Interview with General Stanley McChrystal

Interview with General Stanley McChrystal

By The Situation Room - December 9, 2009

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

General Stanley McChrystal is the U.S. ISAF NATO commander tasked with implementing President Barack Obama's strategy for Afghanistan. He's here in Washington right now testifying. He has been telling congressmen and senators how he plans with 30,000 new troops and an 18-month transition deadline to achieve success there.

He joins us now for a rare in-depth interview.

General McChrystal, thank you for joining us.


AMANPOUR: I've heard people say that the U.S. -- the international effort has been eight one-year wars. What is wrong with the way you've been fighting this war over the last eight years?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think as we go forward, what we really need to do is get consistency and constant focus. I think that what we have to do is focus on the strategic partnership with Afghanistan for the long term. Don't think in terms of six months, 18 months, or a year, but the fact that the president and our other leadership has guaranteed Afghanistan that we are there with them as partners. And it's consistency that's key.

AMANPOUR: But you've talked about not just refining the mission, but completely changing the way you think, the way you act, the way you operate.

What do you mean?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think that's important. The most important aspect is the Afghan people must under that we are operating on their behalf, we are partnering with them, we are working to protect them. And in our actions, that we respect them. And so, our mission is to support the government of Afghanistan's development, specifically in the security world -- it's the Afghan national security forces, the army and police -- so that we can build the capacity for them to protect their own sovereignty and their own people as time goes forward.

AMANPOUR: The strategy that you were given in March, was it overambitious, or did you overly, ambitiously interpret it? Because the new strategy is considerably different.

MCCHRYSTAL: I think the strategy that the president laid out to begin to reverse the Taliban momentum and begin to provide additional support for Afghan national security forces is pretty consistent. I think the process that we went through over the last months has been very valuable because it educated everyone to a greater degree and helped us refine our focus a bit. But I think we are still about helping the Afghans secure themselves and over time build their own nation.

AMANPOUR: Do you think that you can do what you have to do -- you said in the summertime that you needed at least 12 months to get this done, otherwise the mission is going to fail. Do you think now that you can achieve this mission?


AMANPOUR: You have all the resources you need?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we have all the resources programmed. They will begin to flow in, but I absolutely do. I'm confident we can.

AMANPOUR: I saw you testifying. I listened and watched the testimony on Capitol Hill, and at one point congressmen, senators were asking you, what is the mission? Is it to defeat the Taliban? Is it to degrade them? What actually is the mission?

MCCHRYSTAL: There are really two parts to it. If we think in terms of al Qaeda, it is to prevent the ability of al Qaeda or other international terrorists from coming into Afghanistan and using it for safe havens. Because as most people know, many of the 9/11 hijackers, in fact, were trained in camps inside Afghanistan.

The other part of the mission is in support of Afghanistan itself. It is to provide time and space for the government of Afghanistan to develop security capability, governance capability, begin development that allows them to protect their own sovereignty.

AMANPOUR: Right. But in terms of the war fighting -- because you've got now 30,000 new troops coming in, there was 21,000 already deployed under President Obama -- you also said that the south is going to be your initial focus, the heartland of the Taliban. You're going to be in amongst the population.

What does that mean in terms of fighting? Are you going to be fighting to get in there, fighting to keep the Taliban out, killing Taliban?

MCCHRYSTAL: At the end of the day, the insurgency needs access to the population to be effective. They need to be able to coerce the population, to tax the population, to recruit from the population, and to prevent the government from extending its governance into those areas.

So what we are going to do and what we have already started doing -- and you see in a number of areas, Garmsir, Nawa, and other areas -- where we provide security, we deny the insurgents the ability to operate and threaten the population. That lets them move on with their lives.

AMANPOUR: But how? I mean, are you going to draw in the Taliban? What are we going to see on the ground?

MCCHRYSTAL: What you'll see is areas that become increasingly secure. We will work with Afghan partners to establish security zones. And gradually, those security zones will grow in size, and as they connect to each other, they provide the ability for an Afghan farmer, for example, to raise crops in the central Helmand River Valley, and then to move with full security up to the markets of his choice. It might be Lashkar Gar, it might be Kandahar.

When you push the insurgents out, you deny them their ability. I am much less worried about killing insurgents, Taliban, than I am about securing the people.

AMANPOUR: But are you concerned about defeating the insurgency?

MCCHRYSTAL: That's how you defeat the insurgency. If you take away from them the opportunity to accomplish their mission, which is to get at the population, they are prevented from being successful. Over time, they become irrelevant, and they in fact are defeated.

