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Exclusive: McChrystal Says Despite Progress in Afghanistan, ‘Nobody is Winning’

May 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, discusses his meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the state of U.S.-Afghan relations and the ongoing effort to secure Kandahar in the South.
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JEFFREY BROWN: I sat down with General Stanley McChrystal at the Pentagon this afternoon.

General McChrystal, welcome.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. commander in Afghanistan: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: As we sit here now, is the U.S., along with its allies, winning the war in Afghanistan?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I think that, in the last year, we have made a lot of progress.

I think I would be prepared to say nobody is winning, at this point. Where the insurgents, I think, felt that they had momentum a year ago, felt that they were making clear progress, I think that’s stopped.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s stopped.

Well, what is your assessment of the insurgency? There was a Pentagon report recently that suggested, look back at the last six months. It said things were getting better, but, of course, it’s still alive and it is even stronger in some areas of the country. What’s your assessment?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I think the insurgency is serious.

And it’s serious because it has a relative reach around the country, and it’s got a fair number of fighters involved, so it can bring a lot of violence on the Afghan people. It’s also not popular. It’s not popular with Afghans. We see that in polling. And I certainly see that as I speak with Afghans. So, it’s not a movement that is fulfilling the wishes of Afghan people.

In fact, it is moving by coercion. But — but it is going to be a challenge to stop it. And the government of Afghanistan is going to have to take very effective measures to bring it to a halt.

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier this year, you went into Marjah. It was touted as a great success at the time, kicking out the Taliban. Months later, there is still reports of violence there. There’s perhaps even more talk about a lack of good governance in the area.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that a successful model at this point?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I think it’s counterinsurgency. And I think that people need to understand counterinsurgency to judge success or failure.

I think that — not only in Marjah, which were part of Operation Moshtarak — are an absolute success. But they are part of a process, as opposed to a single event. And what I mean is, in an area that’s been controlled by insurgents for many months or, in this case, many years, they have had control of security. They have eliminated government control for governance. And they have arrested development, except, in this case, largely poppy production.

For the government to come back in, reestablishing security, pushing out the insurgents is one thing that happens. But then those insurgents have got to be kept out. The most important aspect, though, is the people, because what they have experienced for years in this case has become what they know to be their reality.

To change their sense of reality means that we must change those factors of security, governance, and development over time. We must make a credible, proven effort to show them that things are changing and that that change is permanent.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the time, you were quoted as saying there was a — a — the word you used was government in a box, ready to bring into Marjah to provide this — this government, good governance. Does that now seem a little overly optimistic?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: No, it seems to me that it’s a process. The school is open. The bazaars are open. The police force is being retrained. It had gotten very, very corrupt and controlled by power brokers.

This is a process that takes an extensive period of time. I think not even — we are now at about 90 days. I expect it will take many months into the future before it becomes durable and permanent.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you tell President Karzai and others in the Afghan government that they must do to show that there is real progress being made? And to what extent does our military success there depend on the Afghan people believing that they have a strong and effective government?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I think it’s very — our success is very dependent upon the people believing in the future.

Now, they don’t have to believe that the government that they have today is perfect. What they have to believe is that the government we are working towards is better than what an alternative would be. They have to believe in the future. And, therefore, they have to support that progress to it.

Their government will be challenged for many years, like governments are around the world. Their security will be challenged. But, if they believe in the future, they believe that they can make it better, and that this government and this constitution and this security force apparatus that they are creating along with their partnership with the coalition, and particularly the United States, is something that leads to a better future, then their support becomes strong. And that’s the key point.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re said to be close to President Karzai, working closely with him. It’s been reported that you pushed to have public officials be more respectful of him publicly, to be more positive.

Were you feeling that the tenor had become too negative, and that was impacting his abilities to work with us? And do you believe that he can be a good partner in that?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I believe he’s a good partner to me already. As a military commander, I think of him as a wartime leader for whom, essentially, I work.

We have a very strong relationship, not only on personal issues, but really on substantive issues. I’m candid with him. I believe he’s candid with me. And I think we just build on that as we go forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the issues that President Karzai is talking about is reconciliation with elements of the Taliban, bringing them back into society, or even possibly into government, I suppose.

Can something like that work? These would be people that you perhaps have been fighting all along.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I think all wars must end in a political settlement. And I believe that this must be an Afghan political settlement that Afghans feel comfortable about.

I believe that they are committed to designing a process that is as inclusive as possible, so all parts of the population feel like that they had the ability to participate, if they’re willing to abide by the constitution, if they’re willing to renounce violence, if they’re willing to renounce things like al-Qaida.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there any evidence that you see that there are elements of the Taliban that would live up to those expectations or hopes?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I — I believe there are absolutely elements of the Taliban that would do that. I think there are some other groups that have indicated that interest as well. Afghanistan’s been at war for 31 years.

