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McChrystal Predicts Hard Road Ahead in Afghanistan

June 2, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, tapped to take command of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, faced questions on his leadership plans at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. Analysts take a look at his qualifications for the post.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, a look at the new commander in Afghanistan. We start with a report by NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Army general chosen to run the Afghanistan war says it can be won with a hard-fought campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

LT. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. Army: The challenge is considerable.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal made that point before the Senate Armed Services Committee, meeting today to take up his nomination as Afghanistan commander, along with two other top military appointments.

LT. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: There is no simple answer. We must conduct a holistic counterinsurgency campaign, and we must do it well. Success will not be quick or easy. Casualties will likely increase. We will make mistakes.

KWAME HOLMAN: McChrystal comes to the job with experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. He led the Joint Special Operations Command, a varied collection of special forces assets which operates very much in secret.

In Iraq, McChrystal’s units were responsible for well-known successes, including the capture of Saddam Hussein, and his troops hunted down and killed al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But they also rounded up and held Iraqis by the dozens in intelligence-gathering operations. Some of those detentions and interrogations have come under scrutiny.

Today, the general said he recognized mistakes and made this promise.

LT. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: If confirmed, I will strictly enforce the high standards of detainee treatment consistent with international and U.S. law.

KWAME HOLMAN: The senators did not dwell on that issue, but the general did take pointed questions about his role in recommending Corporal Pat Tillman, a famous football player, for a Silver Star in combat while evidence was growing that Tillman actually was killed by friendly fire in 2004.

SEN. JAMES WEBB (D), Virginia: I regretfully say I think that the Army really failed the Tillman family.

KWAME HOLMAN: Virginia Democrat Jim Webb asked McChrystal if he understood that the Tillman family felt misled by the military.

LT. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: We failed the family. And I was a part of that, and I apologize for it. My own mistakes in not reviewing the Silver Star citation well enough and making sure that I compared it to the message that I sent were mistakes. They were well intentioned, but they created, they added to the doubt and the sense of mistrust. And we didn’t get it right.

What we have learned since is, it is better to take your time, make sure you get everything right with the award, and not rush it. And I’m very sorry for that, because I understand that the outcome produced a perception that I don’t believe was at all involved, at least in the forces that were for it.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: And you believe that Corporal Tillman earned the Silver Star by his actions before he died?

LT. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I absolutely do. I did then; I do now.

KWAME HOLMAN: The general said, while the U.S. builds up its troop presence in Afghanistan this summer to nearly 70,000, significantly larger numbers of Afghan police and soldiers are required, as well. He did not pinpoint how many or at what cost.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: The American people need to understand that we’re about to build 150,000-, 160,000-man Afghan army, which I think is the key to getting home, but we’re going to wind up paying for it.

KWAME HOLMAN: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Now, everyone has asked about winning. Tell me the consequence of losing in Afghanistan or Pakistan, General McChrystal.

LT. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: It would break down into civil war. There would be — I don’t believe that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan. I think it would go back to what it was before 2001, and that would be an ongoing civil war before different factions. I believe that al-Qaida would have the ability to move back into Afghanistan, and I cannot imagine why they would not do that.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the general expressed hope that the U.S., as it did in Iraq, might split the ranks of the insurgents and possibly peel off elements of the Taliban from al-Qaida.

Throughout, McChrystal stressed that success in Afghanistan depended on decreasing civilian casualties and increasing local support for the allies and the Afghan government.

LT. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: This is a critical point. It may be the critical point. This is a struggle for the support of the Afghan people. Our willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties or damage, even when doing so makes our task more difficult, is essential to our credibility.

I cannot overstate my commitment to the importance of this concept. Although I expect stiff fighting ahead, the measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed. It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, McChrystal said his counterinsurgency plan would continue to use air strikes and special operations, pledging the attacks would be as “precise as possible.” The general said it is critical to make progress in Afghanistan in the next 18 to 24 months.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more.

A winnable war?

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on General McChrystal and the changes he's likely to bring to the war effort in Afghanistan, we get three views.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl is president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank. He served in both Iraq wars and is the author of "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam."

Robert Baer served 21 years as a case officer in the CIA directorate of operations. He has been involved in operations directed at Afghanistan and served in Iraq after the First Gulf War. He wrote "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Officer in the CIA's War on Terrorism."

And David Corn is the Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones" magazine. He's the co-author of "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War."

Welcome to you all.