AMANPOUR: What do you -- you spend a lot of time thinking about the inside of the head of the enemy, the terrorists, the insurgents, however you call them. What do you assess their position right now? Are they getting tired? Is the momentum -- can you change it in a reasonable time?

What do you assess their status to be?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think it's an interesting question because I think it is two different schizophrenic ideas. On the one hand, they've been able to rise violence in the last few years. It's steadily gone up. And there's been a crisis in the people of confidence of the government's ability to secure them.

So, I think that at the senior leadership of the insurgency, there's a tremendous amount of optimism and confidence. And we see that in some of their comments. AMANPOUR: Because they're winning?

MCCHRYSTAL: On the other hand, they perceive success in areas. On the other hand we see also a tremendous amount of angst, because at the lower levels, they have been forced out a number of areas. The increasing security that we create shows the Afghan people a better way and that the Taliban can be pushed out.

Their fighters are tired. We see a number that have already made extensive overtures to reintegrate back into the government. So I think we've got an insurgency that is sitting safely in what they consider are safe havens.

They are trying to exhort their forces who are closer to the fight, but the forces are having a tremendous problem right now and tremendous weakening. And so I think that they're finding that a problem.

AMANPOUR: At what point -- because you've said that they have the momentum, Admiral Mullen has said that they have the momentum -- at what point do you need to break that momentum to be able to secure success? Is it three months? Is it four, five, six?

MCCHRYSTAL: I don't think there's a date on the calendar, but I think we're already turning that momentum. I think the momentum is in the minds of people.

The output -- or the effect of a counterinsurgency campaign must be to change the perceptions of the people, to increase their confidence in the future. When we change the momentum, when the people perceive that things are getting better, that security is increasing, then the insurgency is put in a very difficult position, because they are losing that sense of momentum.

AMANPOUR: You've talked about the people, you said it will be the Afghan people who decide who wins and who loses.

We'll discuss that right after a break. We'll be back with General McChrystal.



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort, what that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.


AMANPOUR: That was President Obama during his speech announcing the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan.

And we're joined again by General Stanley McChrystal, who has to implement that strategy.

General, we've been talking about it's the people who are going to decide. It's them who are going to say who wins and who loses. And you have said that the greatest risk is to lose the support of the people, that the people, if they're against us, we cannot win, we have to have their support.

Can you have their support without giving them the basics of a life, of a dignified life, development?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think we can have their support. I think the most important thing that they desire now is security, and then some basic governance that allows them to shape their future.

I don't think they want us to build their nation. I think they want us to give them the opportunity to grow their own security capacity and their own governance capacity so they can do it.

AMANPOUR: Why do you think Americans are so queasy about the term "nation-building"? Because, frankly, the March speech that President Obama laid out was about nation-building. Your report was about how one needed to have nation-building.

Now, you can call it anything, state, nation-building, security building, stability building. But isn't that vital to successes?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think it is, but I also think it's ultimately an Afghan responsibility. They are going to need a lot of assistance and partnership from the international community. And I think we need to offer that to them, but we also need to remember that the responsibility ultimately allies with Afghans. We must enable them, but not do it for them.

AMANPOUR: You know, a lot of cynics have said the 82nd Airborne does not escort children to kindergarten. That was, in fact, Condoleezza Rice, before she became national security adviser, secretary of state.

But we're going to show some pictures now of your own soldiers in Afghanistan who we followed as they built an open school. And one of the colonels on the ground who since rotated out told me that, look, the only way you break the cycle of revenge in the future and fighting is not necessarily through hearts and minds, but by delivering hope and faith. That if we build them a school, they have the evidence right there that their life is going to be OK, or give them some electricity. And that, in turn, might develop a generation 20 years from now who will feel the effects of that.

Would you agree that your soldiers feel proud and actually like doing that job?

MCCHRYSTAL: Absolutely. I watch agricultural development teams that are out helping Afghan farmers do things better. I watch us help build roads. I watch all of these things, and I think our force is now extraordinarily mature in understanding the real way to success here is through the Afghan people. AMANPOUR: And let's say we just take the hard reality of security for the United States in the region. Nobody wants to nation- build, maybe, but they say we want our security to defeat al Qaeda and to defeat the Taliban. Well, many American generals and soldiers, many Afghan officials have told me that, in fact, stability and security comes with stability and development for the Afghan people.

