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TIME’s Interview with General Stanley McChrystal

30 minute read
Aryn Baker

As commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal has inherited a 7½-year war that appears to be getting worse. Yet U.S. Congressmen have given him only a year to turn it around. In a wide-ranging interview with TIME magazine on the back porch of his office at ISAF headquarters in downtown Kabul, McChrystal discussed his new approach to the Afghan fight, why the military alone can’t be a solution and what he’s currently reading on his new Kindle.

TIME: Tell me how the operation in Helmand is going.
General McChrystal: It’s too early to predict success. They just started.

(See pictures of the U.S. Marines’ new offensive in Afghanistan.)

How would you define success?
What we are trying to do is change the dynamics in the area where we are operating. The current operations that you are hearing about in the Helmand River valley are aimed at areas that are major population centers. They were also areas under Taliban control. They are also a nexus of the poppy trade. So if you describe the Helmand River valley as the breadbasket of the poppy trade and where the Taliban gets a lot of resources and support, what we are trying to do is take the area away from it.

The operations are not aimed at the enemy force — they are aimed at taking away the population from the enemy. As you know, in classic counterinsurgency, if they lose access to the population, they lose. That is what we are focusing on.

So how do you measure that?
It takes time. First thing is, if you take a very small area, you have to try and figure out what is going on in that area. First you have to understand what’s going on. It’s like knowing what is going on in your neighborhood. Not just the traffic on the road, but how money is made, who is running rule of law, who do they go to when they have dispute adjudication — do they go to a Taliban shadow court, a government of Afghanistan official entity? So you try to look at a whole range of things. There are some overt indicators, close of traffic, commerce, people’s ability to interact. Then there are many more that are subtle — you have to get at the attitudes of the people. And that is why I say you have to immerse yourself in it and understand it before you can confidently assess it.

(See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)

The Helmand op was in the works long before you arrived. Did you just rubber-stamp it, or did you change it?
I actually don’t have a rubber stamp. I have to get one. I went down and sat down with the RC South commander, and I didn’t put specific changes to timelines or where forces were going, but we talked a lot about the coin intent and the purposes of the operation and the importance of the hold and build — we can clear anywhere we want, but holding and building are hard — so ensuring that the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] come in with the Marines, so that they do the partnership up front and in the hold and build. We talked a lot about that, to ensure that we are moving in the right direction there.

There is an awful lot of energy moving towards protecting civilians, but you can’t have too much energy. I believe that I have emphasized that across the force, which has probably reached some people, it is my intent to do that. So I think that is a major evolution and shift in the way that we do business.

The p.r. release on Helmand op — no indirect fire, no bombardments? Where did this come from?
I don’t know if they are reading my mind, but they are certainly following my intent. If you think about going into an area to protect the population, if you go into an area and no shots are fired but you achieve control, the population is going to feel a lot better. On the other hand, if you come in and you destroy buildings, homes, you may take the ground, but the population is left impoverished — they may have suffered casualties among their civilians — and then to turn and ask for their support, it will be different. So what we really want is the equivalent of a peaceful takeover, where the Taliban are forced out.

But such a public message on the use of arms?
Why shouldn’t I? I want the Afghan people to know what we are about. I am not scared about the Taliban knowing that we are going to go protect the population, because at the end of the day, they can’t stop us. They can resist that, but they can’t stop us from doing that. So I think everyone knowing that that is our intent reinforces with the Afghan populace that obviously we are on their side. But it also reinforces in our force that that is the important thing. It’s not killing Talibans, it is protecting the population and giving them the opportunity to smooth their way.

This isn’t just for the duration of this operation, but the remainder of the war. They are not prohibited [from using aerial bombardment], and there are cases where we will absolutely use kinetic operations, and there are times when that will be required. But that will not be the objective. We will do that when we have to, not as our going-in precepts.

See pictures of suicide in recruiters’ ranks.

