Stanley A. McChrystal, former commander of the United States and International Security Assistance Forces Afghanistan and Joint Special Operations Command's premier military counterterrorism force, discusses his experiences in Afghanistan.
This meeting is part of the HBO History Makers series.
TOM BROKAW: If I could have your attention and get all of you to sit down, please. Thank you.
If I could ask -- if I could ask for quiet in the room. If not, I'll ask General McChrystal to run some close-order drills here with you -- (laughter) -- and we'll get this place shipped up -- shaped up in just a moment.
I'm very happy to be with you this evening. I'm Tom Brokaw. And I am delighted to have one of the preeminent not just warriors in America, but one of the great military strategists, and a genuine authority on leadership. It is a course that he's now teaching at Yale.
General Stanley McChrystal comes from a military family. His father was a major general in the United States Army. Every member of the family either was in the military or married into a military family. General McChrystal went to West Point, graduated from there. And not even arguably, he is, by consensus of all his peers at the senior level and from the ground up, the greatest warrior that this country has.
We all know how he was separated from the service. We'll talk about that a little bit later. But I want to take all the time that we have now to discuss something that is on the minds of all of us. This is the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. No one knows more about what goes on on the ground there or in the towers of power in Kabul and across the country than our guest here this evening.
So General McChrystal, let's just begin with that. On the 10th anniversary, when we began, I think it's probably fair to say that there were three big goals: to drive al-Qaida out of Afghanistan; to diminish the influence, if not eliminate it, of the Taliban; and to stabilize the country from a political and economic point of view.
Ten years later, on a percentage basis, where are we -- 50 percent of the way home?
GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (Ret.): I think we're probably -- I think probably a little better than 50 percent. But the last parts that need to be done in terms of creating a legitimate government that the Afghan people believe in, and therefore providing a counterweight to the Taliban idea, as well as the Taliban forces, I think that's going to be a hard last percentages to close.
BROKAW: Is it possible for Afghanistan to have a strong central government? I've been over a lot of the country. You've been everywhere there. In every valley there's another power center of one kind or another, disconnected from Kabul in every conceivable way -- physically, culturally, politically.
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I think having a strong, effective central government is a challenge for lots of countries. And I think that in Afghanistan there's a tradition of what I'd say is a weave between a legitimate national authority -- in some periods it was a king, in some periods it was a prime minister -- a legitimate national authority that interacted with tribes and interacted with local leaders in a way that was comfortable.
I think that that model is probably about right. I think the Bonn model that we came out with, with a very centralized central power and appointed governors for the 34 provinces, is different enough from their tradition that it's a problem in itself and I think probably needs to be relooked.
BROKAW: Did we know enough about the Afghan culture before we went in there, despite all of the exposition that was available to us and the long reach of history, not just of the country but of foreigners going into the country, most recently the Russians, and being chased out with their tail between their legs?
MCCHRYSTAL: No. We didn't know enough and we still don't know enough. Many people read "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," and they looked at the military side and they thought that, OK, we understand that part of it. They understood some of the history. But most of us, me included, had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years -- the personalities, the actions that occurred.
Many people thought, well, they fought the Soviets. They defeated the Soviets. And then there was this Taliban period, and then we came in 2001. But there were so many forces at play and so many personalities in the seven different mujaheddin groups, so many different actions that complicated it, that when we arrived, I think we were woefully under-informed and we also didn't have the tools to get informed. We didn't speak the language. We didn't make an effective effort to learn the language, nor did we establish assignment policies that would establish people there long enough to do it.
At the beginning we, I think, were frighteningly guilty of very quick turns. We'd send somebody for a pretty short -- we did the same thing in Iraq -- send people for short periods to do complex tasks. No matter how good they were and how well intentioned, it's just too hard to understand without time and focused effort.
BROKAW: This is a question that might have been more difficult for you to answer if you were still in uniform, but you're a civilian now. Were our efforts in Afghanistan compromised by opening a second front in Iraq?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think they were made more difficult, clearly. And I think they were made more difficult in one sense from the military standpoint, but I really think they were made more difficult because they changed the Muslim world's view of America's effort. When we went after the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, there was a certain understanding that we had the ability and the right to defend ourselves. And the fact that al-Qaida had been harbored by the Taliban was legitimate.
I think when we made the decision to go into Iraq, that was less legitimate with many of the observers. And so while there was certainly a certain resource strain and reduction in the ability of just our attention to be in multiple places, I think it was more important that much of the Muslim world now questioned what we were doing, and we lost some of the support that I think would have been helpful longer term.
BROKAW: When we went into Afghanistan, it was critically important to have Pakistan as an ally. And, of course, we know about the conversations between Secretary Powell and General Musharraf in Pakistan. Now it appears, both objectively, in terms of the evidence, and anecdotally and impressionistically, that the Pakistan border really is a third front, again; that we have more difficulty with what's going on in Waziristan, north and south, and on the border region, that includes, according to General -- according to Admiral Mullen and others, the Pakistan intelligence agency as an ally of the terrorist groups that we're trying to keep out of Afghanistan.
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I think it's important that we start by rewinding a bit and understanding the history and how we look at it. If an American -- not every American, but if an American looks at the history of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship from 1947 on, we tend to remember certain things. We tend to remember the period from really late 1979 to `89, when we provided weapons and money, support, through Pakistan for the Afghan mujaheddin.
We tend to look at when the Pakistanis developed a nuclear weapon, and then we tended to look -- we tend to look at things like the discovery of Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan. And we tend to be somewhat suspicious of them because there are certain indicators.
If you do a 180, which I try to force myself to do, and I recommend to others, and you look at it as a Pakistani might -- not every Pakistani, but some -- the relationship has been problematic from the beginning. And America has had an uneven relationship.