So what is the risk of you continuing to fight and not doing nation-building, let's say?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think that as we provide security, there must be nation-building that occurs, but it occurs under Afghan lead with international assistance. It cannot be a product delivered. It must be a process enabled for the Afghans.

AMANPOUR: Does it concern you that so many of these civilians are trying to come in, but many of them are holed up in Kabul, can't really go out of their compounds? How long is it going to take to secure the environment enough to allow the so-called civilian surge to operate?

MCCHRYSTAL: It varies location to location. In the case of many of our civilians, they're out immediately with the soldiers in harm's way, conducting the kind of things that would make everybody proud. We've still got to continue to enable nongovernmental organizations even to a greater degree, and other organizations as well.

AMANPOUR: General McChrystal, we have to go to another break.

When we come back, we're going to talk about the Karzai government, an indispensable partner, and also reconciliation with the Taliban.



HAMID KARZAI, AFGHAN PRESIDENT: Afghanistan is a sovereign country. It has a sovereign government. It's not an occupied country.

And no foreign power can go beyond the legitimate presence in Afghanistan to undermine the Afghan government and to work directly with those that they wish to work. This has to be forgotten and this has to be taken very seriously.


AMANPOUR: That was President Karzai telling me that the U.S. plan to go around him, do an end run around him, if he cannot or will not seek good governance and crack down on corruption, that they should rethink that strategy.

Joining me again is General Stanley McChrystal.

You have said that as much of a threat in Afghanistan as the insurgency is, bad governance and corruption. You heard what President Karzai said.

Will you still try to go around him, go to the provincial district level if things just don't work at the central government level?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think we're all working for the same objective. President Karzai and the government in Kabul, and at the provincial and district level, and even the most local levels are trying to provide the Afghan people with an opportunity. So I think we're really talking about partnership, but we're talking about shared responsibility. So when we see things aren't working, I think candor and looking for solutions is really the way through this.

AMANPOUR: And how do you envision it now? There's sort of like a start-over moment right now. How do you envision working with the Karzai government and whether it will fulfill its obligations in this regard?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think it's on every level. I enjoy -- in my particular job, I enjoy a very close relationship with a number of the ministers that are in the security around Ministers Wardak, Minister Atmar, Director Saleh (ph) and other individuals. So, what we do is, on a daily basis, we come up with combined objectives. Together, we establish plans on the way forward, strategies, how forces will be employed, how other activities will occur.

And I think that's key, because it gets back to what I talked about, shared responsibility. This isn't a coalition war at the end of which we will deliver a product to the Afghans. It's an Afghan effort that we must support.

AMANPOUR: One of the things you've talked about is building relationships, even with the Taliban who want to come in from the cold. But I've been told there is no mechanism to allow them to come in. There's no amnesty infrastructure.

Some of them are killed even if they come in. Some of them are arrested or put on lists of blocked personalities.

What are you going to do to make it easier for these people to come in? And do you think they will?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think they will, Christiane. I've talked with President Karzai on a number of occasions on this, and I think he is absolutely in the same mindset that I am on it.

We need to offer an opportunity for fighters and lower-level commanders in the Taliban to make the decision to come back into Afghan society under the government of Afghanistan's constitutional control. But they need to be able to come back with respect, they need to be able to come back with an opportunity for reasonable life, protected from their former comrades.

AMANPOUR: But he tells me, President Karzai, that the allies are not on board, that the U.S. and other NATO allies are not on board with this. And even in the negotiations and reach out, potentially, to Mullah Omar, as yet the international community is not on board.

MCCHRYSTAL: At the most senior levels, reconciliation, that would really be a government of Afghanistan responsibility. We would support -- ISAF would support, as appropriate, but I think at reintegration, on bringing fighters and lower-level commanders again, I think we're absolutely in sync with President Karzai's intent.

AMANPOUR: What happens if Osama bin Laden is not captured or killed? What happens? What is the effect on this is insurgency and on extremism worldwide?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think that al Qaeda will continue to be made less and less relevant around the world. Their ideology is bankrupt. It takes a while for that to be proven. But I think it is being proven. Their organization is being weakened.

I do think it's important that Osama bin Laden be brought to justice in some way. Not as complete closure, but as a step toward closure.

AMANPOUR: Do you think you can defeat the insurgency, the Taliban, the al Qaeda-ism unless he is brought to justice, or killed or capture?