Watch a video on the challenge for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

What has been the reaction among your men?
I am sure there have been concerns by any force that says, If you limit their range of operations, then they are going to have to naturally rethink how they operate. For some, that is no change from where they have been going with this. And I think that is evident in some of the success they have had. But others may have to maybe rethink a conventional approach that they might have had before. It’s a tough war, a very tough war.

How are you going to get that message down to the guys in the fight, who are used to depending on air support?
Well, one, we have an extraordinarily intelligent and mature force now. We have had for a number of years. The way I would frame it to them is, Suppose the insurgent occupies an enemy home or village and engages you from there, with the clear idea that when you respond, you are going to create collateral damage. He’s going to blame that on you. Even if you kill the insurgent there — and in many cases you don’t, you just destroy a lot of things — you get a tactical success and near-term satisfaction because you went after the fly with the sledgehammer. What happens is, you have made the insurgency wider. You are going to run into more IEDs (improvised explosive devices), you are going to run into more insurgents, you are going to run into a more difficult place. At the end of the day you are going to suffer more casualties. Our effort is going to be harder and potentially unsuccessful. So what I am asking them to do is just step back and take a more strategic look and try to put themselves in the position of the Afghan people.

(See pictures of Afghanistan’s dangerous Korengal valley.)

I know that is something we say easily, but if you really put yourself in the position of someone who is living in a small village, they may have been coerced or at least influenced by the insurgents. When you arrive, they are uncertain about you — they don’t know you either. They are not automatically going to run out and embrace you, because, one, they have seen a lot of people come and go before. Many saw the Russians come and go. And so they are naturally cautious. And if they associate your arrival with damage and death, they are probably more cautious than that. So this is exceptionally complex stuff. It is not just as easy as being good people and they are going to love us. You’ve got to convince them with actions over time.

Last week you delivered a firm directive to your commanders in a morning brief. There had been an incident in which civilians were killed when soldiers ordered a strike on a compound from which they were receiving fire. In the brief you ordered your commanders to “stop dropping compounds.” Can you tell me more about this?
What we have done is written a tactical directive. And it provides my intent on how we are going to execute operations in general [to be released soon]. But specifically, the use of deadly force. The reason I spent a lot of time personally writing that intent is because I wanted to make sure that before they went into the specific dos and don’ts, that they understood the framework and the concept behind it. And the concept behind it is that although you are still authorized to use close air support when you need to — and I lay out some very specific conditions that they must meet to do that; we don’t take it away because there are those unique conditions where you need to do it, and I am not going to put the force in a position where they don’t have those available when those conditions arise — but, in this case, I was referring back to a couple of cases where they had met the conditions and they had engaged compounds, and I said, “O.K., everybody, I am not going to argue over your decision over each compound, but I am going to go back to my intent, and my intent is, Stop dropping compounds.” Because it is not just civilian casualties. It’s also, if we go into an area to save it, and when we have finished saving it there is tremendous physical damage, I am just not sure that if I were an Afghan villager I would associate us with liberation.

What I know after a very extensive time both here and in Iraq is, if you don’t put yourself in their shoes and you oversimplify what they might think, you are just wrong.

There has not been blowback. In fact, almost everyone I talk to says, I absolutely understand where you are going, and we understand what we are trying to do. Sometimes people say, But what if…? I just go back and I say, We put instances in the directive where in certain cases if you have to use it, you can.

See pictures of Osama bin Laden.

See pictures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at LIFE.com.

[Defense Secretary Robert] Gates spoke of your “fresh eyes.” What have they shown you?
The first thing I was struck by when I got here was that the security situation is very serious. I am not saying catastrophic, but it is very serious, and it warrants a very serious effort. So that didn’t shock me, but it reinforced things that I had been seeing. The other observation is that there has been a tremendous number of people here doing a lot of good work — and that means the ANSF, parts of the Afghanistan government, UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan], NGOs, doing a lot of good work — that said, I don’t think it has been as well coordinated and unified as it needs to be successful. And so I wasn’t surprised by that, but I was struck by the challenge of the task to pull it all together into a unified international effort. And that to me is an absolute prerequisite for success.