And, Joe Nagl, let me begin with you. General McChrystal said today -- he says this thing is winnable. It may not be easy, but it is winnable. Is he the man to win it? If it's winnable, is he the guy to do it?

JOHN NAGL, Center for a New American Security: It is a winnable war. He can't win it, I don't think, during the amount of time he's going to be given, but he is going to be able to set this course on the road to victory.

So the trends in Afghanistan are not positive right now. The new president has committed additional forces to the fight. And General McChrystal and General Rodriguez, his deputy who's also joining him -- we're getting a package deal here -- that team, I think, has the right skill set, the right determination, the focus to set this thing on a very positive direction over the next 18 months.

MARGARET WARNER: But what is it about General McChrystal? What does he bring to the job, in particular, if you had to sum it up?

JOHN NAGL: General McChrystal is a very hard, very determined man, a lot of intelligence, personal intelligence, but also a knowledge of how to use intelligence to identify, track, locate, and eliminate enemies.

And he also brings an extraordinary focus, a diligence, and a shared sense of purpose to any group of people he works with. He is revered by his men and extraordinarily disciplined.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Baer, what's your view?

BOB BAER, former CIA officer: I think he's going to be a good commander. He certainly succeeded in Iraq. It was a very tough job. It was an intelligence nightmare when he first arrived, and he did catch Saddam Hussein and Zarqawi. And he's going to take those same techniques, the special forces, Delta Force, he's going to take it to Afghanistan.

I think the important thing is, we have to understand the political context of appointing McChrystal, and that is Congress has said, "We're going to give you a year or two years to show progress in Afghanistan." And if there's anybody that can show that progress, it's McChrystal.

MARGARET WARNER: And why is that?

BOB BAER: He's good. He understands intelligence. He understands actionable intelligence. You know, his guys have to knock down doors, and they cannot get caught in ambushes, they cannot afford to make mistakes, and they cannot afford to kill a lot of civilians. And he's learned a lot of lessons in Iraq, which he hopes to transfer to Afghanistan. And I think that's why he's the best.

Earning the population's trust

MARGARET WARNER: David Corn, General McChrystal said today it has to be classic counterinsurgency, and the other half of counterinsurgency is the winning hearts and minds. It's sitting down and, as they say, having tea with the locals. Does he bring that experience to this?

DAVID CORN, Mother Jones Magazine: Counterinsurgency is different than counterterrorism. What he had some success with in Iraq I would categorize more as counterterrorism.

He made a very good case today for himself. He came across as smart and confident, had all the attributes, seemed to present them, that John just discussed.

The question or the concern I have is that, when he was head of JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, one of the most notorious detainee centers was right under his direct command in Iraq. That was task force...

MARGARET WARNER: This was Camp Naga.

DAVID CORN: Camp Nama.


DAVID CORN: And the New York Times and others and Human Rights Watch have put out reports and stories about it that are just really pretty hair-raising. Now, why that's important is that -- he wasn't really asked much about it today. He did say he didn't condone such methods. But they really didn't get into what his...

MARGARET WARNER: And that those he'd found out about were investigated?

DAVID CORN: Yes, but what he said today was he recognized the importance in Afghanistan of dealing with two key issues: corruption, which is not his purview as much as the next one, which is civilian casualties.

And special forces operations in Afghanistan have led to a lot of the civilian casualty issues that have led to our troops and our forces, you know, being alienated from the general public in Afghanistan. So if there's a question about how he handled Camp Nama and the sensitivity towards those sort of matters, you know, has he learned from that?

I've talked to some human rights people today who believe that perhaps he has and might be in a better position. But the way they handled it at the hearing today didn't convince me that actually he'd made those strides.

Preventing detainee abuse

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think, John Nagl, on this issue of detainee abuse? It wasn't a huge issue at the hearing. Do you think it's been put to rest and, as David Corn says, do you think he's adjusted, given the lesson of that?

JOHN NAGL: I think the whole Army, the whole Department of Defense has learned. The nation has learned a great deal about its responsibility to take care of those it detains on the battlefield, to treat them humanely and decently.

And this is something that we as a nation were not as well prepared for as we could have been. I think that General McChrystal's personal record in this is pretty good, as good as anyone's over this time period, of coming in, identifying problems, and solving them as he identified them, but I do think, as a nation, we now have a firm determination to do this as well as we possibly can. I don't think this is going to be a problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me go ahead, Bob Baer, and ask you to pick up on another point that David raised that was in the testimony, which had to do with the civilian casualties.

