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Gen. McChrystal, Part I
Following are excerpts from U.S. General Stanley McChrystal’s controversial address in London to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Oct. 1, 2009. Controversial because some say McChrystal was perhaps a bit too public with his thoughts, many of which go against the views of President Obama’s staff and cabinet. The president himself has yet to weigh in.
People ask me this question all the time; many people offer their own suggestions. There is a multitude of approaches to what to do. Some people say that we should focus primarily on development; others say that we should conduct a counterterrorist-focused battle, given that this really started after 9/11 and Al-Qaeda’s strikes. Other people say that we should conduct counterinsurgency (COIN). A paper has been written that recommends that we use a plan called ‘Chaosistan,’ and that we let Afghanistan become a Somalia-like haven of chaos that we simply manage from outside.
I arrived in Afghanistan in May 2002 and I have spent a part of every year since then involved in the effort. I have learned a tremendous amount about it and, every day, I realize how little about Afghanistan I actually understand. I discount immediately anyone who simplifies the problem or offers a solution, because they have absolutely no idea of the complexity of what we are dealing with.
In Afghanistan, things are rarely as they seem, and the outcomes of actions we take, however well-intended, are often different from what we expect. If you pull the lever, the outcome is not what you have been programmed to think. For example, digging a well sounds quite simple. How could you do anything wrong by digging a well to give people clean water? Where you build that well, who controls that water, and what water it taps into all have tremendous implications and create great passion.
If you build a well in the wrong place in a village, you may have shifted the basis of power in that village. If you tap into underground water, you give power to the owner of that well that they did not have before, because the traditional irrigation system was community-owned. If you dig a well and contract it to one person or group over another, you make a decision that, perhaps in your ignorance, tips the balance of power, or perception thereof, in that village.
Therefore, with a completely altruistic aim of building a well, you can create divisiveness or give the impression that you, from the outside, do not understand what is going on or that you have sided with one element or another, yet all you tried to do is provide water.
There is another complexity that people do not understand and which the military have to learn: I call it ‘COIN mathematics.’ Intelligence will normally tell us how many insurgents are operating in an area. Let us say that there are 10 in a certain area. Following a military operation, two are killed. How many insurgents are left? Traditional mathematics would say that eight would be left, but there may only be two, because six of the living eight may have said, ‘This business of insurgency is becoming dangerous so I am going to do something else.’
There are more likely to be as many as 20, because each one you killed has a brother, father, son and friends who do not necessarily think that they were killed because they were doing something wrong. It does not matter – you killed them. Suddenly, then, there may be 20, making the calculus of military operations very different. Yet we are asking young corporals, sergeants and lieutenants to make those kinds of calculations and requiring them to understand the situation. They have to – there is no simple workaround.
It is that complex: where you build the well, what military operations to run, who you talk to. Everything that you do is part of a complex system with expected and unexpected, desired and undesired outcomes, and outcomes that you never find out about. In my experience, I have found that the best answers and approaches may be counterintuitive; i.e., the opposite of what it seems like you ought to do is what ought to be done. When I am asked what approach we should take in Afghanistan, I say ‘humility.’
The answer to this question starts with some generally accepted truths about Afghanistan, which we all know to be true:
--Afghanistan has never been ruled by a strong central government.
All three are untrue. If you ask an Afghan what he is, he will say, ‘I am an Afghan.’ There have been strong central governments, although different from what you think of as central government. In the sense of governance, there have been periods when Afghanistan absolutely had a central government. Therefore, we have to start by not accepting any of the generally accepted ‘bumper sticker’ truths.
In terms of real truths, it is complex, difficult terrain, both in terms of land and people. It is also a tribal society with a culture that is vastly different from what most of us are familiar with. There are variations around the country; you cannot assume that what is true in one province is true in another. That goes for ethnic, geographic and economic issues. You cannot even assume that what is true in one valley is true in the next any more than you can assume that one neighborhood in London is exactly the same as another. We would not generalize here, yet sometimes, as outsiders, we want to do that.
I would also remind people that we have been waging a war for eight years, yet the Afghans have been at it for 30. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is 44 years, so not many people remember pre-conflict life in Afghanistan. Of those 30 years, about 10 were spent fighting the Soviets, followed by six years of ‘warlordism’ and a further six years of Taliban rule and civil rule, and the last eight years have been eight more years of fighting.
One elder said something that really struck me one night as we were talking: ‘What you see in Afghanistan now is a reflection of pieces of each of those eras.’ It is now a mosaic of the experiences of all those eras. If you think about the impact of 30 years on people and on a society, calculations change. The certainty that you have when you walk through your neighborhood in London is not the certainty that they have. The expectation of the future is not the expectation that they may have. The opportunities to be educated and to associate with different ethnic groups, which have become more of a challenge in recent years, are very different.
The society is what I would call ‘damaged.’ Individuals may not be damaged, but the society is not as it was. It is not so uniformly; nor can you say ‘it is all different here.’ Tribal structures, relationships and expectations are uncertain now. When you go into a village in a Pashtun area, traditionally you could have predicted what the role and interrelationships of the mullah or the elders would be. That is no longer true. It varies based upon the experience of that area. In some areas, some have disproportionate influence and others have none. Some have been killed. In other cases, elements like the Taliban have come in and completely turned upside down the traditional structures. You can also not assume that traditional structures have disappeared, so you have to go in and learn what the structure is and how people deal with it.
What we face, then, is a uniquely complex environment, where there are at least three regional and resilient insurgencies, with further sub-insurgencies. They have intersected on top of a dynamic blend of local power struggle in a country damaged by 30 years of war. You then run into someone who raises their finger and says ‘here is the solution’ – they can have my job.
We also face a crisis of confidence. Afghans are frustrated after the most recent eight years of war, because in 2001 their expectations skyrocketed. Along with the arrival of coalition forces, they expected a positive change. They saw that initially and then waited for other changes – economic development and improvements in governance – that, in many cases, may have been unrealistic but, in many cases, were unmet. Therefore, there was a mismatch between what they had hoped for and what they have experienced. Again, as we learn in all societies, expectations and perceptions often matter as much as the reality.