The thing that surprised me about this was the level and energy and passion for this mission that I have seen among so many people involved, right after I was told I was going to be sent here. I started getting e-mails and phone calls from people I knew who wanted to come. And these were people who had been here before. Many away from their families for a long time. One of my aides, who had only six months before come back from a tough assignment in Samarra, Iraq — he volunteered to go. And the energy that I found in that group of people and here in the embassy. It’s not what you’d think after eight years. You’d think there would be cynicism, you would think there would be fatigue, but it is actually the opposite — it’s a sense of resolve, so I guess the best word I can say is passionate. And that surprised me, and it’s been really heartening.

(Read “Why the Pentagon Axed Its Afghanistan Warlord.”)

You estimate 18 to 24 months to start seeing progress, but back in D.C., lawmakers want to see results in a year. How do you rectify this?
It’s going to take longer than 18 to 24 months to make permanent progress. What I want to see here in stages is, first, if in a fairly limited time we can focus our force on fighting the war that we want to fight, the right kind of counterinsurgency strategy; and second, if we can organize ourselves, in terms of command and control structures, in terms of unity of effort, in terms of all working together. The increase in civilian capacity that is coming in — how we lash that together — I am hoping that we can do that in a matter of months, not years. Then when I sense that we have the team moving in an even better direction than it has ever before, then I think we will start to see progress on the ground.

(See pictures of the U.S. Army Reserve.)

Your thoughts on the size of the ANSF? What’s your estimate on how big it should be?
It’s more than we have got right now. I am not going to go out with a number until we finish our strategic assessment, because I want to make sure it fits with all the different parts. Right now the army is authorized to 134 [thousand]. I think that is too small. A country of this size is simply going to have a police-and-army component that is going to have to reach into all areas and also protect their sovereignty. In the near term I think there is less of a threat of conventional things, so I think we are going to have to increase both the army and the police above what is currently allotted.

And U.S. troops?
I am really letting the strategic assessment inform that decision. As much as I can, I am really trying to keep my mind from jumping to conclusions before all the brains we have brought together have done their thing. I think when we look at coin requirements, you can’t ignore it, and you can’t assume it’s wrong, but the coin requirements have never been an absolute cookie cutter. We are using some additional technology here, ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance], which gives us a little bit more ability to cover more terrain. And we don’t have the insurgency in all parts of the country, so if you go square miles of the number of populace, it’s really not at the same levels in most of the country. It’s primarily in the south and the east, and then some pockets in the north and west, so if we look at that, we may have different force requirements than 600,000.

See pictures of British soldiers in Afghanistan.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.

The 1994 incident … [McChrystal was a lieut. colonel with the 82nd Airborne Division when a flaming F-16 jet plowed into a parked C-141 at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, killing 18 of his troops as they prepared for parachute jumps. This mention in the interview was accompanied by an instant change in tone. He went from animated to muted, and there was a long silence of nine seconds.]
I had been in command for almost a year … We had just finished a joint readiness training, where you build up a team. What we had done, we had a year of team-building in preparation for that event. Very quickly after that, we had the accident, which was completely unexpected. Not only did we lose so many killed, but a tremendous number who were badly injured, and so even those who died, didn’t do it that minute but over time — one almost a year [later]. Most of them were burn wounds. What that did for me was, first off, you watch your soldiers who had just died, and you watch your soldiers die over a period of time, and you watch those who are significantly permanently injured — amputees, the horrific impact of burns — but what I took away from that was the importance of the team.

What happened right there was that the team came together. They all came together in this sense of, we are going to take care of each other. We sent our own paratroopers to bury each of our own killed. What I took away from that was, as you are going to do anything difficult, as you are going to steel yourself for anything that is going to be hard, you build that team first. You can’t prepare for an accident. What you prepare is the people in the team and the trust between them, and that will then withstand even the unexpected. I have the same thought process now.