In 1965, after our 1959 agreement of mutual defense, when the Pakistanis asked us for our support in a war with India, we said no. Whether we should or not, in the Pakistani view that was an abrogation of an agreement that had been made. Similarly, they helped facilitate Henry Kissinger go to China to get in, to pave the way for Richard Nixon. And then, in their view, from `79 to `89, they accepted the major part of the risk from possible Russian intervention in Pakistan while we used them as surrogates to fight our Cold War enemies.
And then, when we implemented the Pressler Amendment in 1990, it could be a view that here we had just finished a period when they had been very useful to us and accomplished our Cold War task -- the Berlin Wall fell not long after the Soviets left -- then, in 1990, we implement the Pressler Amendment, which cut off military and other -- some other parts of our relationship with Pakistan. It looks a little bit like we got what we wanted, and then we turned our back on them. And then we didn't come back again until 2001, when we needed something yet again.
I'm not saying that that's a right view. I'm not saying that the American view is right. What I'm saying is we need to give understanding that the two perspectives are there. And they're legitimate; and the truth is, probably as many cases somewhere in the middle. But we often run into not viewing it with the same lens of history and then starting with a disconnect.
BROKAW: Well, I think that's an absolutely appropriate assessment of what's going on at the top in Pakistan. My own experience has been on the border region and dealing with Pakistanis in military uniform, to say nothing -- and I don't know who the intel people are, but I know enough about the culture, not just the impression that I get, but the people that I know over there say they're more inclined to the Islamic point of view and not just going to the mosque, from the Islamic point of view. They're not happy about the Americans from the ground up. And that poses an enormous problem for us, not just on the border, but the kind of support that they can provide across the border, doesn't it?
MCCHRYSTAL: It absolutely does. In fact, despite all the assistance we give to Pakistan, the poll ratings of their opinion of American policy is extraordinarily negative, and not just in the tribal regions. In fact, it is more negative in areas outside the tribal regions. What we found is in the tribal regions, where they had seen up close the effects of al-Qaida, they were actually a bit more accepting of some of the actions than people in other parts, in the Punjab or whatnot.
So I think that there is an absolute tendency to lean that way, and we've got to understand that. And I'm sure some of them act on it.
BROKAW: We're constantly trying to keep abreast of which of these groups are the most destructive and most damaging and most threatening to us. Suddenly in the last couple of years Haqqani has popped -- H-A-Q-Q-A-N-I; comes out of North Waziristan. What is Haqqani?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the father, now quite old, was one of the mujaheddin leaders. He's an Afghan. He's from the host region of Afghanistan. And he had a tribal area that he controlled. And his sons are now -- Siraj and his other son -- are now important.
They have established an area in which they influence that is allied with al-Qaida, a little bit more than TTP, Pakistani Taliban, were. They were also allied with Pakistani Taliban, but they also operate somewhat independently. And they have reached violence as far as into Kabul, as we've seen.
We used to describe them -- about 4,000 fighters -- we used to describe them as having a regional aspiration; i.e., they wanted to control terrain in that area, really in Afghanistan, into northern Waziristan, but that part of Afghanistan. And therefore they were opposed to the current government of Afghanistan to do that.
I think they have hardened their opinion. As you fight, you tend to -- you tend to start fighting for one reason and then you continue fighting for another. It's true of almost every group, because as you suffer casualties and whatnot, you harden your position. And I think that they're pretty extreme now. I think they're pretty dangerous. And I think they're dangerous to Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. And so I think they are going to have to be addressed as a separate but allied threat.
BROKAW: They have been active in Kabul, as we know. And attacks within Kabul, the nation's capital, are now more than routine at this point. The president's stepbrother has been killed in Kandahar. The former president of the high peace council was assassinated. The International Red Cross is now saying it's become too dangerous for it to go into remote regions of Afghanistan to care for those who need their help, both the physically wounded and the other needs of the country.
It does appear to people on the outside looking in that we're losing ground, not gaining ground.
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, it's mixed. And I think, when I look at it, I see significant progress being made in many areas by the increase of security by coalition and Afghan forces -- the Helmand River Valley, areas like that. I mean, the change has been stunning. The ability to move crops around, the ability to apply governance and whatnot, has been good.
On the other hand, the campaign of assassination is terrifying to people, because it makes everyone feel under threat. And it's not only terrifying to individuals who might be targeted, but the mere concept that people can get in and attack the American embassy and they can kill Dr. Rabbani and they can killed Ahmed Wali Karzai, that is -- whether someone likes that person or not, it's unnerving to the idea that the Taliban has created this sense of it can reach in. So it's dangerous.
BROKAW: Let's talk about leadership style in these kinds of wars. What is the plywood concept of leadership?
MCCHRYSTAL: It's something that we came -- it had two parts. It started by we created our headquarters and all out of plywood. We had Navy Seabees. We had two-by-fours and plywood, and we described something and they would build this magnificent thing. They built one called the plywood palace.
And we built our area to shape how we operated. We wanted it to help shape our -- (inaudible) -- the organization. One, we wanted to create certain spaces; but two, we wanted to be able to change it. Whenever we wanted to, we brought them in. They ripped it up, put it together a different way and we changed. And you didn't have to clean your boots when you walked in and that sort of thing because you were focused on the mission at hand.
We really went a bit further in that and we realized that that was a pretty good analogy for how we built teams, because in reality, war, like a lot of anything else, is teams. And it's not just teams of soldiers. It's teams of different organizations. To be effective, we had to have the 46 nations of the coalition. We had to have different federal agencies. We had to have the 1,700 nongovernmental organizations that operate in Afghanistan in a rough, shared purpose.
