obama's war
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Interview: Gen. Stanley McChrystal


He was named head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in May 2009; in a September 2009 assessment (PDF) that was leaked to The Washington Post, he described a "resilient and growing insurgency," compounded by "a crisis of confidence" in the government. "Resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it," he writes. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in Kabul on Aug. 1, 2009.

“If the Afghan people are going to have a future, they have to build it. But they need our help for a while until they can get there.”

Tell me how you came to this job. ...

... My boss, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, brought me down to his office and sat me down and told me that I was coming to Afghanistan to take this command.

Did you have any questions?

I told him I was going to need some people. The only thing we talked about in that conversation -- besides the fact that it was important and would be difficult -- I told him I was going to need some specific talent to come with me that I felt would be necessary.

Any hesitation on your part?

No, not at all.

You were ready to jump in.

Well, I had been involved in this before. And I feel very strongly in the importance of the mission. ...

And in May you received an invitation to meet with President Obama. Tell me about that.

Very short meeting. He simply described this as a difficult mission, but he thought that I was qualified for it. And that was about the extent.

How many minutes?

Just a few, probably three or four minutes.

Was that a surprise to you?

Not particularly. I had been, of course, talking to Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Adm. [Mike] Mullen. And so I was brought up, and I think the president just wanted to look into my eyes and see whether I was the right choice.

And your impressions of how he saw the mission? In those three or four minutes, did he get across to you any particular intent, instructions?

Not in that meeting. I had been in meetings with him before, and I've watched. He's very analytical and very focused, so I'm quite sure that before that meeting, he had done that same kind of analysis. So I think really the purpose of that was simply to get the measure of the man.

But he had made a speech, laying out what was termed in the press a "new strategy." ... What was different?

In the strategy that he laid out? Well, I think the decision [as] he described it in that strategy was to do a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy, to focus on first preventing Al Qaeda['s] return to safe havens -- it had been here before 9/11 -- but then also to review the way we fought. And I think that the fully resourced part that we were going to provide enough forces to do what we felt we had to do was a major change.

Gen. [David] Barno, [who headed Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005,] had adopted an "ink-spot" strategy in '03/'04. Counterinsurgency is not a new concept. So, if I can just ask you again, I mean, other than fully resourcing the effort, was there any emphasis that was really new here?

There's not a lot new in counterinsurgency doctrine. As you know very well, insurgencies are very old, and counterinsurgencies are very old. And at the end of the day, it's really not terrifically complex in theory. You are trying to -- both sides -- win the support of the population, and that can be either through coercion, or it can be through offering things that wins their popular support, and sometimes a combination of the two.

So the difficulty lies in the execution, because it briefs very easily to win, as they said for many years, the hearts and minds. But to actually do that in a case where people are also subject to other pressures -- either other, better offers or coercion -- is extraordinarily difficult. When you're put it in a culture that is different from your own -- language is different; religion is different; all of the normal societal structures are a bit different -- then it becomes extraordinarily complex.

So what is going to happen now? What is the United States going to do now that's different than what they did before?

I think it will be significantly different in several ways. I think the first is we will focus on protecting the population first and foremost. It's very tempting, as a counterinsurgent, to focus on the enemy. And the analogy I would make is that the enemy wants you to focus on him. He wants you to react -- or in fact, in the case of security forces, he wants you to overreact, because in many cases that overreaction harms the population, or it at least inconveniences them.

It's a little bit like going after the matador's cape. He waves the cape; you go after that, and you risk, in fact, going after the real danger. And the real danger is to fight for the support of the people, which is typically a political or ideological struggle with shadow governance and whatnot. So counterinsurgents have to learn that there are two parts to this, and the more dangerous and the more important is the political, [to] actually fight for the support of the people.

The United States military is the best equipped, the best trained military in the world. Why has it taken so long to get the formula right in Afghanistan?

It's complex. It's hard. First off, the situation in Afghanistan is different than almost anywhere else, by terrain, by history, by culture.

Plus, the problem here has evolved. When we came in 2001, I think it was perceived as largely a counterterrorism problem. The Taliban started to come back, slowly come back from Pakistan and also stand up here slowly. So I think recognizing the rise in a true insurgency took a little bit of time.

