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News | Sept. 27, 2009

McChrystal: Conventional strategy won't win in Afghanistan

By Gerry Gilmore , American Forces Press Service

Gen. Stanley McChrystan, commander, U.S. Forces - Afghanstan and International Security Assistance Force.
Gen. Stanley McChrystan, commander, U.S. Forces - Afghanstan and International Security Assistance Force.

WASHINGTON (Sept. 27, 2009) – The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan ardently believes that conventional military thinking and actions won’t win the counterinsurgency war there.

“What I’m really telling people is; the greatest risk we can accept is to lose the support of the people here,” Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal told “60 Minutes” news program correspondent David Martin during a profile segment that aired tonight.

McChrystal was appointed in June as chief of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Martin traveled to Afghanistan to get McChrystal’s thoughts about what it would take to win, or lose, the conflict in Afghanistan.

After arriving in Afghanistan as the top commander, McChrystal said conditions there were “probably a little worse” than he’d expected, noting he was taken aback by the spread of Taliban-committed violence into some of the northern and western portions of the country.

The Taliban are the radical Islamic terrorists that once ran Afghanistan. U.S. and Afghan allies chased them from power during Operation Enduring Freedom in the fall and winter following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Prior to their removal from power, the Taliban facilitated al-Qaida’s stay in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida ran terrorist training camps and plotted attacks.

Protecting the Afghan population from a resurgent Taliban and thus gaining their support is the key tenet of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, McChrystal told Martin.

“If the people are against us, we cannot be successful,” McChrystal said. “If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we can’t be successful and our casualties will go up dramatically,”

McChrystal believes that just focusing on killing the Taliban – without consideration for accidental Afghan civilian casualties or the destruction of their homes – plays into the hands of the enemy.

“Since I’ve been here the last two-and-a-half months, this civilian casualty issue is much more important than I’d even realized,” McChrystal said. “It is literally how we lose the war, or in many ways, how we win it.”

Consequently, McChrystal banned air strikes against residential areas, even if the enemy was firing from the buildings. 

“We’ve got some things we absolutely have got to show them we’ll do differently,” McChrystal said.

Waging conventional war in Afghanistan by blasting away with all the firepower that’s available is a non-starter, McChrystal said.

“There’s a favorite saying, that to a man with hammer everything looks like a nail,” McChrystal said. “We can’t operate that way; we can’t walk with only a hammer in our hands.”

McChrystal makes it point not to wear body armor or carry a sidearm when he visits with Afghan governors or with everyday citizens in public.

The governors and citizens don’t wear body armor, McChrystal pointed out, noting it’s important that he conveys a message of trust, while demonstrating that he doesn’t believe he is more valuable than his Afghan hosts are.

During his travels around the country, McChrystal routinely asks Afghans what U.S. and NATO forces can do to improve their lives – especially in regard to protecting them from Taliban insurgents.

But, things are going too slow in Afghanistan right now to suit McChrystal.

“We could do good things in Afghanistan for the next 100 years – and fail,” McChrystal said, “because we’re doing a lot of good things, (but) it just doesn’t’ add up to success.

“We’ve got to think quicker,” he said.

McChrystal also voiced frustration with a military bureaucracy that takes too long to provide him with needed staff personnel and other necessities.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates “talks in terms of 12 to 18 months to show a significant change, and then we eat up two or three months just on sort of getting the tools out of the toolbox,” McChrystal said.

“That really hurts,” he said.

An average organization pulls out a calendar when something needs to be done, McChrystal said, while a good organization looks at its watch.

“And, we really have got to get that way,” McChrystal said.

McChrystal also has directed that convoy drivers cease driving wildly around on Afghanistan’s streets and roads.

Such aggressive driving is perceived by the Afghans “as arrogant” behavior, McChrystal said, and an indicator of “not caring about their right to use their roads.”

Bad or dangerous driving constitutes one of many “bad habits we’ve got to deprogram” in Afghanistan, McChrystal said.

McChrystal’s room is shown as a Spartan affair, while the general acknowledges that he eats but once a day, and considers his daily hour-long run that starts at 5 a.m. as leisure time.

A Special Operations officer par-excellence, McChrystal was involved in the separate Iraq operations that captured Saddam Hussein and killed al Qaida terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

McChrystal recently submitted to the Pentagon and the White House his assessment of Afghan operations and another report recommending the required number of troops and resources that he thinks will be required to win in Afghanistan.

“I take this extraordinarily seriously,” McChrystal said of his duties as the top U.S. officer in Afghanistan. “I believe that what I am responsible to do is to give my best assessment.”

McChrystal also said he’d have no qualms if he had to tell President Barack Obama that the mission in Afghanistan couldn’t be accomplished.

“And, if I felt that way; the day I feel that way; the day I’m sure I feel that way; I’ll tell him that,” McChrystal said.