And when you pull plywood together, it's really just pieces of wood that, by itself, are worthless. You can break them with your hands. When you glue them together, plywood's pretty formidable. And when you glue organizations together with leadership, then organizations -- because we're all made of just normal people -- and that's the concept. It's how do you build teams and glue them together.
BROKAW: Can you glue them together when you're dealing with the Afghan security forces? Do they get that concept?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, they do. There is an awful lot of views of security forces that are negative. And the Afghan police have as many problems as any I've seen, because any organization that operates decentralized and has been broken has to start from scratch. And they start from scratch in an area where you don't have enough leaders to have them in all the areas, so it's really hard to build without leaders distributed.
The army is much better because you operate in larger groups and you have a little bit more tradition. They are making good progress. They fight. They will absolutely fight. As much as we sometimes get frustrated with them, we as a nation, they've made an awful lot of progress. But they've got a long way to go (first and 10 ?)
BROKAW: I want to ask you about what it's like when you're out in the field with the Iraqi forces and you go into a village and you say to the village merchants, they're here to help you. These are your fellow countrymen. They want to provide security. What is the reaction from the man on what passes for the main street in those villages?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. And it varies by area and it varies by the force you bring in. When we went into the area called Marjah, that was an area in Helmand that had been controlled by the Taliban for more than four years and it had been used essentially as a safe haven. We were going to go in, but before we went in, we wanted to make sure we did this thing right.
So we got people who were elders in Marjah and we brought them out, and we had a meeting. And I sat down in one of the meetings with them and I said, do you want us to come in. And they said, we do if -- we want you to come in if you're not going to destroy the place in the process of coming in; two, if you're going to stay; and three, if you're not going to bring the current Afghan police back in.
In that area of Helmand, a guy named Sher Mohammad Akhundzada had been in charge, and he was -- he had been a friend of President Karzai's, but he was as close to a local dictator-warlord as you can imagine. And so he was dramatically reviled by the population. And so they were terrified that there was going to be reimposition of his control.
So they put those conditions on us, which -- all of which we were happy to be a part of, and then we did the operation. But as we went in, we found a number of things. First, that the military part was difficult, but we did that with very little civilian casualties or damage by taking some risks doing it.
But replacing the police force is hard. We brought in the Afghan national police force initially because they weren't from there and they could establish. But then as we went to hire a police force, as in any area, what happens is the people who want back in power, the local warlords, they do everything they can to get the boys back in. And this is part of not knowing the organization -- or the area, sometimes you don't know who the boys are. And so you're trying to talk to enough people to get a really clear view of what ground truth is. And that can be very difficult. And if you ask one person, you've got to remember, you may be getting their bias.
The area of Marjah had 20 different tribes represented in it. It wasn't just one tribe. You couldn't get a head or a small number of leaders, you had to talk to a tremendous number. So you try to navigate this by getting as clean a set of bureaucrats in as you can, Afghan government bureaucrats, bringing them in and then constantly engaging the people so you get a sense of whether you're getting it right. And you have to navigate it along.
All the time, the local Afghans are doing some mental calculations. Their first calculation, are you going to be effective? Because if you're not going to be effective, they don't want to get off the fence, because they don't want to be in your camp when you fail. And it's very difficult for them.
Second is they're trying to see if you're going to get the governance part right. And if you get the government part wrong, they can also end up on the wrong side there. And they're trying to do that in a way that is -- at the same time keeps their family safe, because their family is living there on a daily basis and, of course, is not only at danger from combat, but also from coercion. So it's a really difficult position that they are in.
BROKAW: Do we have the formulation right in winning hearts and minds? It's primarily the responsibility now of people like you and people who are in uniform who go into those villages and promise security. But do we need to rethink the concept of the kinds of people that we put on the ground and the kind of aid program that we take into places like Afghanistan to win the hearts and minds?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. Winning the hearts and minds is something that was coined some years ago. And it's a correct term. But as you correctly said, you don't win hearts and minds by going in and just being popular. You first provide security that they think is credible and durable. Then the hearts and minds tend to be in a position where you can convince them.
You really need dedicated young civilians in with the military, because as good as the military might be -- and I'm obviously biased toward them -- they're still military, and there's a different view. So you need to get government civilians in. You need to get nongovernmental organizations in so that they can work. But they've got to work in a general everybody's stroking in the same direction, not under control, but in the same direction.
But most importantly, you need to get Afghan young government technocrats and bureaucrats in. The problem is, after 32 years of war, their set of human capital to move in is limited. And when you go to get young Afghan civil servants and you say you can serve in Kabul or we'd like you to serve in Marjah, and they look at two things -- one's dangerous, one's not; also one may be very hard to get your job done, I mean, just because you're starting something from scratch and it could be very frustrating. And they feel the same frustration.
So I think that's the important part. That's what we -- when Dave Rodriguez and I went over together -- he was the deputy; became the IJC commander -- we both agreed that the hardest part was going to be the governance part. We were convinced we could make enough progress in security, but it's that tipping point in the minds of people that the government's going to be better next year than this year and better the year after that. It doesn't have to be good, it just needs -- they need to believe it's getting better.
BROKAW: Why did you get along with Karzai when so many other American officials did not?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think a number did. I can only speak for myself. One, I knew it was important to get along with him -- you know, it was my job, one of my jobs. But also he's a human being, and if you listen to him -- I found that, you know, if I kept my mouth shut and my ears open and spent a lot of time, I could learn an awful lot. And he and other key people I became friends with, I spent a lot of time, hours, just listening.
And when you listen, you get insights that are hard to get reading, and you get way past that bumper-sticker sort of thing. And I think we established a level of trust where I really developed deep regard for him. And I think that opened a two-way street as well.
