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Interview with Former US Commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal

Aired January 11, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the special weekend edition of our program.

Afghanistan front and center again -- President Karzai has spent the week in Washington meeting with President Obama to determine his country's future, with or without American troops.

Once again, the public guessing game has erupted over how many U.S. soldiers and other forces will be left after the 2014 NATO pullout and whether, after more than 11 years of war, Afghanistan will be able to stand on its own two feet.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): My guest tonight is the perfect person to tell us what went wrong and what went right there, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, retired General Stanley McChrystal. He's one of America's most decorated and respected military men.

McChrystal, though, was fired by President Obama over an unflattering article in "Rolling Stone" magazine. But he remains personally deeply vested in the outcome for Afghanistan and he still believes that you cannot win without winning over the Afghan people.

McChrystal has just published his memoirs, "My Share of the Task," and he joins me here in the studio.

General McChrystal, welcome. Welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: You spent almost no time in your book writing about the Michael Hastings article, about the "Rolling Stone" controversy, even about your meeting with President Obama.

You do, however, say that you went to the White House that day with two options: your resignation letter in your pocket and you asked him, you would stay if it was better for the mission or if he considered it best for the mission, best for the nation, you would go.

Were you surprised that he accepted your resignation?

MCCHRYSTAL: When I flew back to meet with the president, I had seen the article. I was getting reverberations of the growing media controversy.

But I expected that it was going to be quite large. I decided from the very beginning, because I was in command, that I'd accept responsibility, even though I didn't feel the article was particularly fair or accurate. I suspected in my heart that the president would accept my resignation.

AMANPOUR: It must have hurt.

MCCHRYSTAL: Of course it hurt. I'd been a soldier for more than 34 years. I loved what I did. I felt very strongly about the mission that I was a part of. And I felt very responsible to the people that had committed themselves to me.

AMANPOUR: You felt disappointed?


AMANPOUR: After your entire career, that one stupid article blew your career up?

MCCHRYSTAL: Of course. I did. But I was worried about several things. I was worried first about the people that relied on me, the people that believed in me. And I made the decision that I wanted to conduct myself in a way that would live up to the expectations that they had of me. I wanted them to admire me as much after as they had before. And that was very important.

AMANPOUR: Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, after decades in uniform, believe that your career would end with the notion that you were being disloyal to the president that you served?

MCCHRYSTAL: No. I thought I might be killed. I thought I might fail as a commander, not be competent enough. I never thought that I would be viewed or even considered potentially disloyal or --

AMANPOUR: And do you think you were?


AMANPOUR: You know, it's incredible that, afterwards, your successor, an equally decorated, equally lauded general on the battlefield, your comrade in arms in counterinsurgency, his career blew up because of an extramarital affair.

And I ask myself, what is it about these 11 years of war that have devoured the best and the brightest on the battlefield? Is there something about the time you live in?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, any tough jobs are tough. They're tough on the individuals. They're tough on your families. They're tough in lots of ways. And most of the situations are unique. But I don't feel sorry for myself. I don't think Dave Petraeus feels sorry for himself, either. You move on.

AMANPOUR: Well, let's go back to the beginning. You talk about a deficit of trust between the White House and the Pentagon as President Obama came into office. And you said that that had a costly effect, that deficit of trust.

And at the time, there were all these arguments about numbers of troops and you said you wanted 40,000 and then there was a battle over that and finally you got 30,000. And then there was another 4,000.

What is the effect of this kind of incrementalism? You've talked about it. What does that do to the battlefield, this argument over numbers and not getting the kind of numbers that you think you needed?

MCCHRYSTAL: Trust is really the foundation upon any effective endeavor rests. But trust takes time. It's very, very hard to prosecute this kind of complex endeavor without building trust.

And what we found in early 2009 is suddenly, with the rush of events, the financial crisis, the need to send troops for the Afghan election, you were trying to compress all these difficult decisions in a close time without enough time to build up that trust.

AMANPOUR: I mean, do you basically believe, when you say there was a deficit of trust, that the White House just didn't trust the military, that they kept thinking the military wanted more when really President Obama wanted to wind down, as he had said during his campaign? Is that the problem?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, during his campaign, President Obama had called Afghanistan the war of necessity. And I think with the situation getting worse in Afghanistan, it was natural that he and probably people around him were frustrated because something that they had looked at in one lens suddenly was much worse.

