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Gen. Stanley McChrystal on ‘Task’ of Afghanistan, Responsibility and Resignation

January 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal butted heads with President Obama over how many U.S. troops should be committed to war efforts. Publicity on that disagreement ultimately led to his resignation in 2010. Margaret Warner talks to McChrystal and his new memoir, "My Share of the Task."

RAY SUAREZ:  Now a conversation with a four-star general who earned his reputation in Iraq, led the surge in Afghanistan and resigned at the height of his military service. 

Margaret Warner has more. 

MAN:  Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.

MARGARET WARNER:  It was June of 2009 when Army General Stanley McChrystal reached what turned out to be the pinnacle of his career, command of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. 

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, Former U.S. Commander in Afghanistan:  We must rededicate ourselves to the Afghan people and help them build a government and a future for their country that they can be proud of. 

MARGARET WARNER: McChrystal had already made his mark as leader of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which targeted, captured and killed hundreds of suspected terrorists in Iraq.  And he oversaw the hunt for Abu Musab al Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who eventually died in a 2006 airstrike. 

In Afghanistan, McChrystal was in charge of a broader strategy of counterinsurgency, using military and civilian means to try to reverse the Taliban’s momentum.  A major test came with an offensive to retake and hold Marjah, in Helmand Province, in early 2010.  Militarily, it looked like a success.  But, by May, he faced questions about how well it was going when it came to helping establish a competent, honest local government. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that now seem a little overly optimistic? 

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: No, it seems to me that it’s a process.  We are now at about 90 days.  I expect it will take many months into the future before it becomes durable and permanent. 

MARGARET WARNER:  From the early days, in 2009, the general had run into resistance over how many U.S. troops should be committed to the Afghan war.  There were 56,000 when he arrived, and he urged another 40,000 be sent.  But, in December, President Obama announced a lower number in a speech at West Point introducing the surge. 

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. 

MARGARET WARNER:  Within months, the friction over troop numbers and war strategy surfaced in a profile of McChrystal in “Rolling Stone” magazine titled “The Runaway General.”  McChrystal and his aides were quoted making mocking comments about members of the Obama White House, and that triggered a firestorm. 

On June 23, 2010, President Obama accepted McChrystal’s resignation. 

BARACK OBAMA:  As difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe that it is the right decision for our national security.

MARGARET WARNER:  After his retirement as a four-star general, McChrystal co-founded a leadership consulting group and took up teaching at Yale University. 

Last week, the war that he once led was back on the front page.  On Friday, President Obama and Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai announced Afghan forces will take the security lead this spring, earlier than expected.  All coalition combat forces are slated to leave Afghanistan in 2014.  It’s still unclear how many U.S. troops will stay behind to conduct counterterrorism and train the Afghans. 

This month, General McChrystal published his memoir, “My Share of the Task.”  I spoke to him this afternoon. 

General McChrystal, thank you for coming in. 

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Thanks for having me. 

MARGARET WARNER:  As we just reported, last Friday, the two presidents, Obama and Karzai, said that Afghan forces will take the lead this spring.  Do you think they’re ready for that responsibility? 

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL:  Well, I think you need to look at a wider set of parameters. 

Clausewitz said — and I think he was correct — that war is an extension of politics.  And a friend of mine added that, to politics it must return.  When we look at our relationship with Afghanistan and Afghanistan’s situation, it’s part a continuum of which this is going to be a very short period. 

We have got to consider what Afghanistan means to America’s geostrategic interests long term.  And I think there are several facets to that.  One is clearly stability in the region, which is very, very important.  That’s how al-Qaida got there before, but that’s also got wider issues as well. 

MARGARET WARNER:  So, if we look at, say, a place like Marjah, which you write in this book was a litmus test of the Afghanistan strategy, there have been stories recently out of Marjah that — that, yes, it’s a lot more peaceful, a lot more secure, but that as U.S. forces are drawing down, the Taliban is creeping back, and that the local government really hasn’t delivered.

Is it still a work in progress?  Is that how we should look at it?  Or could these — the gains of the surge be reversed? 

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I think all governments are a work in progress, and many governments struggle. 

Afghanistan’s government is clearly a work in progress, in that it has a difficult time introducing effective local governance in a place like Marjah.  Anywhere in the Helmand River Valley, which was controlled by the Taliban for quite a long time and still has the specter of potential Taliban control, the people are in a very difficult position. 

If they lean too much toward their government, and their government cannot defend them, then they are in a position of being, of course, endangered if the Taliban were to return.  So it’s very, very difficult.  As you say, there’s been tremendous progress on the ground there.  Now it has to continue. 

MARGARET WARNER:  So, is it risky, do you think — I mean, again, in the book, you write that — you talk about a video teleconference you were having with the White House in 2009, and you wrote on a board or something the mission, and it was secure — defeat the Taliban, secure the population. 

Do you think it’s risky for the U.S. to be drawing down in earnest when those two things haven’t fully been achieved? 

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Yes, I don’t think that you’re going to achieve the kind of very clean victory, like we like to think World War II was.  We like to think of that now, in retrospect, as having been a clean military campaign, but, in fact, we did counterinsurgency in Western Europe for years afterward, and we just called it the Marshall Plan. 

