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.

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.

'You Can't Bring a Dead Civilian Back to Life'

SPIEGEL: Coming from your background in special forces, where targeting and killing people is actually the nature of the business, your tactical directive to avoid casualties which came out in July was quite a surprise. It says that killing the enemy is not effective and therefore needs to be avoided.

McChrystal: Well, the tactical directive was designed not just to give people specific guidelines, but to give them intent. That was to explain that killing the enemy was not the best route to success. If you kill two enemy fighters who are in somebody's house, and in doing so you destroy their house, then the individuals who own the house probably have very conflicted feelings about whether you did the right thing. If you take an action that has the risk of harming civilians, you have to carefully consider that decision, because you can't bring a civilian who has been killed back to life.

SPIEGEL: But what if commanders on the ground do not follow your guidance?

McChrystal: I haven't had the experience of commanders who don't follow guidance. What I've found is that in any big organization, people interpret guidelines or intent differently. However as long as I'm in command here, I will be making some of those same points, constantly.

SPIEGEL: More than 2,000 civilians died last year in Afghanistan, the highest number since 2001. One-third of them were killed by Western coalition troops or the Afghan security forces. Why can't the killing of civilians be avoided?

McChrystal: Two-thirds of the casualties are in fact caused by the enemy who is theoretically trying to liberate parts of the Afghan people. In fact what they are doing is killing the Afghan people. Also, remember that it's an extraordinarily difficult, complex environment. You put young soldiers out in positions in small numbers, and you put them with suicide bombers and you put improvised explosive devices around them -- it's difficult, and mistakes will be made. But we'll fight hard to reduce them. Zero is a goal.

SPIEGEL: As the director of US Special Forces operations in Afghanistan and Iraq you killed the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and found the dictator Saddam Hussein. What effect would it have if Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar were killed by a Predator drone tomorrow?

McChrystal: I think leaders of the insurgency like Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden need to be brought to justice. You would hope they'd be captured alive, they might be killed. It will not guarantee immediate success. In Iraq, even after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, there was still a significant effort to finish it. But what we really need to do is to go after very serious committed enemy leaders and we need to take them out of circulation -- capture or kill. At the same time we need to push forward with good counter-insurgency measures and offer fighters a chance to reintegrate back with the government.

SPIEGEL: What was the key to locating al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein at that time? And what can we learn from that regarding Osama bin Laden who, after eight years, has still not been caught?

McChrystal: Operations like that are very similar to police work. It is intelligence, it is very, very good analysis and at the end of the day it is persistence, it is staying with it. Someone like Osama bin Laden clearly feels that if he surfaces he is likely to be arrested or killed. So just the hunting has a certain good effect. As you remember, we found Saddam Hussein in a hole in the ground. He was not leading a resistance from that hole.

SPIEGEL: Everybody is currently talking about negotiating with the Taliban. What would an effective reconciliation program look like?

McChrystal: Reconciliation would be higher level talks between the leadership of the insurgent organization and the government of Afghanistan. Re-integration would be individual fighters or groups of fighters, not the entire Taliban, who decide to come back into the government, into the society of Afghanistan under the constitution of Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan is working hard on a policy for this and it's going to come out with that pretty soon. We're prepared to support them because I think we sense in the Taliban ranks there's a tremendous number of fighters and commanders who would like to come back in. We just need to craft the kind of program that supports that.

'We Are Not Viewed as Occupiers'

SPIEGEL: What would be needed for these people to switch sides?

McChrystal: I think they need protection first of all. Protection from the Taliban, protection for their families as well and an opportunity to either go back to the village from which they came and an opportunity to make a living again, to re-enter the workplace in their society. They also need respect. It's important that they are not ashamed as they do this because they are making an honorable decision.

SPIEGEL: Would Pakistan support a solution which guarantees them at least some kind of influence in the south of Afghanistan?

McChrystal: Even though every country follows its national interests, there are shared strategic objectives between the government of Afghanistan, the government of Pakistan and the coalition. These are closer today than they have been in the past. There are still very difficult issues, clearly, and I in no way would minimize those. But at the end of the day people are rational and I am optimistic that we'll be able to work out solutions together which ultimately will be much more durable and effective than separate solutions.

SPIEGEL: Afghanistan is famously known as "the graveyard of empires." Alexander the Great failed in the 4th century, the British in the 19th century and the Soviets only 20 years ago. All of them lost their status as a world power shortly afterwards. Why do you think you will succeed?

McChrystal: Well, I won't succeed, the government of Afghanistan will succeed, and that is the essential difference. This may be the graveyard of empires, but there is not an empire here, there is a coalition of 44 nations. And a coalition of 44 nations is never going to try to occupy a country and that's the big difference. That's why we are not viewed as occupiers. That's why the people haven't risen up like the mujahideen did against the Soviets.

SPIEGEL: How big is the risk of failure?

McChrystal: There is always risk of failure and it would probably come from not understanding the problem well enough, not recognizing the problem well enough and then therefore not crafting the appropriate solutions.

SPIEGEL: What is required from the civilian side to turn the tide in Afghanistan?

McChrystal: When we talk about surges of civilians we should never compare numbers of people. What you need is expertise: agricultural experts, economic experts, sometimes engineering, water engineering experts. You need people who can come in and they need to be skilled in identifying the problem and working with their Afghan partners. You don't want a flood of people -- you want just enough people to help the Afghans do it themselves.

SPIEGEL: The region of Afghanistan and Pakistan is not the only place where terrorists and extremists use lawless territory as safe havens. There are many others, like Yemen, Sudan and Somalia. Should Western troops also go to all these places and wage wars?

McChrystal: What defeats terrorism is really two things. It's rule of law and then it's opportunity for people. So if you have governance that allows you to have rule of law, you have an environment in which it is difficult to pursue terrorism. And if you have an opportunity for people in life, which includes education and the chance to have a job, then you take away the biggest cause of terrorism. So really, the way to defeat terrorism is not military strikes, it's going after the basic conditions.

SPIEGEL: Support for the mission in Afghanistan is evaporating in Europe and in the US. The Canadians and the Dutch will pull out next year. The Germans are reluctant to increase their troop levels. What do you need and what do you expect from your allies, especially from the Germans?

McChrystal: It's not numbers of soldiers, it's not particular capabilities -- it's a willingness to be a part of a team and to adapt ourselves to this mission. Good partnership is key. Each of the 44 nations brings different capabilities, different strengths. The Afghan people can feel it, they take strength from it. And the enemy can also feel it.

SPIEGEL: President Obama himself has announced that the US will start to bring their troops back home from 2011 on.

McChrystal: To my mind, he has not signaled any lack of commitment or lack of resolve regarding Afghanistan. In fact, he has signaled a very strong resolve. He said that we have offered the people of Afghanistan a strategic partnership. As we provide this near-term bridge with additional forces, what will happen is that the requirement for all coalition forces will decrease over time. At some point it will be a longer term strategic partnership, which will involve less military than civilian assistance.

SPIEGEL: General McChrystal, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Susanne Koelbl in Kabul.

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