BROKAW: But can he be a transcendent leader ever in Afghanistan, given the charges of corruption and the place of his family and where they have been, what they've been up to, not as well known in other parts of Afghanistan as he is in his own tribal regions and also in Kabul?
MCCHRYSTAL: It's hard to be, because Afghanistan has been so divided ethnically, starting from the Soviet period, and so divided by other structures. The civil war from `92 really to 2001 tore them apart even more. So any leader starts with the challenge that a lot of people come just in the kung fu stance, and you're trying to establish credibility.
I think he has the ability to pull people -- there is a yearning for national unity. But as I would describe, people want that, but they're scared to let go of the side of the pool because they don't want to be in the middle of the pool and find out that it's not working. They don't want -- everybody wants to protect some equities. And when things go bad, you go back to your core. You go to your family. You go to your tribe. You go to your ethnic group. You go to the things that make you feel most safe. And so when the pressure is raised, that's the danger that I see.
BROKAW: You're one of the architects of counterinsurgency as a military tactic and strategy, along with David Petraeus. Is that going to be expanded as part of the American military culture outside the confines of the subcontinent of Asia as you look forward to the other dangers that are out there on the horizon? Are we going to make a paradigm shift in the American military to much more of an emphasis on counterinsurgency?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I hope we are, but I hope we don't define it just as counterinsurgency. I hope we define it in a way that we say we are going to understand and empathize with the people we deal with. Our preeminence militarily -- we're still going to be the strongest power for our lifetime in the world, but we're not going to be preeminent like we were. We're not going to be able to do everything we want to do. And we're going to have to work with allies and we're going to have to work with people who may not be allies, but we have a transactional relationship, in a much more effective manner.
We can't -- we can't go in with that understanding. And I think that's going to require us to do a lot of the things that COIN requires -- to stop, think, understand, analyze, maybe take an indirect approach, maybe understand that you don't want to hammer something, you want to nudge it into position. And I think that that'll be of value if we build a military capable of doing that.
BROKAW: All right. We want to go to questions from the audience now, and I want to remind you that this is part of the HBO series on leadership. And most of you in this room who have been in these sessions before, you know the rules are. This one is on the record. Also we'd like you, when you ask the question, to ask a question. If you have answers, we'll get to those later -- (scattered laughter) -- but we'd like the question to be quite specific. And give us your name and whatever affiliation you choose for this occasion.
So we have a question here in the second row. Wait for the microphone, please.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Welcome back to the council, General. My name is Roland Paul. I'm a lawyer. I've been in the U.S. government in a couple of national security positions.
It's been publicly reported that Special Operations killed and captured about 12,000 Taliban in the 12 months leading up to the beginning of this year. If that's at all correct, which I'm sure it is, we now have a new element in COIN doctrine, both Special Ops and drones.
And I would welcome your brief explanation of the relative strength of that compared to conventional military or the interrelationship or any other handle you give it so we better understand its role and mission -- role, I think, in that. Thanks. And I only mean kinetic force, I don't care about soft power in this question. Thank you.
MCCHRYSTAL: Yes, sir. I got it.
You know, there's a dichotomy that's drawn sometimes between COIN and counterterrorist operations. And I think it's absolutely a false one, at least it's false in the way people do it. If I say counterterrorist operations to most people, they think that's direct action. That's either a kinetic strike or a raid by a force. And if we talk about counterinsurgency, we tend to think of hearts and minds. In fact, direct action is part of counterinsurgency, just as reducing the causes is part of counterterrorism. So I'll talk about direct action as opposed to CT.
We have -- we've developed an ability over the last decade to do extraordinarily precise operations, both using kinetic strikes from air strikes, or even missiles in some cases and whatnot. And, most importantly, we've developed an ability to do targeting -- intelligence gathering and targeting much better. Part of that is from full-motion video from aerial platforms. Part of that is signals intelligence. Part of that is human intelligence. And that's gotten better.
And through some processes where we fuse the intelligence better than we have in the past, still not perfectly, we have gotten to a tactical and even operational level of war, ability to do that at such a speed that it's unprecedented. We could do it multiple times. We could hit a target early in an evening, and from what was captured on that target, either individuals or material, we could develop and hit another target, and sometimes three in the same night from that, and capture three people. And, of course, the key to that is as fast as you can operate, faster than the enemy force can respond, and the other part is precision.
And the other part I'd make on precision is the reason it's so important is because, one, you need to get who you're going after or your credibility drops. It drops with the people and it produces unintended effects that you just can't stand. It is painful enough to do a strike where you're successful.
The UBL strike in Pakistan is a great case in point -- extraordinary operation; got the person we were after; 22 people on the compound, in my understanding, not harmed, women and children that were not harmed. And that's hard to do at night in a fast-moving operation; so about as good as it can be.
But it still has a negative effect. It's like when everyone talks about a surgical operation, I smile because I've had surgery before. And when they break the skin, you know, there's a chance of infection and there's a little scar tissue. And so -- and there's recovery.
So we need to never mistake precision and speed with having no negative side to it, and we need to balance that in there. But we've gotten very good at it. We just have to balance it.
I want to come back. That is -- in my personal view, that is -- and the president has said this -- that's not a strategy in itself. It must support a wider strategy. Dave Petraeus says it better than I ever will. You're never going to kill your way to victory or capture. What you are going to do is help reduce the enemy threat while you reduce the causes of the problem. Even terrorism is that way.
So I feel more strongly about that even now than I did when we started a decade ago.
BROKAW: OK, let's go right back here on the aisle with the -- yeah. Wait for the microphone? Thank you.
QUESTIONER: General, thank you for your comments. Todd Johnson, from Ferrari Consultancy.
