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Gen. McChrystal, Part II
Following are further comments from General Stanley McChrystal’s controversial address in London to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Oct. 1, 2009.
What Is the Situation Now?
The situation is serious, and I choose that word very carefully. I would add that neither success nor failure for our endeavor in support of the Afghan people and government can be taken for granted. My assessment and my best military judgment is that the situation is, in some ways, deteriorating, but not in all ways.
I can also point out areas in which tremendous progress is evident: the construction of roads, provision of clean water, access to healthcare, the presence of children in school, and access to education for females. All of these are up dramatically and hugely positive, and portend well for the future.
However, a tremendous number of villagers live in fear, and there are officials who either cannot or do not serve their people effectively. Violence is on the increase, not only because there are more coalition forces, but also because the insurgency has grown. We need to reverse the current trends, and time does matter. Waiting does not prolong a favorable outcome. This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely, and nor will public support. However, the cruel irony is that, in order to succeed, we need patience, discipline, resolve and time.
A Battle of Minds and Perceptions
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. This is not like a football game with points on a scoreboard; it is more like a political debate, after which both sides announce that they won. That matters because we are not the scorekeepers: not NATO ISAF, not our governments, and not even our press. The perception of all of these entities will matter and they will affect the situation, but ultimately this is going to be decided in the minds and perceptions of the Afghan people of the Afghan government and of the insurgents, whether they can win or are winning, and, most importantly, the perception of the villager who casts his lot with the winner.
Villagers are supremely rational and practical people: they make the decision on who they will support, based upon who can protect them and provide for them what they need. If a villager lives in a remote area where the government or security forces cannot protect them from coercion or harm from insurgents, he will not support the government – it would be illogical. Similarly, if the government cannot provide him with rule of law, the basic ability to adjudicate requirements legally, or just enough services to allow him to pursue a likelihood, it is difficult for him to make a rational decision to support the government. The Taliban is not popular. It does not have a compelling context. What it has is proximity to the people and the ability to provide coercion and, in some cases, things like basic rule of law, based upon the fact that they are there and can put themselves in that position. The perception of the villager matters in terms of which side he should support, so winning the battle of perception is key.
I also think that winning the battle of perception, as it applies everywhere but particularly to us, is about credibility. As I told you, the situation is absolutely not deteriorating by every indicator, but I will not stand up and say that we are winning until I am told by indicators that we are winning. For me to stand up and claim good things that are not supported by data in order to motivate us and make us feel good very rapidly undermines our credibility. Our own forces are smart enough to do that, so I intend to tell people the best assessment that we can, as accurately as possible, and allow the facts to speak for themselves.
It Has Been Eight Years – Why Is It Not Better?
This is a fair question for the Afghan people and for societies that have supported this effort. It is true that, after eight years of tremendous effort and expenditure and the loss of good people, many things are worse. Why have eight years of effort not made things better? There are a number of complex reasons:
--Expectations – both expected and unexpected – were not met, which has created frustration.
--It took us longer than I wish it had to recognize this as a serious insurgency. As the Taliban started to regain its effectiveness, we lagged in terms of accepting that as a clear reality.
Through our actions, we – i.e. the coalition and its Afghan partners – sometimes exacerbate the problems.
--In some areas, we have underperformed; in others, we have under-coordinated.
--We have struggled with unity of effort, national agreements and chains of command that are complex to say the least.
--In some ways, we have not overcome some of our intrinsic disadvantages. We are operating in a very different culture, with language differences, relationships that do not exist and a complex situation that takes time to understand, yet we have not effectively developed enough expertise, continuity of people or sufficient numbers of language-trained people to deal with the situation as effectively as we could have.
--Most importantly, our own operational culture – and by ‘our’ I mean coalition forces – and manner of operating distances us physically and psychologically from the people who we seek to protect. We need to connect with people, yet physical or linguistic barriers make it increasingly difficult. Ultimately, our security comes from the people. We cannot build enough walls to protect ourselves if the people do not.
We can succeed. We must redefine the fight. The objective is the will of the Afghan people. We must protect the Afghan people from all threats: from the enemy and from our own actions. Let me describe it: a few days ago, just before we left to travel here, a bus south of Kandahar struck an improvised explosive device (IED) killing 30 Afghan civilians. That is tragic.