And when I took over in the summer of 2009, I think it was disappointing to a lot of people to find out Afghanistan was not getting better; it was getting worse.

AMANPOUR: If they go down to no troops, what is the risk for Afghanistan?

MCCHRYSTAL: Here's what you've got to create. You've got to create a situation where Afghanistan has the confidence to protect its sovereignty.

Soldiers don't want to go into a battle they think they're going to lose. People don't side -- want to side with a government and be the last person that sides with the government and then they're on the wrong side if it falls.

In my view, the people of Afghanistan right now are terrified. They're terrified because they think they have something to lose. There has been progress made. There is a better life. There are girls in school. There are things that are better than they were and opportunities potentially ahead.

But they're afraid that if we completely abandon them in 2014, as they perceive we did in 1989, they would all go back.

AMANPOUR: And by implication, if America isn't there, it could cause what Afghans fear, and that is a descent back into civil war.

MCCHRYSTAL: I think that is the great fear that Afghans have right now. Whether or not American presence is the essential element physically, I think there is a requirement for an American presence morally, psychologically.

That doesn't have to be a lot of stuff, in my view, but that has to be a sense in the Afghan people that they have an ally, they have a friend. They have someone who will partner with them in a very difficult region.

AMANPOUR: Again, you thought your initial mission, taken from President Obama's speeches, the White House strategy review, was to defeat the Taliban and to secure the population.

But you also talk about unnamed Washington official, who said the goal was too ambitious, that you should just attempt to degrade the Taliban.

You write, "It was clear to me that the mission itself was now on the table for review and adjustment."

At what point did you realize that they'd pretty much thrown in the towel?

MCCHRYSTAL: I never came to that conclusion. I did come to the conclusion in the late summer/early fall of 2009 that the mission statements that I had been basing my assessment on and understanding as my mission and prosecuting things were clearly being reexamined. And there were people who supported the mission and there were people who did not.

I think people -- some people had different views of exactly what the president meant and what the intention was. And I think that goes back to the trust and teambuilding that I talked about that's so essential. You don't want all the players coming out of the huddle on a football game interpreting what the quarterback said differently. It's really important that everybody be the same.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: You also talk about counterinsurgency, because that is the doctrine that you believe in. And that is essentially protecting and securing the population. You write a lot in your book about your concern for the civilian population in Afghanistan.

You said, the war -- in another interview, you said, is about -- is about people's minds. "It's not a military campaign like World War II. You're trying to convince the Afghan people that you're going to succeed."

Do you think America has convinced them that?

MCCHRYSTAL: First, when I went to Afghanistan, I was given a mission that I thought I understood clearly.

And I came to the conclusion that an effective counterinsurgency effort, protecting the people and winning their support, was the only way to succeed. Had there been a strictly military sense that we would kill a certain number of Afghans, that would have been an option.

But the Russians killed 1.2 million Afghans and it didn't win. I came to the conclusion that the people who would determine success or failure were Afghans. It would be in their minds that this would be decided.

And so the effort had to be focused there, not because I'm a compassionate person -- although I'd like to believe I am -- but because I want to succeed the mission and stop losing lives. I think that that was the correct strategy. I still think it's the essential direction that effort's got to go.

AMANPOUR: You write a lot in your book that -- and it's very clear that you're concerned about the treatment of civilians. Let's go back to Iraq, where you first started in the field -- I mean, not first, but that was your first deployment recently before Afghanistan.

You talk about storming a building, directing a man to the floor, seeing his 4-year-old son, who was watching him and imitating him, you know, putting his own hands behind his back, lying down with his face pressed to the floor.

And you said, "As I watched, I felt sick. I could feel in my own limbs and chest the shame and the fury that must have been coursing through that father. As I watched, I thought, 'Not for the first time.' I thought that it would be easy for us to lose this."

MCCHRYSTAL: Exactly. We would go on operations; we would search houses. And even if we found the person we were looking for, I would look in the eyes of the children and the females and maybe other women in the house, and the way they would look at you, we're big men in body armor; we're intimidating. We don't speak their language.

I think how I would feel if I had big men searching my wife while they held me in the corner and they went through our belongings, I would feel emasculated. If I saw my son lay on pavement next to me while I was being submissive in one view to Americans, how deeply I'd resent that. Things are necessary in war and things are difficult in war.

But if we don't appreciate that, if we don't realize that everything we do creates a sense in people and that can -- it can create permanent outrage that you'll never win. You have to convince people that what you do is necessary; you're doing it responsibly and at the end of the day you're doing it to help them.