I think what’s most important for Afghanistan now is their confidence.  The Afghan people are terrified.  They’re scared they’re going to have their allies leave, that their government is weak, and that there’s a chance that they will slide back into not just Taliban control, but potentially civil war. 

And so I think the most important thing we can do is, President Obama’s strategic partnership that he offered President Karzai and the Afghan people, I think that’s important for their confidence. 

MARGARET WARNER:  So let’s go now to what you did in Iraq, because there are many sort of military writers and analysts who say that’s your most enduring legacy, where you transformed the way so-called special operations works.  What had to change? 

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL:  Well, almost everything. 

We had started that effort as the best counterterrorist forces in the world, i.e., we could do a precise raid on a given location if we had the intelligence and we had the right timing probably better than anyone had ever done it.  But it wasn’t — it wasn’t enough for what we faced.  We faced a growing network of enemy.  They were al-Qaida foreign fighters that were leveraging local Sunnis to create this effective al-Qaida in Iraq network, and we had to dismantle it. 

To do that, instead of being this spear-fishing element, we had to become a network of our own, and we had to go from — for example, when I first took over, I would go to a location and there would be somebody captured, and they would get bags of material, maybe a computer, phones, documents, that sort of thing. 

And it would come back to our headquarters in a bag, like a plastic garbage bag.  You put a little tag on it, and it would go in.  And then I went in and found and area — and I outlined this in our book — in our headquarters where they were just piled up, and nobody was reading them, nobody translated them, because we didn’t have the manpower and we didn’t have the expertise. 

We went from that to an entity where on the target we would be able to do initial what we call exploitation, digestion of the information on the target, pump it back to the force, and pump it across our network within minutes.  And additional targets would be struck based on information we got there. 

So, sometimes, we would turn that cycle three times in a single night, whereas, before, we might turn it one time in three weeks. 

MARGARET WARNER:  And you had all — everyone working together, so the military, the CIA, the NSA with signals intelligence. 

Now, even the interrogators — I don’t know if you have seen this movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” but there is — it’s renewed the controversy over whether torture, enhanced interrogation techniques works.  What was your experience as a consumer of that intelligence?  Did useful tips come from captives who had been questioned under that method? 

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL:  The information that came from detainees, which is a component of human intelligence, was critical to us.  But it wasn’t gained through mistreatment. 

The best information always comes from building a relationship with the detainee.  As I outline in my book in an almost minute-by-minute account of how we went after Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the key detainee we had for weeks, and he developed such a close relationship with his interrogators that, once, one of the interrogators took him to Baghdad for a couple of days, they stayed in a room together, no shackles, no anything, they ate together, they lived together, because what you’re really trying to do is get the individual to feel like he wants to participate. 

MARGARET WARNER:  But are you saying that on the other — and you write about that, again, that these interrogators and captives formed a relationship, or detainees.  But was there useful intelligence from torture?  There are plenty of people who say, actually, it’s never useful, because it’s under coercion.  

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL:  I actually don’t know. 

Whether my force benefited from intelligence that was derived from that, I’m not sure.  Nobody said, this intelligence — we did get intelligence community information that was very useful, but I’m not sure which came. 

I do know that, over time, that’s a very dangerous policy for a nation to follow, because my personal opinion — and I outline this in detail in the book — because it corrodes the force.  It corrodes the torturer more than I think the victim. 

MARGARET WARNER:  Finally, I just have to end on the postscript to your military career, which was the “Rolling Stone” article. 

You teach leadership now.  And I’m wondering what — not just what your regrets were about that, but how you went on.  You had spent a lifetime in the military.  You’re the son of a general. 


MARGARET WARNER:  How did you do it? 

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL:  I had spent a — I had been a soldier for more than 34 years and been as transparent as I could that last year with the media, because I thought the mothers and fathers of America who give their sons and daughters deserve that. 

Sometimes, things come out in the media that you don’t think are particularly accurate or you don’t think are particularly fair depictions.  It happens.  In that particular case, I had the opportunity to make a decision.  And the decision was to try to contest that at the time.  But I thought that that would produce a very difficult dynamic at an important point in the war, and it would put my commander in chief in a position that would be hard for him to deal with in the middle of the fight.

So I made the decision to offer my resignation, to accept responsibility, because the simple elegance of all this is, when you are in command, you accept responsibility, ®MDNM¯whether it’s fair or whether it’s something that you want to do or not.  I feel very good about that decision, because how I conduct myself after that controversy raised, I think, is a lens that people will look at me.

They can make a judgment on whether they think that was an accurate depiction by what they see me do, how they see me act, and I’m comfortable with that.  And I think it’s important when I teach leadership at Yale or when I write in my memoirs I don’t slide down into having a tell-all or a — something that would just give salacious details. 

I don’t think that’s important history.  What I try to capture in my memoirs is what really matters, what the leaders were really doing, the big trends.  And I’m very comfortable that that’s what we did. 

MARGARET WARNER:  Well, General Stanley McChrystal, thank you.


MARGARET WARNER: It’s a great read.