You know, and he said -- he made a remarkable statement. He said it is one of the most dangerous things we face in Afghanistan. He raised the perception of civilian casualties to a much higher plane than I've heard any other commander do. What is it going to take for him to reduce civilian casualties?

BOB BAER: It's going to take better intelligence. It's going to take more precise intelligence. But on the other hand, having worked in Afghanistan, my experience has been that it is another intelligence nightmare.

And I can see why there are so many civilian casualties. It's not because we're careless. It's just difficult to pinpoint targets. And I think he's warned us in this testimony that the civilian casualties are not going to end. As deplorable as they are, they're just not going to end.

Maybe his experience in directly being on the ground is going to make a big difference, and we can only hope.

But what I'd like to dispute is this is a winnable war. And I think what we're going to see with McChrystal is we need to separate al-Qaida from the Taliban, and that will really be our exit strategy, is destroying al-Qaida and not the Taliban, because the Taliban in a sense will always be there.

MARGARET WARNER: But that's what he said today, did he not, John Nagl?

JOHN NAGL: That's one of the things he said today. And he is going to try to do that. But I really think...

MARGARET WARNER: Split the two?

JOHN NAGL: Split al-Qaida from the Taliban, which we were able to do in Iraq. We were able to split al-Qaida in Iraq away from the Sunni insurgents. And certainly we're going to try to do that again.

But I disagree. I think our exit strategy in Afghanistan, as our exit strategy in Iraq, is going to be the creation of host nation security forces who can secure that country on their own.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you, David, to go back to a point that, really, there was a lot of anticipation about the questioning today, and that had to do with the Pat Tillman incident. Now, you heard him apologize, say they mishandled it. Has that been put to rest?

DAVID CORN: Well, I think, for family's sake, probably not, because he has come up for promotion in the past, and they've raised these issues to family, and he still has gotten promotion.

What I heard today was nothing that hasn't been said before. And there are people within the military who, in published reports, who have said that they believe that officers below him took the brunt of that while he didn't.

You know, he came up with what sounded to be a plausible explanation, but, again, a lot of what happened today made it clear to me that Democrats and Republicans had both decided, "He's our guy in Afghanistan," maybe because General David Petraeus highly recommended him and, if he wants him, they think it's a good idea.

And so the Pat Tillman questioning, the questioning about detainee abuse, I thought seemed very orchestrated and didn't give a full airing to these very, I think, hot-button issues.

Revisions in strategy

MARGARET WARNER: In the limited time we have left, I'd like to whip around to the three of you, beginning with you, John Nagl. When Secretary Gates announced this appointment three weeks ago, he said he wanted fresh thinking. And he also said, "The president and I have set the broad goal, but it's going to be up to General McChrystal to come up with the strategy."

What key changes do you expect to see, other than, of course, there will be more forces, but in addition to that?

JOHN NAGL: I think General McChrystal is going to use those additional forces to protect the Afghan population. And he's going to focus on building an Afghan national army that can secure that country on its own in time.

MARGARET WARNER: But that's been the mission all along. Is there anything else about the way he's going to either reorganize the whole way we're fighting it?

JOHN NAGL: We are, I think for the first time, going to actually put our money where our mouth is and provide the resources the Afghan army needs, both in terms of equipment and trainers, that ultimately is going to enable us to depart that country over the course of time.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Baer, what would you add to that, in terms of what he brings to this job and what changes you might see?

BOB BAER: If I were General McChrystal, I would ask permission to cross the border into Pakistan secretly and hit rear bases. Most of this war is being supplied out of Pakistan. The leadership is there. Al-Qaida is there.

And I would change that policy right away, because simply we cannot separate these two wars, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And he's going to need authority to cross that border.

MARGARET WARNER: And he did make that request when President Bush was in office, did he not, to send in some kind of commando raids after Taliban in Pakistan?

BOB BAER: And they have, but they need to go in much greater force. It's going to be very dangerous. We're going to lose some people. I just don't see a way around it. We're going to really need to go into that area.

MARGARET WARNER: David Corn, changes?

DAVID CORN: Today he talked about having an holistic counterinsurgency approach, which is different than what Bob's talking about, which is more of a counterterrorism approach.

I still think that we don't have enough evidence to know which way he is going to go there. So those are big, fundamental issues that I hope go above his pay grade when it comes to deciding how we're going to prosecute this war in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: David Corn, Bob Baer, John Nagl, thank you all.

JOHN NAGL: Thank you.

DAVID CORN: Thank you.

BOB BAER: Thank you.