AMANPOUR: I want to play you a little excerpt of my own experience in Iraq after 2003 when soldiers were going door to door, house to house, believing that they were acting on, you know, intelligence, trying to find the bad guys. And I came across a situation similar to the one that you described. Take a look.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): "Let them search. Let them search the house," screams one woman.

It's half past midnight and everyone's asleep on the floor. This young woman protects her newborn. Miraculously soldiers avoid stepping on it.

The father of the family, the supposed target, is wrestled to the ground, grabbed in a headlock and pinned down. It's many minutes before a translator arrives. That's when they realize their mistake.


AMANPOUR: Of course they were in the wrong house. And that's so similar to what you described.


AMANPOUR: How do feel, seeing that now?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I mean, it's upsetting. I went on countless operations like that. You've got difficult things to do and I don't say you don't. But you can leave scar tissue everywhere you move. You can make more insurgents than you capture or kill.

AMANPOUR: And isn't that the problem? Isn't that what's happening in Afghanistan? I mean, look, even in your book about Afghanistan, you say, you know, you describe a moment similar, where you frankly lost your cool.

"What is it that we don't understand? We're going to lose this effing war if we don't stop killing civilians."

MCCHRYSTAL: That was the point I made because I go back and I describe in great detail in 2001, when Afghans saw Americans use precision air power to defeat the Taliban, they drew two conclusions. They said Americans are omniscient because they always know where the enemy is and we're perfectly accurate because we do these precision strikes.

Then later they see airstrikes that kill civilians and they know they're civilians. And they draw a conclusion that if the Americans are that good, they either wanted to kill civilians or they're just casual. They don't care.

That may be a completely wrong conclusion, but that's -- if you're out living in a remote thing and the only thing you see is this brought on, you draw that conclusion. And that's what wins or loses the fight.

I spent a lot of time trying to convince forces -- and most performed beautifully -- Nick Carter, General Nick Carter came up with the term "courageous restraint." And I saw Marines in Helmand do amazing things at their own risk to convince the people.

And some people said, well, that's irresponsible because you're putting Americans at risk. At the end of the day, your security comes from the people. You can't wear enough body armor; you can't have enough walls. It's got to come from the people.

AMANPOUR: Well, so what do you say, then, because the mission has changed, General. It is no more counterinsurgency. It's not about protecting the people anymore. The fashionable talk is counterterrorism. Is that a strategy for victory?

MCCHRYSTAL: I found in Iraq at one point, as my command got so good and was doing so many successful operations and capturing and killing so many people, that we were, I believe, degrading Zarqawi's network. But we didn't truly become decisive until it was paired with an effective counterinsurgency campaign. And that was really early 2007.

Most of our force got this -- and, of course, young soldiers and young sergeants were, in many cases, magical at it. There's, of course, a great story out in Farah province, where a young Marine --

AMANPOUR: In Afghanistan.

MCCHRYSTAL: -- in Afghanistan, in western Afghanistan -- young Marine, lance corporal, is out there with a squad. And a farmer comes up, and he wants to dig a drainage ditch and put a pipe under a road so that he can move water. But he doesn't want to be looked at as an IED emplacer. So he goes to the Marines. He says, I want to dig this ditch and I want your approval to do that.

And the young lance corporal gives him approval, waits a little bit then takes his gear off and helps him dig the ditch. And to me, that embodies a young man that understood what we were trying to do. We weren't trying to just secure a road. We were trying to get inside that farmer's head.


AMANPOUR: We're going to take a little break when we come back, I'll get General McChrystal's take on President Hamid Karzai. Does he see the Afghan leader as the obstacle to peace that many perceive him to be?

And remember this name, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Once the Al Qaeda chief in Iraq, well, it was McChrystal and his team that got him. How he did when we return.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

And continuing our conversation with retired General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander in Afghanistan.


AMANPOUR: With all the disappointments and failures, let's talk about some of the successes. You mentioned before our break, Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq. You put the so-called JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, in place to catch this man.

How did you have to do it? How did you have to retool to get this terrorist?

MCCHRYSTAL: The command I took over, when I got there in the fall of 2003, were the best commando raid force in the world. But what we found is that wasn't good enough. We were fighting against a network that had spread like a cancer. So even if we did a limited number of very precise raids, that was just not going to get it.