And then of course we had other operations ongoing in Iraq, which took an awful lot of our capacity and attention at that time.

You went before Congress for a confirmation in June, and you said, "I believe it is winnable, but I don't think it's easily winnable." What did you mean?

Well, I think that's pretty clear. I think it's not going to be easy. I think it's going to be long; I think it's going to be difficult; I think it's going to be costly. But I do think it's achievable.

It sounds like a hedge.

I think it sounds like a fairly honest assessment. You've been on the ground here, and I think the word "easy" doesn't come to mind when you see what you have to do to combat an insurgency like this.

So throughout June, you outlined this policy of protecting the people and putting less emphasis on killing the enemy, as you just spoke about. What are the roots of this strategy?

... It's trying to understand the real nature of the problem, because again, if it's on two levels, and one level is a deeper hidden or less visible struggle, but on the top is a kinetic fight, the tendency is to look at the kinetic and immediately fixate on that and fixate on tactics.

As I talked to somebody the other day, we tend to talk about guerrilla warfare and insurgency, and they're not the same. A guerrilla warfare tactic can be used in any kind of war. And if you just think about how do you defeat guerrillas and to do small-unit tactics and whatnot, you miss the point that you're really trying to win a political argument.

Some say it's just not the American way of war; that the United States doesn't really have much experience in fighting insurgencies. You know, there's no video game called COIN [Counterinsurgency]. There's Medal of Honor; there's shoot-'em-up, overwhelming force.


Do the soldiers understand it? Is it in our nature?

It's certainly in our history and in our experience. If you go back even to the 19th century, there were a number of cases where we were forced into a counterinsurgency. You go into the 20th century -- Nicaragua, Haiti. So we have done it over and over again.

I think armies typically want to [go] back to their comfort zone, and for almost any army, you want to go back to conventional warfare. You want to go back to things which are materiel-related often. And we say we've got to be prepared for the most dangerous threat to the nation, so we tend to prepare for that. We tend to disband our special operating forces at the end of every war. ... We're not doing that now. But I think that we have to fight that tendency to snap back into a conventional mind-set.

I was speaking with [British writer and former soldier] Rory Stewart, and he says, "You just can't do humanitarian work when your goal is to defeat the enemy, and you can't do it with flak, with Kevlar and a machine gun."

That's correct. You cannot be a conventional force so worried about your own force protection that you can't interact with the population. You just can't connect. So you have to be able to break down those barriers, some of which are physical, some of which are cultural. You've got to do everything you can to break through those, and that's one of the challenges we've got to meet here, which we have not done well enough yet.

We've not done that well enough.

No, we haven't done that well, nearly well enough yet.

That seems like an enormous challenge, because part of your responsibility is to provide protection for your forces. But at the same time, everybody is talking about how, if we're going to have a successful classic counterinsurgency strategy, we're going to lose more lives.

Your security really comes from the population. Think of your home neighborhood, wherever it is. You probably don't wear a flak jacket when you walk down the street. You probably don't carry a weapon. You don't do that because the police is in the neighborhood. You [don't] do that because the people in the neighborhood don't allow that kind of activity. So the threat against you is very low.

What we've got to do is get ourselves in the equivalent of neighborhoods where the population protects us by their reaction with us and their interaction with us. If you think of a small combat outpost anywhere in Afghanistan, if the people are not connected with their soldiers in the outpost, they won't provide them their information. They don't interact, the soldiers are essentially left blind. They don't have a sense of what's happening.

However, if they are connected, then they have an entire network that provides not just intelligence but information, a sense of what is happening and the ability to explain their case. And in the long run we are much more secure, connecting more. In the short term, it may feel like you accept some risk, and you do. But I think it's much more important that we understand the need and the value in protection that comes from that connection.

In the short term, we're going to do less mounted patrols, less patrols inside vehicles, more foot patrols, and that's going to increase the number of deaths of U.S. forces.

It's hard to predict what will be the impact. In many cases, mounted patrols, because of IEDs [improvised explosive devices], are more dangerous. But the bottom line is that we've got to do what's appropriate. There are times you've got to be completely in as much protection as you can. There's other times that you have to accept less protection so that you can connect with people.

