SPIEGEL Interview with General Stanley McChrystal: 'Killing the Enemy Is Not The Best Route to Success'

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, talks to SPIEGEL about his new approach to the war, negotiations with the Taliban and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

General Stanley McChrystal, 55, is the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Zoom
REUTERS

General Stanley McChrystal, 55, is the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

SPIEGEL: General McChrystal, a couple of months ago you said, "Since 9/11, I have watched as America tried to first put out this fire with a hammer, and it doesn't work." What did the Americans do wrong in Afghanistan?

Stanley McChrystal: At the end of the day, a counter-insurgency is decided by people's perceptions and by how people feel. I think any war like this is not a battle between material. It's not about destroying the enemy's cities. It's not even about destroying their army, their fighters. You have to weaken the insurgency. But it's really about convincing the people that they want it to stop and they ultimately will. The most effective way for us to operate is to be really good and effective partners with our Afghan counterparts, because it's not a technical problem, it's a human problem.

SPIEGEL: Your 66-page assessment of the situation in Afghanistan was the basis for US President Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional American soldiers to the country next year, coming on top of the 68,000 which are already there. In your report, you wrote that the situation is serious but doable. Is it doable?

McChrystal: I think it is doable. But it is going to be a significant effort on everybody's part and it will be very complex. Here is a resilient insurgency with elements of the Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Hekmatyar network that threaten the existence of the state. But there is also a crisis of confidence in the people which comes from expectations that were not met after 2001, regarding development and governance and positive things. Additionally, you have a disappointment in what they have seen from local and national governance and a sense that it's not a fair system, that they are not getting basic justice. Those two things feed each other.

SPIEGEL: In your assessment you wrote that the key weakness of ISAF is that it doesn't aggressively defend the Afghan population. This sounds like a big misunderstanding, because in our countries everybody believes the troops are here to protect the Afghans.

McChrystal: The protection of the people is the crucial point. If the coalition comes in and protects the Afghan people from a larger conventional threat with a conventional force, then we could feel we'd been successful. But that is really not the threat to the Afghan people. That comes from shadow governance, night letters (editor's note: anonymous notices posted by the Taliban), coercion, improvised explosive devices (IEDs). And so the protection they really need, we can't do in a strictly conventional sense. We can't do, when we stay on installations and guard ourselves from all harm. We have to be closer and interact with people to do that.

SPIEGEL: Do you mean that the coalition troops need to take bigger risks?

McChrystal: In a counter-insurgency, your security ultimately comes from the people, because they help deny the insurgents support, then they provide you intelligence. Here is the conflict. To protect yourself perfectly, you get behind big forts, you wear body armor and travel in armored vehicles. But then you can't interact with people. And if you can't interact with people, the people will not protect you ultimately. If you want to swim, you have to let go of the side of the pool. You have to get in and amongst the people and build that relationship. In the long run you will suffer fewer casualties and you'll be more successful.

SPIEGEL: Your intelligence chief, Michael Flynn, just came up with a provocative document claiming that US spies in Afghanistan are totally clueless. They only focus on the insurgency, he says, and do not understand the most fundamental questions of people's lives and their environment. Is he right?

McChrystal: Understanding unconventional warfare is typically understanding the terrain, the physical terrain, and understanding the enemy. In a counter-insurgency the terrain is the people, rather than bridges and hills and forests. You have to understand tribes, leaders and the economic forces at work. Otherwise you can't deny the insurgency. What General Flynn has pointed out correctly is the fact that we need to widen our understanding. We need to understand how the enemy interacts with the people.

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