And how does it help you relate to air-strike victims?
Because you affect several different populations if you make a mistake like that. First you affect one village, and you have got to first think, What is the impact, and what can I do about it? And you have got to think, How do they perceive it? Do they know we made a mistake, or do they think we don’t care? And so we have to communicate that to them in a way that is understandable. And we have to understand that they don’t understand. If we just say, “Mistake, sorry,” that is different. And then you have to look at your own forces as well, because the impact of making a mistake with huge consequences affects the force. It can make you less confident. It can make you less unified. So even if you don’t make a mistake — if you had a bad outcome even if your actions were right — there is an impact on the force. So it all goes back to teamwork and trust in each other.

(Read “Why Obama’s Afghan War Is Different.”)

Shock and awe — technological war. It’s now different. What does this say?
I think what we do learn … the most important thing in war is the human being. In this war, the human being is the most important thing in every point. The most important is the human being in the Afghan population that is making their decision on who they are going to back. It is more important than the enemy. Because at the end of the day, the Taliban, each of them are making a decision to participate in an insurgency, and we are trying to convince them that was a mistake. Some of them we won’t be able to convince, and some we will. And then the most important is us too. Because everything we do that is technological is operated by a human being, the person on the trigger. It’s the practiced, experienced maturity, it’s not the responding.

You know, you drive into an area and an IED kills some of your comrades. The emotional response is to lash out. It is absolutely the wrong response. And so the degree with which we can build maturity and restraint — there is a time to kill, but that time is very carefully thought through, and it is as precise as you can be, and it is when there are no other options. So I think the human-being part of it … if we went back to the concept of shock and awe, those are designed to shock command and control systems. And nations. You can shock and awe human beings, but it doesn’t last. I’ve seen operations where kinetic strikes would go in on a target, and the enemy would come out shooting. They weren’t awed.

Watch a video on the challenge for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Any anecdotes to share?
There have been an awful lot. Let me think … There are a lot of them, and all teach me something different. Spring 2008, went to a FOB [forward-operating base], we had launched a raid, and our guys had been in combat at 5-m distance, so much so that one of the young sergeants had to pick up an enemy machine gun and keep fighting. Another had, although wounded, already picked up a hand grenade that came on his position and attempted to throw it back and lost half of his arm in the process. I saw him later with a prosthetic arm, and he was upbeat and focused, and as I sat with those guys that night, it was the focused professionalism of those guys. It was amazing — they were not shook. And [I said], “O.K., where were you on 9/11?” And I was a general officer, and he looked at me and said, “Sir, I was in sixth grade.” And that reminded me of something. It reminded me of what kind of force we had. I’ll think of others.

More in general, what did your previous time in the country teach you?
Because I got to see a fair amount of the country and the focus on the gathering of the operations enabled by intelligence, it was the need to understand what was happening. The focus on not looking at the superficial or most obvious. It’s the trying to get several layers down into what happened. Because as we would try to conduct operations in an area, the most obvious was usually the most incorrect. So you had to get down to what the motivation of somebody we had identified as an insurgent really is. Who is he connected to? It is not a monolithic enemy here. And they have been fighting for 30 years, and they have got lots of different reasons for fighting, and I am not sure there are two different people out there with the same reason for the fight. And so you have to be careful not to think you are going against a foe with a single doctrine or single motivation.

What benchmarks will be most important to track your progress?
I think it will be governance. We are going to do security. But that is to enable governance. At the end of the day, the amount of the population, the percentage of the population in the areas we serve, that we can provide enough legitimate governance in the eyes of the individuals, will determine our effectiveness. Because we are competing with the Taliban for influence and control of the population. The analogy that a smart young guy I work with is that it is an argument. In conventional war, what you do is, you have an argument, and when the argument is over, you start fighting. And no one thinks during the fight, afterwards you will end up going to the peace table. And you end up with a completely different outcome than you wanted. Counterinsurgency is an ongoing argument. Everything you do in an operation or influence is trying to convince the population in one way or the other. So my metric is our success in the argument. It’s not the enemy killed, it’s not ground taken. It’s how much governance we’ve got and where governance goes. It’s people’s willingness to conduct normal lives. But here you have to know what normal is. It’s not the same in Kabul as Barakat.