I'm wondering if you can provide, in your best estimate, some lessons learned that our allies in Afghanistan have drawn from their ability to deploy, sustain, engage in kinetic and nonlethal operations. Sort of in the capitals, you know, in The Hague, Canberra, Ottawa, et cetera, when they look back in the past seven to 10 years in Afghanistan, what sort of lessons are they going to draw as -- chiefly, is this something that they could do again?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. Todd, that's a -- that's an important question. I think the lessons are a little different for every nation. I watched many nations go through an incredible metamorphosis as they went, often under one understanding of what the mission in Afghanistan would be, and then it -- typically peacekeeping they thought it would be, and that had been politically identified to them.
Then when they got there, it might be more difficult and they had to -- and peacekeeping might include such things as counterinsurgency, nation building of a sort, partnering with Afghan partners, which was really key to this. And many of them came not prepared for that, either mentally training or equipment-wise. But I saw extraordinary progress in that. And usually you saw it first in the forces on the ground, and then as they tried to convince their leaders this is what we must do here, that it just took a little bit of time.
I think that they will take away that they've got to be more holistically armed; i.e., they have to have their own intelligence surveillance equipment, they've got to have the ability to do human intelligence, they've got to have the ability to precision-strike, rather than just having a traditional, almost Cold War-kind of military capacity and then try to use it in this full spectrum.
I think most of them came away -- they need to stretch themselves and get themselves maybe not bigger, but more diversely set with skills.
BROKAW: How much did you have to spend managing the political will of the allies, versus the military capability of those who were there to help you?
MCCHRYSTAL: There's a -- there's a quite -- (chuckles) -- quite a lot of work in dealing with keeping a 46-nation coalition together. And you remember, I would go with Jim Stavridis to NATO, and I'd talk to them, and I found them good. But nations would send senior leaders, and so they would send their minister of defense or their prime minister or the president -- pretty senior people -- and they would come through regularly.
And of course, everybody wants to see the commander of ISAF. They were always disappointed when they did, but they, you know. (Laughter.) Everybody wanted to check that box. And so we had some -- most of them were great meetings and became great friends, but occasionally it was, you know, a little bit of explainin' of what we were trying to do.
BROKAW: So is the alliance stronger or weaker as a result of the experience in Afghanistan, in your judgment?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, that's a great question. I think it's stronger. I think that they have gone through something they never did for so many years. It was theoretical, and now you get out there and you actually have to do something that's not theoretical. I know from the military standpoint, it's much stronger. You start to develop relationships.
My chief of -- my deputy was a Brit, three-star. My chief of staff was a German. He's now chief of defense over there. I mean, those are close friends of mine forever. And I don't think you'd make those relationships anything -- you wouldn't do that in Belgium. You're going to do that on the ground where you're really working. So I think that's stronger.
Politically, I think that everyone, the United States included, will be a little more hesitant before they sign up for anything next time, simply because the cost and the length is typically more than you expect at the beginning.
BROKAW: Over here. Right there.
QUESTIONER: My name is Bruce Gelb, of the Council of American Ambassadors. You mentioned that civilians are an important part of this operation. I'm interested in who they are and what they do and how do you lead a civilian?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I got a couple of my civilians that were there with me. Matt Sherman was there for years, and one of the best is sitting right there.
You lead them differently, and that's something I had to learn. What I found was, you know, I grew up military, but then for the last few years I had led sort of big-knuckle commandos. And then suddenly I got an international community and I've got a lot of civilians and I don't have just Matt Sherman types. I've got females that are 21 years old, I've got people that are older than me and I've got people from very different backgrounds, and I had to change the way I led.
I think -- it sounds sort of self-evident now -- the first thing is explain to everybody what you're doing, what you're trying to do. Make everybody feel like they're part of the team, and then do that every day. I mean, every day. You don't do it one day and expect everybody to get it. You do it every day, and you make everybody understand exactly what we're trying to do.
When we tried to change the way the force was using firepower, for example -- we tried to reduce that, which I still believe passionately was critical to our ability to make any progress -- it was a cultural change for everyone. And -- but when you explained it to them, you couldn't just give them the rules, because that didn't make sense.
You had to give them the context, you had to say the only way we succeed here is with the support of the Afghan people, and the only way we get their support is don't kill them, even if it's -- (laughter) -- I mean, that sounds funny, but even if it's by mistake, don't kill them. Don't destroy their house. Even if you've got to wait until tomorrow to kill a Taliban, you can kill a Taliban tomorrow. And you're never going to kill your way out of it anyway, so it's all about getting the minds of the people to support you.
And so leading them was explaining. It was a lot more explaining than directing. And I think that's an important difference, and sometimes there's a stereotype of military leaders who give orders and everybody does it. That doesn't even happen in the military. (Laughter.) But in a wider force, it's very much influence.
BROKAW: On this side, right on the aisle.
QUESTIONER: Joe -- (inaudible) -- from Westech (sp).
General, I was here when President Karzai first arrived, and I found him intelligent, amusing. There was an argument with General Musharraf, where the head of the Taliban was. And Karzai said, well, I gave General Musharraf his GPS coordinates.
And -- what's gone wrong there, if that's the right question? I would have bet on Karzai, based on that short period, as our guy.
(Aside.) Yes, sir.
MCCHRYSTAL: It's a fair question. Here's what I think the situation is. One, President Karzai's been in power now for nine years. That is a long time in a job where you're essentially under this pressure cooker of living in a palace, threats on your life. He's had attempts on his life.
We were out doing a trip down in Helmand one day and they start rocketing the area, and he didn't even flinch. I mean, he doesn't -- you know, he says, should we stay? I said, yeah, you know, what the heck? One place as good as the next. (Laughter.) So, remarkably disciplined and good that way.