We were out on patrols in southern Helmand on foot, heavily armed, and the encounters with the local population led to a lot of impatience and frustration on the part of the U.S. sergeant that was there, the Marine sergeant. How do you get the word down to all your soldiers and Marines as to how interact with the population?

Yeah, it's more than just writing an order. It is trying to change the culture of the organization. At the end of the day, our best counterinsurgents are going to be young sergeants, young privates who just have an ability to deal with people and will do it often. But we've got to get into the culture so that they, one, understand the larger picture of this; that a short-term tactical victory can be a strategic defeat. And then we've got to give them decentralized authorities. We've got to give them the flexibility to make the decision so that they can interact with people.

It's enormously ambitious, though, isn't it? I mean, you're best at toppling dictatorships. To actually build governments from the ground up, many would say that's just way out of your lane as a military organization.

Well, it's hard. I think it's something we can do, though. But it's not easy.

What's the significance of the push in Helmand? Why Helmand? Why now, and why weren't we there long ago?

We were there long ago, of course. The United States was there in the 1960s. And there's a tremendous amount of memory there of good things that Americans did in the 1960s. We were also there after 2001 and have been there on and off between 2001 and now. The problem is exactly what I said: It's on and off.

The Washington Times said the other day that you've cleared Helmand three times, never [held] it.

Yeah. And once you clear something and don't hold it, you probably didn't really clear it. It has no staying power. In fact, I would argue that it's worse, because you create an expectation and then you dash it. So I think that you're almost better to have not gone there at all.

Why should the people down there believe that this time you're going to stay?

We have to convince them of that. And it's nothing we say; it will have to be through our actions. We'll have to demonstrate through how we act and the fact that we do stay. If I was a villager, I would be very cautious. I would wait for concrete evidence.

There's a lot of talk in Washington that in 12 months we'll have an assessment of how we're doing in Afghanistan. In classic counterinsurgency terms, 12 months is how long?

It's not long. I think that when they talk about 12 months, anybody who's looking for substantive change on the ground probably is not studying history well enough.

On the other hand, I think that what we should be able to do is show that we have changed the way we are operating, that we are moving in the correct direction.

I would not expect to be able to sit with you 12 months from now and tell you that we are at victory or near victory or even close to victory. What I would say is, I would hope to be able to convince you we have an organization that is now focused and moving in the right direction with the right culture, and continuing to evolve a culture that you could then believe that this is ... the kind of effort that could be successful.

I asked you before why it's taken us so long to get to this approach, and your answer was, "Well, it's hard." Is that a sufficient answer given the amount of resources the United States puts into its defense, or are there other explanations for why it's taken us so long?

We have been successful in areas in Afghanistan. We've had organizations that have actually done an extraordinarily good job at COIN, even back some years since 2001. What we haven't done is put it all together. ...

I think we're getting smarter every day. We've certainly got a tremendous amount of experience in the force now -- not just in senior officers, but also in young sergeants with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. It takes a while for a big organization to really get lessons learned and to digest them and then to disseminate them through the force -- particularly a force that has a significant turnover in young soldiers. So I think we've done pretty well, but certainly much more slowly than you would like given the situation.

What looms in the wings here is Iraq as a cause for not getting it together sooner.

Well, I think we were significantly focused, a tremendous percentage of our force, on Iraq. Now, a lot of people learned a lot of good COIN lessons in Iraq, but we didn't do that for the first couple of years there. It took us a while to learn there as well.

In Helmand, for instance, we were down there on patrols and saw a little bit of action. But what was clear was that the troops couldn't go into an area and then establish a presence. They had to retreat to the COP [combat outpost]. With the amount that they have down there, there's only so far they can go, and there's still 100 miles between where you have Marines at the furthest southern outpost and the border. Do you have enough troops?

In the "oil-slick" technique, as you know, you go where you can -- the highest value areas, typically population centers and whatnot -- and then you go out from there. And we're going to have to do that in accordance with our priorities.

But the ink-spot approach seems to work fast when you have population centers. In the Helmand River valley, there's no population center. They're just sort of spread evenly and thinly across the whole stretch in that valley. How do you operate an ink-spot strategy?

