on their part.

What we are doing now is we are partnering coalition forces with police in a much greater number of areas than we had before. And so I think we can provide much better partnership with the police and give them greater ability to withstand us in the near term and then reverse it as quickly as we can.

How does that work? Does an Afghan policeman, then, have an American bodyguard, in effect?

No, not a bodyguard. He's got an American partner. What we have is, at a district level, there might be 100, 150 Afghan National Police assigned, and we would have a coalition force unit that is partnered right with them, often lives right with them, plans with them, trains with them, operates with them. And it does a couple things.

It helps that Afghan National Police element have access to many of the enablers that we have — medevac, some of the fires, if needed, communications — while their systems mature. But it also allows the Afghans, who have an understanding of the people, cultural acuity, obviously language skills — it allows them to help the American side of it be more effective as well. So together it's a symbiotic relationship, and we think together they're more effective.

And in that formula, of course, you want to move more civilians into some of the areas that you clear. That, as I'm sure you know very well, was one of the great weak spots in Iraq. It was extraordinarily difficult to get foreign NGOs, foreign experts of any kind, into any part of Iraq and keep them there for any length of time. Are you going to be able to protect people — or even persuade outsiders that they could be protected so they'll show up? You're smiling as I say this.

I'm smiling because that is the insurgent strategy. They try to do several things. They try to separate the government from the people and undermine the credibility of the government; they try to separate the security forces from the people by increasing pressure on them and getting the security forces to hide behind Hescos and things like that; and they try to keep development away.

So if they can keep NGOs away and they can keep other development expertise, then they can go to the people and say, "Look, you are not benefiting from the government. It doesn't protect you; it doesn't provide development; it can't provide rule of law." So our requirement on the other side, as the Afghan government and all the coalition partners and the NGOs, are to push that back, try to establish enough security so that we can then bring those things in.

It's tough because there's a period when security is incomplete and, yet, you need governance and you need development efforts in there. We've got a number of incredibly courageous civilians — both governmental civilians and also NGOs — who go out into, relatively speaking, less secure areas, because that's where you need to begin the germination of those programs.

You need to show the people that there is hope; you need to show the people that we can provide some of those things. And I — the partnership we have between military forces and the civilian elements of all kinds is incredibly important. And it's actually very impressive in a tremendous number of areas in Afghanistan.

Are you sure you're going to have the numbers of people in the most remote parts of the country that you need, who can actually come in and that you can support?

That's going to be one of our major efforts.

I wonder if you have a back-of-the-envelope calculation — every civilian who goes in and tries to do development work is going to cost me a platoon, is going to cost me a company that's going to be tied down in some way. Do you have a formula in your head for how much of your troops get tied down with those kinds of requirements?

Yeah, I don't think it's tied down. I think it's — we want the civilian capacity to leverage security forces so they can get out and do the things that really, at the end of the day, have to matter. Security forces are the big enabler. We create the environment for the essential progress, which is governance, which establishes credibility, and development.

So the degree to which we provide that is really one of the great measures of our effectiveness. The more civilians we can get out, the more effective the overall effort's going to be. And so that's the way I think we measure it.

But do you have, in your mind, a formula like I was curious about?

Our planners have gone through extraordinarily detailed plans on this, and I won't describe them in that way, but as we go in each area, what we think is the right number of each kind — and then as the security situation improves, of course, it takes fewer security forces to enable more civilians because you just have a lower security requirement.

But we do, and we work in absolute partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. But also, UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] has been deeply involved in our campaign planning. Because we're all trying to do the same thing; we're all trying to help Afghanistan protect its sovereignty and then move forward.

In order to win, do you have to control all of Afghanistan?

No, I don't think so. I think what we have to do is get it to the point where the government of Afghanistan can protect its sovereignty. They don't have to control every square inch. What they have to do is control enough of the population, enough of the key production and lines of communications, and establish enough credibility and legitimacy so that the insurgency can't be an existential threat. Over time, then, of course, the insurgency loses relevance. And I think then the government of Afghanistan is where it needs to be to move forward.

So if you control a handful of key provinces around Kabul, Kandahar, Helmand province, a few others, that's enough to win?

I won't say a handful of key provinces; what I'll say is it's really people. It's how much of the population in key areas can you protect, because it's the minds of the people that you're really trying to influence here. So what we have got to do is control key areas and population centers so that the people of Afghanistan first see an opportunity for a normal, better future and then they start to experience it. And so we have done a tremendous amount of work to figure out what those areas are, and we're focusing our efforts on it.

Let me name one. What's your plan for Kandahar, which we should mention, for people, is one of the largest cities in the country and maybe politically the most important city in the country? It's where the Taliban had its base. It's a city that was relatively safe for a little while after the Taliban fell and has become more and more and more influenced by the Taliban over time. What's your plan there?

To significantly increase security in Kandahar. It is primarily an Afghan task to do that. We will enable them through a number of activities, both increasing the forces that they can put there and partnering to a greater degree. I was in downtown Kandahar just recently, touring police stations — Afghan National Police stations, where we have, in this case, it's U.S. military police partnered with them.

Also spent time with our Canadian brothers, who are Task Force Kandahar. They have been the lead nation. And between those, they are working to establish better security through the police in the city, downtown, and then in the approaches to Kandahar. There are some critical approaches: To the north, Arghandab ... Shah Wali Kot, to the west, Panjwai, Zhari.

Those are areas that the insurgents have traditionally tried to control to menace the city of Kandahar — not to take it, but to menace it. And we have had some extraordinarily courageous and effective work by U.S. and Canadian and other forces — and Afghan forces, of course — over the last few months. This is one of the areas we've focused on to make progress there, and I'm really heartened by what we've done. But it's coming at significant cost.

And you said it's primarily an Afghan job?

It's partnered — Afghan and coalition.

And do they have enough — let's not even talk about the whole country — do they have enough competent, well-trained, well-armed, skilled forces to take care of that job in partnership with you and take a significant or even leading role in it?

It needs to grow. They need to grow in that area — Kandahar — both in size and continue to improve in professionalism. And that's obviously one of our focuses.

Well, General, thanks very much.

Thanks, Steve.

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