And although we tend to think of groups that are in opposition as a nameless, faceless enemy that is evil to the core, in fact, it’s all people. And people get tired, and people have dreams, and they have desire for a future and a future of their children. And I think that’s true of people on all sides.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your — your next big move, you’ve made very clear, is in Kandahar, much bigger city, much bigger area than — than what you experienced with Marjah.

How difficult will that be? What kind of a military operation do you foresee?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Kandahar is not under enemy control. The Taliban don’t run it. There’s not a flag over Kandahar. It’s a working city. I walked the streets last week with the governor and with Dave Petraeus and others.

JEFFREY BROWN: Although there are — excuse me — there are — you know, there — we read about their — the Taliban’s ability to move throughout the city.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Absolutely. Security inside Kandahar and the areas around it is not what it needs to be for the life of the people to go forward. So, it’s important we improve security there.

So, what we are working to do — and we’re not calling it an operation. We’re calling it an effort to what we do, call it a rising tide of security, increasing police capacity inside the city, and then securing the areas around the city to include the — what we call the environs, the district around it, so that the area’s not menaced by insurgents, we have much better ability to protect the people, and then let life go on and let governance be — be matured.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was just at the briefing where you talked about knowing how this is going in Kandahar by the end of the year. You said you might know earlier. But what — what will tell you whether it’s working in Kandahar?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: It’s really going to be how Kandaharis feel, whether they are willing to invest in the future, whether they are willing to open business, whether they feel safer as they go around.

It won’t be the number of violent events. It won’t be even anything as crude as a single poll. It will be pulling all these together that convinces the Kandaharis the future is going to be better. If they believe that next week is going to be better than this week — it’s almost like investing in the stock market — they will invest in Kandahar.

JEFFREY BROWN: Much talk about the corruption problem in Afghanistan. And the Afghan government sometimes says: It’s not all about what we do. It’s going to suppliers and contractors. And we don’t know how that system works.

What is your sense of that?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I sense there’s a lot of accuracy in that.

What has happened after 31 years of war is, Afghan society has been torn asunder. And, so, as we come in with an international community, well-intentioned as it is, and bring a lot of resources, we do a lot of things which cause as many problems as they solve.

In some cases, it leads to corruption. It gives opportunity, and people take advantage of that. Some of that’s been taken advantage by international community actors. In many cases, Afghans talk about aid money that never reaches Afghanistan. It is siphoned off and goes elsewhere. And there’s — there’s reality.

We need do a much better job of bringing the many, many contracts that are in execution in Kandahar into a more regular and more transparent situation. They have been done starting in 2001 in — with good intentions, but, in many cases, they were expedient, rather than deliberate.

And I think we need to start sorting that out. That’s part of helping Afghanistan sort out the things that lead to corruption in their society.

JEFFREY BROWN: July 2011 is really not that far away, the point at which the president said that we would at least begin to draw down our commitment in Afghanistan.

Realistically, what can be accomplished by that date?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I think an awful lot can be accomplished.

But I would start by saying, what the president first said and what I believe he reiterated to President Karzai this week is, America has offered and Afghanistan has agreed to a long-term strategic partnership. And that means much further than July 2011.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does it mean to you?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I think it means that America, which has relative military power, is helping to guarantee Afghanistan’s sovereignty well into the future.

It doesn’t mean that we have an inappropriate relations. It means we are partners. And it means that Afghanistan knows that it has an ally on whom they can trust. I believe that, if you then come back from that kind of assured relationship to July 2011, and put it against a backdrop of a growing Afghan national security force capacity, then the ability to start to reduce U.S. forces is very realistic.

And I think that it will be at a pace that President Obama determines reflects conditions on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you think Americans need to be prepared for some kind of long-term commitment?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I think Americans have offered and need to be expecting a long-term commitment.

But I don’t think, long term, U.S. military combat forces are the future in Afghanistan. I think it’s Afghan defense capacity. But I think, for a significant period of time, assistance to that capacity and governance and development assistance is probably to be expected.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, General, I understand that you’re a — you’re something of a student of history. Alexander the Great was in Afghanistan. He founded the city of Kandahar.

The British were there. The Soviets were there. No one left, I don’t think, feeling like they had done all they had wanted, and some left in real defeat.

What — what — what gives you confidence that the American experience will be different?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I think what we want is very different.

I think that, when people talk about graveyards of empires, we’re not an empire, and we don’t desire anything for Afghanistan, except Afghan sovereignty. And I think that changes everything.

What we want is an Afghanistan that can defend itself, an Afghanistan that can develop its own resources, human and physical. And so it goes back to strategic partnership. And I think that that allows us a tremendous opportunity to be successful.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

General Stanley McChrystal, thanks for talking to us.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Thanks for your time. I appreciate it.