I disagree. I think the Helmand River valley is a population center. Now, it doesn't look like a city, but it is a long population center and a fairly narrow area that brings together not only water, population and very good agricultural areas; it also sits atop one of the biggest poppy-producing areas and one of the richest agricultural areas. So I think it is a critical population center.

But that's spread out.

Like the suburbs.

Right. And more challenging to hold that unless you have more troops. Are you requesting new troops to come in? ... Do you know where you need more?

... What we do is we take those forces that we have, particularly mating them with the Afghan National Army [ANA] and Afghan National Police [ANP], and try to grow from there, with the troops that we have trying to maintain enough security in each area. We hope that over time the force requirements in the latter parts of hold-and-build will go down, and in fact will shift to just the police. But it takes a long time. Could be months, could be years in some areas before you could go all the way down to typical status quo security.

We saw very little presence of ANA or ANP in Helmand.

They're not as big as they need to be, and they're not as big as they will be. When I was up in Spin Majid with the Brits, they were fighting shoulder to shoulder with Afghan Kandaks, which are Afghan National Army battalions. They fought their way through, literally together the whole way. They were in the fight.

The Afghan National Police -- they are part of the coalition. They lose more soldiers or more people every week than any other part of the fight. They are out there around the country really at the edge. So, although you don't see them in the numbers that you want yet, particularly in very difficult areas, they are out there, paying a price every day. ...

You say [the Taliban has] very little to offer. Then why is it hard to separate them from the rest of the population?

You have to be there. To win an argument, you have to be within earshot, and they have been able to occupy areas and literally keep the government and coalition forces at arm's length.

Let's talk a little bit about who you are fighting. Who are these guys, especially in the east and in the south?

Yeah, talk about the south first, because that's the more traditional Taliban, centered, of course, out of the Quetta shura, the leadership [council].

We think that most of the fighters are in fact locals, Afghan locals. They probably fight within 30 kilometers of their home. They are young men who have been recruited, sometimes ideologically; more often they've been recruited because someone is able to either convince them or coerce them. Many operate for pay; because of the economy, that's a pretty powerful motivator as well. There are tribal and friendship links. When you were an 18-year-old young man, you probably could be convinced to do things that you might not do now.

And then they get in those organizations; they are led by a combination of more senior Taliban leaders, most of whom are Afghan are well, but are much more ideologically driven, and yet also are power-driven.

We have a generation of Afghans now who have lived by the gun for a full generation and a half, 30 years. In many cases, instead of traditional tribal ways to achieve status or wealth, becoming ... a Taliban commander has become a status in rank in itself. It's a way to be somebody, and it becomes a way of life. And if you haven't done anything else, it's difficult to retreat from that, because that has become your livelihood.

That's what you know.

That's right. And it's how you identify yourself. What we have got to do is strip away the non-ideologically based fighters and allow them a chance to reintegrate back into Afghan society, from that percentage which just is probably unlikely to ever reconcile or come back here.

The perception of the population out there -- and it's reality -- [is] that local, regional, national government is rife with corruption and incompetence.

Yeah, there's plenty of corruption and incompetence.

As a general, as a military man, how do you fix that?

I think I don't fix it. I think I help the government of Afghanistan, and then the international community is helping them as well. First we provide the ability to help them have security, because you can't build governance until you have security. ... The people look for that, and they look for the things you associate with governance: rule of law; the ability to know that land that they own is not going to be taken away; the ability to get to market; all the enablers for economic progress. And then development comes [in] and helps support that.

Our role really is first to help provide that security and then also to enable help, getting the people who are actually the new district governor and his staff, trying to get them in and give them the ability to get out and operate around the people.

When you've had an area that has been unable to be governed by a normal structure for a very long time, and may never have had anything like this structure, you've got to come in and you've got to build it slowly and convince people who may not have direct experience in that before.

In Helmand you've got a particular puzzle, because so much of the economy there is illegal, around poppies. And the worst thing about the narcotics industry is the corrosive effect that the corruption brings. But these people don't want central government. The people that are tied to that economy, the average farmer who grows poppies a couple times a year, doesn't want central government's interference. He's outside the law.