I think he's in a position where his internal politics -- the National Assembly is just really difficult to deal with. I mean, it's just extraordinarily fractious. He doesn't have a political party to fall back on. He is, on the one hand, dependent upon the West for support; on the other hand, he's accused of being a puppet by his own people. And so he's got to constantly try to navigate that.
I also think that there's a gap between the expectations, whether they were realistic or not, on the Afghan people and what's come out. They hoped in 2001 life was going to get great, and that wasn't realistic. But they thought that they'd get better governance; they thought they'd get economic progress and whatnot. And as that has struggled -- for lots of reasons, most of -- many of which are their own -- as that gap grows, the people get more frustrated and he gets attacked more, makes it more difficult to deal.
So I think he's a normal human being in a very -- almost undoable job, and you're seeing the effect of time. And I think one of the things I hope we can do, and do do as a nation, is understand that. I mean, understand that this is a person who really has the right hopes and dreams for his people, I believe, but he -- but he's human. He's not superhuman, like almost any leader.
BROKAW: Thank you. Right here. Wait for the microphone.
QUESTIONER: (Off mic) -- Elliott, IMA Limited.
You said that you got a number of insights from listening to Karzai -- not talking, presumably. And I wonder if you could specifically, say, list two or three of those insights very, very briefly, that you'd never thought about before.
MCCHRYSTAL: Yes, ma'am, that's a really good one.
One is he grew up in the area around Kandahar. His father was in the National Assembly, but he was a leader of the Popalzai tribe around Kandahar. So President Karzai saw his father would come home pretty often and they'd be in the area, and he would see people come and deal with him. And then they would go up to Uruzgan.
And when a problem arose -- and he was a teenager at this point -- when a problem arose, he watched it get solved. And it got solved by a local government official talking to a tribal leader, and they'd kind of work out a deal, OK, this is what we'll do, and then they could influence people to do it. It was much less formal than a strict court might be, or whatever. That was the first. He still believes that that is the right model, and I don't -- I don't disagree with him for that culture. I don't know it well enough to judge it, but he very much wants to see that.
He used to tell me also, as we talked, whenever we wanted to do something like form local tribal defense forces -- and you've heard about that. He'd say, hey, the tribes. The tribes must be with you. He talks about when he went in in 2001 and he was trying to rally the tribes against the Taliban. He went into Uruzgan initially, and he met with some tribal leaders and it was -- he was, like, three guys. And they walked in; they were put in by helicopter, and they walked in.
And they met with tribal leaders and the tribal leaders said -- he said, will you support me? We'll try to get rid of the Taliban. And the tribal leaders said, are the Americans with you? And he said, yeah, they are. And the tribal leaders said, now wait a minute. We need to be sure. Are the Americans with you? And then when he said yeah, he said -- they said OK, we're with you. We got it. And he has an extraordinary faith in their ability to be loyal and then -- and then follow through.
So when you look at the man and you look -- think relationships. They're sacred to him. Think trust, built up in some cases -- in some cases it's misplaced. Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, who I talked about who was such a problem in the Marjah area, was a comrade of his up in Uruzgan at that period. So he developed a loyalty for him that probably became misplaced, as SMA, as we called him, operated.
So it's the human side. And he doesn't like war. He doesn't -- never did, doesn't now, doesn't believe that's the right solution. And so when you see him reaching out to the Taliban, he doesn't like the Taliban. They killed his father. But he believes that your only way to success in Afghanistan is not to let a big chunk of the population be frozen out to become an opposition force, but that he believes you've got to bring them in and work it out. And that's -- that's really at the core of his soul, I think.
And so we see him say things like, you know, I want to bring the Taliban in, and sometimes people say he's not being strong enough. That's just that window into part of his personality. It's not a negative thing; it doesn't mean he doesn't love his country and want sovereignty. It's he just believes he's got to get them in.
BROKAW: Back on this side. Back -- Jim, in the very back? Stand up?
QUESTIONER: James Sitrick, Baker McKenzie.
How would you explain, General, the dichotomy between your view of Mr. Karzai and those of former Ambassador Eikenberry and Richard Holbrooke?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. I certainly can't speak for Richard, although he -- you know, we spent a lot of time together and talking to and about President Karzai. But he made a great effort to try to build that relationship.
Karl Eikenberry, I was there with Karl many times as he dealt with President Karzai, and I think that much of what I say is not incongruent. I think that the difference in views is I may be more -- a little bit easier on President Karzai than others might be, maybe more willing to forgive certain shortcomings than others might be. That doesn't make me right, I'm the first to tell you. But because I do understand it's important to be realistic about people.
But at the same time -- maybe I'm Pollyanna here -- there's a lot to be said about relationships. If you have a transactional relationship with someone, then everything's mathematical, and you ask for what you want and they may or may not give it to you. That region particularly, but this region as well is a lot more about relations that you build over time, and at a certain point that relationship gives you the ability to shape. You may not get everything you want, but we don't do that as much as I wish we did. We tend to rotate people too much; we tend not to think of the relationship first.
I had a brigadier general who worked for me in the Special Operating Force. He used to remind -- inside our force every day, he says the relationship's more important than today's objective. And really, in dealing with a lot of U.S. agencies. He'd say that, no matter how irritated we are, even if we've got to lose this one, protect the relationship, build the relationship. Because in the end, you'll get more. And that's the way I come at it.
But that doesn't mean that other people's views are wrong. It just means that maybe I am Pollyanna.
BROKAW: Back there. Right there. Is that you, Mike?
QUESTIONER: Hi, Tom. (Chuckles.)
BROKAW: Tell everybody else who you are, though.
QUESTIONER: (Laughs.) Mike Moran. I'm a geostrategy analyst and author, and proudly can say I'm a former colleague of Tom's.