On the one hand, you might say that the Afghan people would recoil against the Taliban who left that IED. To a degree, they do, but we must also understand that they recoil against us because they might think that, if we were not there, neither would be the IED. Therefore, we indirectly caused the IED to be there. Second, we said that we would protect them, but did not. Sometimes, then, the most horrific events caused by the insurgents continue to reinforce in the minds of the Afghan people a mindset that coalition forces are either ineffective, or at least that their presence in Afghanistan is not in their interest. That does not happen all of the time. There are times when they feel differently, but you have to put things in that context to understand what we must do.
We also need to protect them from our own actions. When we fight, if we become focused on destroying the enemy but end up killing Afghan civilians, destroying Afghan property or acting in a way that is perceived as arrogant, we convince the Afghan people that we do not care about them. If we say, ‘We are here for you – we respect and want to protect you,’ while destroying their home, killing their relatives or destroying their crops, it is difficult for them to connect those two concepts. It would be difficult for us to do the same. The understanding, then, must be that we respect the people.
We must assign responsibility because, ultimately, the Afghans must defeat the insurgency. As a force, however, we must change our mindset. Whether or not we like it, we have a conventional warfare culture – not just our militaries but our societies. Our societies want to see lines on a map moving forward towards objectives, but you will not see that in a counterinsurgency because you do not see as clearly what is happening in people’s minds. We will have to do things dramatically and even uncomfortably differently in order to change how we think and operate.
In short, we cannot succeed by simply trying harder. We cannot drop three more bombs and have a greater effect; it is much more subtle than that.
In my mind, therefore, what we must do over the next period of time is:
--Gain the initiative by reversing the perceived momentum possessed by the insurgents.
--Seek rapid growth of Afghan national security forces – the army and the police.
--Improve their effectiveness and ours through closer partnering, which involves planning, living and operating together and taking advantage of each other’s strengths as we go forward. Within ISAF, we will put more emphasis on every part of that, by integrating our headquarters, physically co-locating our units, and sharing ownership of the problem.
--Address shortfalls in the capacity of governance and the ability of the Afghan government to provide rule of law.
--Tackle the issue of predatory corruption by some officials or by warlords who are not in an official position but who seem to have the ability, sometimes sanctioned by existing conditions, to do that.
--Focus our resources and priorities in those areas where the population is most threatened. We do not have enough forces to do everything at once, so this has to be prioritized and phased over time.
As you know, the concepts that I have outlined here are not new, but if we implement them aggressively and effectively, we can create a revolution in terms of our effectiveness. We must show resolve. Uncertainty disheartens our allies, emboldens our foe. A villager recently asked me whether we intended to remain in his village and provide security, to which I confidently promised him that, of course, we would. He looked at me and said, ‘Okay, but you did not stay last time.’
Afghanistan is difficult, so why bother? It is a long way away. It is not our business. As we know, however, 9/11 brought us here to the latest interaction, and transnational terrorist threats absolutely remain. I believe that the loss of stability in Afghanistan brings a huge risk that transnational terrorists such as Al-Qaeda will operate from within Afghanistan again.
I also believe that the stakes are high for Afghanistan and for the region. An unstable Afghanistan not only negatively affects what happens within its borders but also affects its neighbors. Afghanistan is, in many ways, one of the keys to stability in south Asia. A state that can provide its own security is important to all international security, and certainly to that of the UK, the U.S. and our international partnership. The Afghan people are worth bothering about and they deserve that.
In conclusion, I am exceptionally proud to serve at ISAF. Within my office, I have a picture of a British battle group, led by Lieutenant Colonel Gus Fair, with whom I worked for a long time in Iraq. He is with his soldiers, who I had the opportunity to speak with when I visited them during operations in Spin Majid this summer in the Helmand River valley. I keep that picture because, when I looked into their eyes, which were bloodshot with fatigue, I remember the extraordinary professionalism, competence and sheer courage of those young men. Whenever I come to London, I like to run through the city, and I particularly like the statues that you have erected to heroes. I hope that you erect one to that generation – they have earned it. Thank you.