I wouldn't speak for the farmer. What I would say is I think what the farmer wants -- at least what I get from them -- they want security, and they want the chance to make a living. They would like to also have schools and hospitals and paved roads and whatnot. But they first and foremost want security and then the chance to make a living.

I think that if they can make a living by growing fruit or growing wheat or something where they are not coerced by a trafficker who pressures them into that business, I think they'd be fine with it.

But isn't it the sheer economics of it that incentivizes them to grow poppies? It's not that they're coerced. I mean, the poppy is just a far more lucrative crop for them.

Not for the farmer. If you drive through there, you just see that the trickle-down effect just doesn't apply. ... So I would argue that the people getting rich here are really in that corrosive chain.

Those middlemen.

Yeah. But remember this: If security is bad and the farmer can't get wheat to market, but the trafficker will help him move poppy to market, then he only has one choice. He'll go with what there's a market for. And the market for wheat and other things has not been open to him because of freedom of movement and whatnot.

So that's a big re-engineering job.

That's a very important part of that: re-engineering, giving them the ability to let the market work, and then agricultural alternatives.

Is that the job in the military?

I think in COIN, everything is everybody's job. Everybody overlaps a little bit there. So if I see a young soldier out helping somebody do something that is either economic or governance, but it's in the direction of COIN, then I think he's doing great.

I got a story yesterday about a farmer [who] came to a young Marine and said, "I need to dig a pipe under this road so I can move water, but I don't want to come out here digging in the road, and you think I'm putting an IED and have somebody kill me."

And so the young Marine said, "OK, wait a minute." And he went in a local position they had, and he came out with shovels, and he started helping the guy dig. And more of the Marines came out and helped him dig his pipe under the road.

It's not the intrinsic value of digging the pipe in. It's the fact [that] that young Marine suddenly understood the most important thing he could do at that moment was enable that farmer and show that farmer that we were here for the farmer's well-being.

In all due respect, it seems enormously ambitious to look at a society and believe that you can change all its dynamics, governance, security, and that you as a military organization are charged with that entire task. Now, the State Department has been moving to bring resources here, but they're relatively weak. You guys are really the masters of the universe here. It seems enormously ambitious. Do you have any doubts whether you can really pull this off?

Well, I won't claim we're the masters of the universe. I will tell you we're part of the effort here. I will tell you that it is ambitious, but it's also important. And it's one step at a time. It's a big job, and it's enormously complex. And there will be as many frustrations as there are times when you think you got it right. ...

I think if the Afghan people are going to have a future, they have to build it. But they need our help for a while until they can get there.

Back to Helmand. We were down there, and we saw them move in next to a market, a bazaar, set up a COP, a combat outpost. The idea is to be next to the population, as [CENTCOM Commander] Gen. [David] Petraeus has outlined, as you've outlined. But yet the market is a ghost town, and the troops are going around the countryside asking and begging people to come to the market. How is that going to work?

Well, it doesn't work quickly. Again, we talk about in your neighborhood, if somebody came from the outside, didn't speak the language, wore different clothing, carried guns, and often had been associated in the past with fighting, which then became between them and the Taliban -- nobody wants that to happen in their neighborhood.

And a force that had abandoned them on several occasions.

They have reason to be careful. So it's entirely predictable.

They have reason to be skeptical. You recognize that.

Absolutely. They have reason to be skeptical, and they have need to be skeptical. We forget if they commit and then we don't stand up to helping them be secure, they can be killed. I mean, the Taliban absolutely kills people in terms of coercion. So a rational person is very, very cautious.

So political will of the United States to stick this through becomes enormously important, or you just continue to lose more ground.

Political will and demonstrated resolve I think are the most powerful thing we bring, because once people are convinced that we are absolutely going to stick it out -- and I say "we"; the coalition and the government of Afghanistan as well -- I think that sends the most powerful message to the people, to the enemy and then to ourselves, to each other.

But some would say we have a fairly precarious consensus in the United States that this is the right war to fight. People were worn thin by the experience in Iraq. It's not as if we're coming to this fresh. An increase in the number of soldiers killed is going to weigh heavily on the president's thinking about this. The economy being weak as it is, it seems a very precarious situation.