At the very start of this war in Afghanistan, the Indians very -- made a very savvy move, offered us access to their air bases and airspace. The Russians were supporting the Northern Alliance; the Chinese even seemed upset. The Iranians were at the table.
Is it possible we didn't play the big game properly? Is it possible we backed the wrong horse and threw our support to the easy Cold-War ally of Pakistan and should not have done that?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I think we could have played the great game a little bit more subtly. I think we could have leveraged longer-term relationships and strategic interests there a little bit more deftly.
I think that we could have put ourselves in other people's perceptions -- you know, sit with the -- the Iranians were a bit helpful early, as well. But they woke up one morning and they were on the "axis of evil" and there were American troops on the east and west, and they viewed the world differently. Now, I'm not saying that that was the wrong move. What I'm saying is you've got to understand how they're going to see something.
I think playing this is -- playing it more for the long term would be in our best interests. But if you remember, and I left here in the summer of 2000 and a year later, it was hit. There was this eruption of emotion in the United States, and there was this scream, we've got to go do something now and it's got to be pretty dramatic.
When I tell people now if we could go back and if I was in a position to redo history from the day after 9/11, I'd do things differently. I'd take our time. I'd build a coalition. I'd build the -- I'd be the aggrieved party long enough to build up this tremendous world coalition before I tried to deal with the problem, because I think it would have been more durable. But that politically might have been impossible. I certainly know it would have been a challenge.
BROKAW: The other side, right there? Yeah.
QUESTIONER: (Off mic) -- with the Blackstone Group.
General, you did a great job, I thought, of laying out the history of Pakistan and the American relations from both -- from both sides' perspectives. I'd be curious how you view the current war of words and of allegations between Pakistan and the U.S. And taking two specifically, the allegations regarding the Haqqani network, Pakistan's support to them, and then the allegations regarding the transport of ammonium fertilizer across the border into Afghanistan to, you know, build IEDs.
Are there two sides to that story, or are the allegations to be taken for what they are? And then how do you see that war of words playing out?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. Let me start with one, the easy piece. The ammonium nitrate fertilizer is a -- is a type of fertilizer manufactured in Pakistan for years and moved into Afghanistan's business. Unfortunately, it's the best thing to make improvised explosive devices with. You really need to go to a urea-based fertilizer, but the industry wasn't set up to do that initially, so there's -- it's sort of a legacy thing.
I don't think it's made over there to be HME, homemade explosives. It's made to be fertilizer, and then people are still trying to make money. But it is illegal now, and so I think that that will make progress.
The war of words worries me a lot. And the reason the war of words worries me is because any time you conduct foreign policy through statements to your own press it isn't going to come out like you think it is, in my view.
What happens is people -- you say it, press writes it, every time it gets passed it's filtered a little bit, and then what is said looks like either a very bold statement or it looks like a demarche or that sort of thing. And it creates this level of tension and acrimony, and you suddenly start arguing in the press. And to me, it just doesn't help. I think you're much better to try to say things in private and say them very carefully, because you can nuance things in private, and they don't do that in the press.
Having said that, when you look at things like Mike Mullen's statement about the Haqqani network, I don't know the most recent intelligence. I haven't seen it. I know that the Haqqani Network is a negative force and I know that when I was still reading that intelligence, that I felt that they were getting at least a pass from Pakistani military and ISI. I couldn't -- I've never seen intelligence that was the smoking gun on direct things, but I don't refute it. I just can't say either.
But I think it's -- you know, as soon as you do that publicly, you back a leader or you back somebody into a corner. How can they respond? They're in a position where now they've got to protect national sovereignty, national pride, and -- on both sides. And then it starts something that's hard to back away from.
So I think we have to be allies with Pakistan. One, because it's the right thing to do, and two, because it's in our national interests in that area. So I think we've got to work our way through this. I think we can, but I think it's important that we do that.
BROKAW: You had an experience in dealing with the press. (Laughter.) Rolling Stone. You teach a leadership course now at Yale. What do you tell the students about dealing with the press when they get to be leaders?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. I tell them first the press is like -- it's not good or bad, it's like air. It's there. And unless you want to stop breathing, the press is going to be there, and you can't control it. I also tell them -- and I hope no one takes offense -- the press is what the press is. If you pick up a snake and hold it and it eventually bites you, don't get upset. (Laughter.) You know? That's what the press does. (Laughter.) I mean, they do their job.
I'm quite sure if I say something outrageous here tonight -- I may just have -- (laughter) -- that people will be happy to get a Pulitzer Prize writing about it, no matter how much they like me or don't like me. But -- so that's the reality. That's the first thing I tell them.
The second thing is in today's press we do have some challenges with today's press. And today's press, there's not a license that I'm aware of to write a blog or a license to get out there, and you can do it so fast now that you can do it before people can think. And people can read it before they think. So the story gets this momentum before thoughtful people have had a chance to say, OK, what's happening here?
In my particular case, the Rolling Stone embed was one of many embeds we were doing. I didn't agree with the tone. I didn't agree with the conclusions that people were likely to draw from that article. But when it put the president in a very difficult position -- my job as a commander is not to put him in a difficult position. My job is to make the president's job easier. And so I offered my resignation because that's what I'm supposed to do. And I didn't -- it didn't bother me to offer it to him. It bothered me that I'd put him in that position, but it didn't bother me to do that, because that felt right. And it didn't bother me he accepted it, because I felt that I had done the right thing and we're on good -- we're on good terms now because of that.
I'm just sorry it happened. Could I have done things differently to prevent that? No doubt. But, you know, of all the mistakes I've made in my life -- and there are plenty -- there was much less to that one, when all the smoke's said and done, than to a lot of others.