There are all kinds of metrics. From freedom of movement to polling data to assessments from different parts — economic activity. But you have to do a very detailed analysis, because if your metric isn’t right, in terms of how you measure — so you have to take all the metrics together.

Will you be setting benchmarks?
There are a lot of efforts to set benchmarks. I think we have to be careful in that, because if they are too brittle — if you say 60% of people must have running water or whatever — you run the risk of that not being a really accurate assessment of the situation. So it has to be a lot more subtle. But you do have to have a way of pulling these together and knowing when you are making progress.

Any public benchmarks?
They are fairly broad. The progress in governance, reduction in corruption. I think our job and my job is to have the best outcome I can for Afghanistan. So I think I am partnered with a lot of people — Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador — and you can’t say, O.K., you are security, you are governance — that won’t work. They overlap so much that you have got to be partnered. And down at the lowest levels where the captains and sergeants are operating, it’s absolutely overlapped.

See pictures of Osama bin Laden.

See pictures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at LIFE.com.

You have lost at least seven men to IEDs since you arrived. What does this say about the way we fight this war?
What they are doing is multi — for one, they have found a tactic that can create casualties. They found a tactic that they don’t have to stand and fight against Afghan and coalition forces. They have found a tactic that can be employed by anyone, any age, any sex, whatever. More importantly, we have to look at what this tells us about their capabilities and intent. We know that IEDs have a tremendous psychological impact on everyone — on the population, on the coalition forces, on the ANSF. We also know they inhibit freedom of movement. So to the degree that they stop you or hinder you from going into an area, they can protect sanctuaries for insurgents. So what we are looking at hard right now is not only how we can combat them but also what are they trying to do with them, what is their real intent. What we found, in Iraq and here, is that at the end of the day, there is no single technological silver bullet. What you have to do is establish rule of law and control, so that placing IEDs is very difficult and not accepted by the populace. And you drive them down that way.

A large part of those IED components come from Pakistan. How vital is your success here to the elimination of safe havens across the border?
It’s a regional problem. Our success in Afghanistan and Pakistan — they are unique situations that are linked inextricably — I think that we can’t be entirely successful here unless there is some measure of success against Afghan Taliban and other al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Similarly, and I met with General [Ashfaq] Kayani yesterday, I don’t think that they can be entirely successful in maintaining security in the tribal areas unless Afghanistan is a stable state, so I think there is a shared mutual interest because they both feed on each other.

Does the Pakistan military have the ability to fight that war? What is your strategy to help them?
I don’t think the hammer-and-anvil metaphor works here, because frankly, there is not enough force on either side to be hammer or anvil. I do think that as we both do counterinsurgency, it has a less obvious controlling factor against the people who operate. What we are doing is reducing the relative safe haven on either side. There is a long way to go with this, though. I don’t want to give the impression that we are near success on either side. I believe that their resolve to deal with threats like Baitullah Mehsud is absolutely genuine. I think that there is a focus both articulated by their leadership but also by the number of soldiers lost to their commitment on this. I think that both of us will have to stay at it. There will be twists and turns and ups and downs, but on both sides of the border, there is an understanding of what has to be done.

The 60-day review?
I think it is going well. We didn’t start from scratch. We are using previous assessments that were done last fall and winter. And so what we are doing is bringing in a lot of smart people and letting them do their business. It allows us to bring talent to focus. It gives me time to take a look and not make any decisions before their time. But I think it is going to validate some things we are doing and will shape our thinking. I don’t think we are going to open the 60-day plan at the end and suddenly have a new plan, new structure. But I think it is part of a … the process is as important as the product. So if you set aside Aug. 15 to wait for the review, well, you might want to buy a book.