I think every war certainly wears on national will and national patience, particularly a counterinsurgency. When I hear the president talk about the commitment to Afghanistan as he did in the spring when he announced more forces, I believe that most Americans probably recognize or share his resolve. Obviously I work for the American people and will do whatever, but I believe that there is a significant support for the Afghan people.

You also recognize that there's significant hesitation among the American people about getting engaged more deeply in a counterinsurgency in Central Asia.

Yeah. Any war or conflict you enter where you are likely to lose more Americans and expend more treasure is something worthy of very detailed debate. There ought to be a lot of skepticism. There ought to be a lot of discussion. Before an American soldier is put in harm's way, I hope that not just that political leadership, but the American people give it a lot of thought. So I think it's appropriate.

Shifting a little bit here, we were in RC East [Regional Command East] before we were in RC South, and in RC East we saw something very different. We saw FOBs [forward operating bases] and COPs built quite a ways from the population and district centers then set up next to the FOB or COP, well away from the population. And meetings took place by inviting people into the FOB rather than coalition forces going out. It doesn't seem like a good model. It doesn't sound like what you're talking about.

Yeah, there's no perfect model. ... In each case, it's got to be very specifically done to [those] conditions. For example, we had some cases in the past where you would come in and build a combat outpost in an area that was defensible for us, and it made a lot of sense, but in fact it took prime farmland. Or in one case I know of, we had put it on top and had helped damage very badly part of the irrigation system.

And in my mind, when we do things like that, we're tone-deaf. We miss the point. So I think where you go into an area, it needs to be negotiated with the people and needs to make sense security-wise. It needs to make sense for connecting with the people. So I wouldn't say there's a perfect recipe, but I would say that you have to go in with the understanding that the goal is to both protect the population and connect with the population. And so you have to put all those in the calculus.

But you can't connect with a population when you're set up several kilometers outside of town, can you?

It depends what your situation is there. So I'm not going to judge any specific spot, but the idea is whatever works best.

When we were in Babaji last week, we were at a compound there right in town, and one of the first things the villagers asked me, when I sat down with them, they said, "Can you remove your COP a little ways away?" And when I asked them why, they said, "Well, the Taliban are going to attack you, and we'd just like to get the battle a little ways away." So it's understandable. So we've got to balance that. But clearly, if we move too far away, then we miss our goal as well, so it's got to be a balance.

Pakistan -- how are they doing in your view?

I think they've got a serious insurgency inside Pakistan. I think they've demonstrated that up in the Swat Valley area, and they've taken very energetic and aggressive action against it. I think they've found it difficult, but I think they've also found the resolve internally to deal with it. So, from that standpoint, I think they've shown tremendous willingness to combat the problem internally.

Internally. How well is Pakistan doing in helping Afghanistan get on its feet?

You know, it's hard to judge them. ... I think that the long-term stability of both Pakistan and Afghanistan is related. They're separate and unique countries, but I think that both actually are dependent upon good stability in the other.

... What are they doing to go after the guys that are attacking you, like Siraj Haqqani, Mullah Omar, even Gulbuddin Hekmatyar? Do you see any evidence of any change in Pakistani policy toward those guys?

They have gone after an awful lot of Al Qaeda, and they've lost a tremendous number of soldiers in that regard. Their ability or effectiveness against any single Afghan Taliban leader, you know, can be judged. But I think that they are much more focused now than they might have been on the Taliban insurgent part of the problem before.

But isn't that because Baitullah Mehsud has been attacking them and bombing their hotels and assassinating [former Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto, the president's wife? What real encouragement do you see in their behavior toward those people like Haqqani or Omar?

I think they make judgments internally on what their threats are and national interests, just as we do.

But you've got to be frustrated that they're not going after the Quetta shura and Haqqani network.

It's easy to judge from here, and it's easy to be frustrated at what does or doesn't happen somewhere. I would like to see and hope to see over time a continuing improvement of our partnership. We have a pretty growing partnership right now in border coordination centers and whatnot.

I cannot believe that you go to your meetings with [Pakistani army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq] Kayani and speak quite the same tone of patience with the Pakistanis. This has been a long, frustrating matter.

Gen. Kayani and I have a relationship, and I think we've talked frankly, and it's one to one. I don't think that us discussing it through the press is the right way to do business. I think the respect that he's shown me and the respect that I show him helps build that candor and trust.