BROKAW: Well, your audience deserves to know that the Defense Department inspector general has done a review of that, and has concluded that there was no basis for any accusation that you violated the Defense Code of Conduct in it, and could not ultimately resolve what in fact happened, even though Rolling Stone continues to stand by the story. For the record, I'm an old snake -- (laughter) -- and, you know, what venom and fangs I had before have been greatly diluted. (Laughter.) So you're in fairly good company here tonight. But I have made notice of what you did say, so I don't -- (laughter) -- forget that.
Right here in front.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Mary -- (off mic).
BROKAW: Can you wait for the microphone, please?
QUESTIONER: Oh, I'm sorry. Mary Palmer, with Gibson, Dunn & Chrysler.
Just to follow up on that, how would you describe your relationship with President Obama, and -- well, I guess it's, you know -- the article, was it the article that poisoned -- or, that was the only thing that caused you to resign?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. Absolutely. My relationship with President Karzai (sic), I -- or, President Obama -- I thought and I think was good. We went through a very difficult process with the request for additional forces. That put a fairly new administration into a very difficult decision-making mode, and there's no way I could get around that. I was asked to do an assessment; I did what I think was absolutely accurate, and then you just have to work through it, and made a tough decision. I thought he did a very impressive job of navigating through that. The -- so it's very good.
Having said that, when you look at long-distance relationships between senior leaders, and at that point I was in a senior leader job, they're extraordinarily important. They're just -- there has to be a personal underpinning to it that is very, very important. And I guess what I would say, in retrospect, I probably didn't do as good enough job connecting with President Obama as I would have liked to. I had a great relationship with Secretary Gates and Mike Mullen and all that, a lot of interaction.
I think it's important, and I think it's part of my responsibility to really do that so that he understands what's in my mind and what's in my heart, because I'm executing his policy. And that's really important. So I -- you know, sort of in the rearview mirror, I critique myself, I could have done that better.
BROKAW: All right. One more question from this side. Right here on the aisle.
QUESTIONER: Jeffrey Laurenti, with the Century Foundation.
General, the Obama administration appears to be operating on two tracks, one looking to see whether a negotiated peace can be reached with the Taliban -- and you might have some thoughts on that -- but the other, the default, what do we do if that is not possible, and you're going to have the prospect of long-term struggle?
What do you see as the long-term requirement for an American military presence in Afghanistan after 2014? What level of engagement? Right now, many Afghans think if the Americans leave, this government in Kabul will just collapse. By 2015 and on, do you have a sense that it will at least be able to hold the cities? What would be a its sustainable capacity in an ongoing situation of civil war with foreign troops substantially reduced, if not almost entirely gone?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. That's a great question because it's really at the heart of it. We have to reduce the number of foreign troops simply because we've increased the number of Afghan forces, police and military. They will have the numerical capacity to do it. They'll have the skill, the basic skills to do it. So we should decrease; it's time that they do that. It's the natural evolution.
They can do it. It's a question of confidence. I think what is most important is that they believe that we are over the shoulder. I think it means a limited number, a few thousand Americans there providing continued training, continued support. But even more than that, it's the promise of American strategic partnership that says hey, we're here for you. We are your partners. It's going to -- it's going to be OK. I think with that, that is the biggest component of what we can provide.
If they don't find that credible, then I think it will be much harder for them to be effective. If they find that credible, I think the number of people we have there will not be hugely important. I think we'll have to help them with a lot of technical things for a bit.
I think Pakistan's the same way. If Pakistan were to get comfortable enough to essentially tell Afghanistan, OK, we're on your side; we want you to succeed, then I think it also decreases a tremendous amount of the pressure. If the Afghans don't believe that -- no matter what the Pakistanis think in their hearts, if the Afghans don't believe that, they think they're plotting and working against them, then the same thing. It makes it very difficult, and almost the number of troops we have there doesn't matter. I mean, no matter how many you have, it's very difficult to be effective.
BROKAW: Final question, General. For all of your young life and your adult life you have been a military man, a soldier's soldier. And in a matter of 24 hours, you crossed over to the dark side -- you became a civilian. (Laughter.) So what's been the biggest adjustment to be a civilian and to be out of uniform?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. The first thing -- and quite honestly, I miss the people I worked with and I miss the mission, because I felt very strongly about it. So you go through that. It's kind of like a loss thing, and you feel very bad you didn't finish what you started. And then you transition to form a new life.
And I had -- my wife and I had been apart for many years because I'd been deployed and she at home. And my son had been, in seven years, getting his four-year degree -- (laughter) -- at Florida State. So we'd all been in different locations.
So in a -- (chuckles) -- in a matter of about two weeks, I resigned from the military, we went and picked up my son and his fiance and we brought them to Northern Virginia. My wife and I are back together, so now from four of us in separate locations, we're four in one -- and they brought their cat, so it's five of us. (Laughter.) And we move into a house my wife had bought a few years ago and had been renting, and so we moved into that.
So now it's the nuclear family unit. And I wasn't in charge. I wasn't even in the chain of command. (Laughter.) And so that's been different. It's been good, but it's -- it's different. (Laughter.) So that's really been a big thing.
And then, as I try to figure out how do I want to contribute, because that's really important. I teach, as you mentioned. I teach leadership, and that -- that's real important to me, and I'm trying to find other ways. I work with a small number of guys that I feel good about, but it's trying to find what do you hang onto that really feels right? So if I find it, I'll let you know.
BROKAW: Well, I want to, just one more time, acknowledge that this evening has been really remarkable, and I think that we have all been enlightened by his candor and by his insights. And it's been made possible by HBO and Richard Plepler, who is the sponsor of "The History Makers" series. And we have been in the presence of a history maker here tonight, and I think we all owe him a warm round of applause. (Applause.)
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