What things will it validate?
I think decisions already made, like the civil-military-planning ongoing on the U.S. side to uplift the people, I think that it is going to validate that it is absolutely the right thing to do. I think it is going to validate the idea that we need to focus in on the areas most important to us in the beginning, because we don’t have enough forces to go everywhere and do anything. I think it is going to highlight the seriousness of the situation and underpin our priorities and focus.

Watch a video on the challenge for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

I understand you have the new Kindle. What are you reading?
The Afghan Wars, from 2002. I listen to most books on my iPod. I listen when I work out, and I read when I have time. My wife puts all the books on my Kindle for me.

[He shows it to me. He has underlined a quote in the book: “There is no kingdom without an army, no army without wealth, no wealth without material prosperity and no material prosperity without justice.”]

I am a big believer in justice. I believe people fight when they don’t have justice. And so if you want to stop this fighting, let’s bring justice.

How do you do that?
In the most basic way, we provide an environment in which they can set up enough rules of law and have justice. But we can’t just go in and say, “O.K., we provided security, you guys have a good day,” and walk away. It’s so interrelated that we have to do it in partnership with the Afghan government and all the different agencies that bring expertise to help set up rule of law. It’s got to be done in partnership. If you go in and provide security, and there is a lag in the time it takes to provide governance and development, then they are just occupied. And that is not what they want.

Do you think you have the tools to provide all this?
We can always use more tools. The first and foremost is, if they offered me a choice between two more divisions or 1,000 people who spoke Pashto and Dari and had a passion for this place, I would absolutely take the 1,000. Actually, I’d even take 500 over those two divisions. Because that is the leverage here. It’s the people who understand the situation. It’s not blunt instruments that work. You do need some straight military boots on the ground, numbers to provide, so it can’t be all just expertise. But at the end of the day, it has to be an Afghan solution, and for us to help, we have to understand. We have to develop relationships, we have to have continuity, we have to have ownership. You can’t do that on short tours where you come in and you are going to go back to your old job and not be waiting for the outcome.

Can you think of any other interesting, educational experiences here in Afghanistan?
Some years ago I went to a little village called Kantiwa, up in Kunar province. It’s way up there: there is no road, several hours from the closest road, and we were looking for a bad guy. And as we got up there, several things struck me. We had a vision of what it would be like, and we were planning to offer the villagers a road to the area. First thing that struck me was that there were electric lights — in the middle of nowhere. They had a little water-powered generator system. And then as we talked with them, there was a countergovernment feeling there, but it wasn’t ideological. It certainly wasn’t Islamic extremism. And we told them we were going to bring them a road. And they said, “Oh no, no roads. If you put a road here, people will drive up and take our timber.” Right away that teaches you that if you don’t understand, and you put in a road — just like Greg Mortenson found out [when] he wanted to build a school but the villagers needed a bridge — sometimes you have to stop and figure things out. They are not illogical. They are rational. So what they want and why they do things is often based on things we don’t understand. So first, you have got to understand that, and then go from there.

You are known for your handwritten notes — of thanks, consolation or congratulations. Why do you do this?
Because I believe that I must thank the people I work with, and I think if you write a handwritten note — that I took the time to sit down and write — if I typed it, people may think that I may have dictated it or written 50 of the same and just signed it. And I also find that if I hand-write it, it also makes me stop and think — think about the casualties. It makes me think about everyone.

You wrote seven notes of consolation on your first day.
I’ve been in war a long time, so it wasn’t the sudden shock of losing people. But if you read the circumstances of every servicemember’s death, it makes you think about what you are doing here. It stops being a number and becomes a person. If you write their next of kin, it makes you realize the impact on them as well.

See pictures of British soldiers in Afghanistan.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.

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