Trust has not been in abundance between the United States and Pakistan in this war along the border, other than going after some of the Al Qaeda leadership and those who attack Pakistani targets.

Trust is an amazing commodity. The Afghan people often talk to me about having to develop trust in America, because they believe that we deserted them in 1990 and 1991. And in the eyes of the Afghans, I think that's a fair concern. There were two sides to the story, but I could absolutely [understand] their perspective.

Similarly, the Pakistanis feel that when, in the early 1990s, we cut off all of our interaction with the Pakistani military, we stopped bringing them to our schools, they felt that that was a breach of trust.

Whether it was or not in our perspective doesn't matter. In every relationship, there are two perspectives to it. And I guess the thing that I learn more and more as I get older, it's more important to try to see the other person's perspective than to bang them in the head with mine.

And that's really the nature of the problem with Pakistan: Their national interest is not the U.S. national interest.

And we wouldn't want it to be.

But you do want to neutralize or destroy the Quetta shura.

I would like to see that happen.

There was talk just a few months ago coming out of Washington that we should be taking a more aggressive stance toward the Quetta shura and the Haqqani network. Is that on the table?

Well, it's the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] commander, and it stops at the Afghan-Pakistan border, and I wouldn't speculate on other operations. ...

Do you believe we need to reconcile with the Taliban and with Mullah Omar?

I believe we need to reconcile with everyone -- not just the Taliban, but potential Haqqani network followers, ... who are willing to rejoin the political process in Afghanistan. I think that's a critical step in the way ahead.

How does it help when the white paper comes out and President Obama says, "We will never talk to Mullah Omar"?

When you talk about the Taliban and then they talk about one iconic leader like Mullah Omar, I think that's two different things. The Taliban is a much bigger organization. We talked about the local Taliban. I think there's a tremendous percentage of that organization that is both open to reintegration into Afghan society and, I think, to entering the political process.

Do you believe that we should consider talking to Haqqani and Omar or not?

I can't make the judgments of reconciliation talks at that level. ... I think that's for the government of Afghanistan to decide in terms of that level, because that's fairly senior reconciliation talks or decisions. I think almost everything below that falls into what I call reintegration, and that's people who are willing to slide away from the Taliban movement in their society.

[In July 2008, in one of the deadliest incidents in the Afghanistan war, nine Americans were killed and 27 wounded when the Taliban attacked an outpost they were building outside of Wanat.] There are some investigations; some historians are looking at that as a failure of COIN. Do you see it that way?

I don't think if you try to say that COIN has failed, no. I think in that particular case, did it work? Did the attack [stem] from a failure to attack or interact enough with the people? That's possible. I hadn't read enough of a detailed interaction on that.

I would say, however, that whenever you do something like a counterinsurgency, you have to be prepared for the bad as well as the good. You're going to have a lot of situations that occur that are difficult to swallow. It's like anything you do in life that's difficult. Not everything is going to work out and be the way you want it. So there are risks accepted.

Did you learn from the Wanat event?

I think everybody that has read about it has learned from the Wanat event. Can we say that we won't accept risks and have bad outcomes in the future? No, I'm quite sure we will. But I think that we as an organization continue to learn. ...

We've been here eight years. That's a long time. We're talking about more years here.

We're talking about more effort, more years, potentially more losses. But I think that it is both achievable, and I think it is important.

And finally, why is it important?

I think on multiple levels. I think clearly, if we go back to 9/11, the fact that there were safe havens here. But I would also say that the stability of Afghanistan is important to the world. It's not an unimportant place. It's not an off-the-beaten-track poor country that we can ignore. I think it's a place that has a critical role in stability in the world.

And then finally, the Afghan people matter. There are somewhere between 24 and 32 million Afghan people. They deserve a chance at a future. They need some help right now, and I think that that alone is a powerful reason that makes it worth it.

By that measure, so do the people of Somalia; so do the people of other failed states in other parts of the world. Why Afghanistan?

Well, we're here. I can judge Afghanistan now. And I would tell you on the basis of it, the reasons I gave you, I think it is worth it.

posted october 13, 2009

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