MCCHRYSTAL: I believe over time, it's important that, around the world, but particularly inside Pakistan and inside Afghanistan, the counterinsurgent effort to go against extremism be maintained consistently. I think that we will find Osama bin Laden brought to justice at some point, but I think it will -- I think it will be defeated en route, regardless of when he is.

AMANPOUR: We've got to go to another break. And we're going to talk about Pakistan when we come back.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back.

We're joined again by General Stanley McChrystal.

You know, there are many prominent voices here in the United States who say forget about Afghanistan, it's Pakistan that's the main country in our national interest. Many who question whether Afghanistan still has a central role fighting back terror and extremism.

What do you say? Can Pakistan be safe, for example, if Afghanistan falls to the Taliban?

MCCHRYSTAL: I don't believe it can. I think Afghanistan is critical to stability in the future security of Pakistan. And I think the government of Pakistan understands that as well.

AMANPOUR: And do you think that if you don't get -- I don't want to say your act together, but get this fight done, the Taliban could take over Afghanistan again? MCCHRYSTAL: I think it's very important that we get this effort right and we defeat the Taliban. And that...

AMANPOUR: Is there a risk that the Taliban could again be in control of Afghanistan?

MCCHRYSTAL: I believe that there is a risk that the insurgency could cause Afghanistan to be unstable to the point that it would be a real risk to the region.

AMANPOUR: And if they did, would al Qaeda come back?

MCCHRYSTAL: Absolutely. I believe that they would.

AMANPOUR: Why is there so queasy an attitude to the word "defeat"? I mean, isn't a military meant to defeat its enemy?

MCCHRYSTAL: It is interesting, because in military definition, "defeat" does not mean eradicate or wipe out an enemy. It means to prevent them from being able to accomplish their mission.

That, in fact, is what we are trying to do with the Taliban. To the degree to which we can, degrade their capability, prevent them from access to the population, and increase Afghanistan's ability to protect its own sovereignty, we have defeated the Taliban from being an existential threat to Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: And on that note, part of your strategy -- I mean, the key pillar -- is getting up Afghanistan's forces, military and police. Are you really going to do it in the time that you've been given to do?

You say you want 400,000 army and police. Is that possible with an 18-month transition deadline? I mean, already, you've said already that it will take four years, the British are saying it will take four years. In fact, Bob Ainsworth, the British defense secretary, says he cannot support the Obama timeline.

Can you do it?

MCCHRYSTAL: In terms of creating a more capable ANSF (ph), we will work as hard as we can to grow it as fast as we can, both in size and developing it. Whether it makes it in four years or slightly more than four years is less important than the fact it keeps getting stronger as we go and takes capacity away from the Taliban.

AMANPOUR: How can you do it given all the problems that you've already talked about on Congress and many other people have, the illiteracy factor, the fact that there will be many desertions, the fact that we hear now from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the Taliban are paying their militia more than the Afghan government is paying its army?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sure. The government of Afghanistan just increased the pay of Afghan National Army and Afghan national police significantly. They still are a little less than we think are paid to many of the Taliban fighters, but I think that they don't all fight for money.

I think the real key is that we can grow the capacity, because Afghans want to defend Afghanistan. The army is a particularly well- respected entity, and they provide a sense of national identity that's key. So I think it won't be easy, but building any institution like this is a challenge, and I just think we'll stay at it.

AMANPOUR: And the police are known to be quite a disaster. I mean, there's a lot of desertions, a lot of corruption linked to drug trade and all sorts of things.

MCCHRYSTAL: We haven't worked with the police as long as we have the army. There certainly has not been the level of effort that the army has received. We already see some progress in areas where we are focused, and they have areas where they are very effective.

One thing I want to remind everyone, though, is the Afghan national police die at a higher rate than any other force on the battlefield, so they are dying for their country.

AMANPOUR: To those people here and around the world who say that this is not worth it anymore, what do you say?

MCCHRYSTAL: I believe that it is. I believe that as I go around and I see in the face of Afghans what they want for the future, I believe it's worth it.

AMANPOUR: And in America's security interest?

MCCHRYSTAL: Absolutely. Many of the countries in the 43 nations in our coalition have had to be helped in the past. Our Korean partners and others all have been helped by other members in the international community, and now they are in Afghanistan helping the Afghans.

AMANPOUR: General McChrystal, thank you very much, indeed.

This ends the live portion of this broadcast. And we will have more of our interview with General McChrystal after we end this live portion, and all of this will be on CNN over the weekend in our hour- long broadcast.

Thank you, General, very much for joining us.

And thank you for watching.



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