So what we did is we changed our culture. We brought in other partners from intelligence agencies, FBI, Treasury, a wide range of people, conventional forces, and we created ourselves a network.

And the idea was to be so fast, so smart, we went from being probably 80 percent strike and 80 percent biceps to being 80 percent intelligence.

AMANPOUR: And that's how you found Zarqawi, by studying the predator, pictures, all the bits of intelligence. I read that one analyst had looked so hard and so long at these pictures of him that he could, quote, "pick him out from a crowd because of his strut."

MCCHRYSTAL: That's right. Exactly. Could watch his movement and we had a couple other people who had watched their gait and pick them out from an unmanned aerial vehicle feed.

AMANPOUR: Let's talk about President Karzai, who's in America and who has been this week. You talk a lot about your relationship with him. You talk about going to him, discussing with him, sometimes even asking permission to take certain actions, very different from the way he had been treated by some of the other commanders.

What was behind your strategy with him?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I mean, I'm not Pollyanna's younger brother. But when people come to deal with me and they start off the conversation by telling me, my brother's corrupt or they say, you don't do this right or you don't do that right, I don't respond well. And I don't know a lot of people that do.

When people build a relationship with me over time, I tend to want to maintain that relationship and I'm more into a give-and-take. What I wanted to build with President Karzai was a functional relationship that was built on trust, that was built on a sense of compromise on things.

I didn't think he would do everything I wanted and I certainly wasn't in a position to do everything he wanted.

I spoke for NATO and the United States, but I wasn't a national leader. So I could only go so far. But I thought it was important that he have a partner that he felt not only he could trust what I would do, but he could -- he could say what he wanted to me. We could have that kind of give-and-take.

AMANPOUR: You write about how you had taken a trip to Kandahar with him. And on the way back, it was raining; you were in the helicopter. It was a rough ride. He was sitting there and you were getting buffeted by all the rain. And what did he do?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we were up front in the CH-47. And the wind and rain was just coming through incredibly. And it was just washing us. And he was sitting absolutely stoically, getting soaked. Here's the president -- and, most people, we would have freaked if their president was in that situation. I'm right across from him. I'm the same thing.

He reaches in his pocket and he pulled out a handkerchief. He didn't wipe his face. He handed it to me.

And, OK, what does that mean? Some people say, OK. That means nothing because he's still got all his shortcomings.

It means something. It means he wanted to make a gesture. And there were countless times like that.

And I think that it's little things that build long-term relationships. It's little efforts that you make. And if you don't have those, it's hard to go further.

AMANPOUR: And what about Americans who want their soldiers to come home? They say it's enough. We've been there for so long, our soldiers are getting killed, they're getting damaged in body and mind.

MCCHRYSTAL: I think that every American wants our soldiers to come home. But you want to do those things in the world that will make a difference not just for the country you're trying to help, but for our geostrategic interests. That means, I think, there are places we have to stay engaged.

I think if you talk to most soldiers, I think the common points they make are. this is really hard, but I really think we should do this.

AMANPOUR: Do you feel that after all this sacrifice and all this blood and treasure that pulling them out, particularly the surge troops who were inserted and pulled out quickly, I mean, I hate to say this, but do you think Americans died in vain?

MCCHRYSTAL: I went to almost every corner of Afghanistan. And when I saw places where people had opportunities that they didn't have before, when I saw girls in school, when I saw the things that the Taliban had done and were still doing, I don't think so.

I think that when we make a contribution to someone anywhere, I don't think it's in vain. I know it's painful. I don't ever say -- and every loss hurts so badly -- but I think it makes a difference.

AMANPOUR: General McChrystal, thank you very much indeed for being here.

MCCHRYSTAL: Christiane, thanks for having me.


AMANPOUR: And so, after all its promises, the United States has abandoned nation building in Afghanistan. But how wise is that? General McChrystal's final thought after a break.




AMANPOUR: And finally, what is it about the United States and nation building? It's become such a dirty word. But remember the Marshall Plan, America's gift after World War II that solidified democracy across Europe and in Japan that ended the scourges of fascism and Nazism? Listen to General McChrystal on the Marshall Plan.


AMANPOUR: What does the Marshall Plan mean to you?

MCCHRYSTAL: Counterinsurgency.

AMANPOUR: Tell me about the Marshall Plan.

MCCHRYSTAL: We fought a very straightforward war in World War II. And we thought that was simple. And of course it's simpler now in hindsight than it was then. It was bloody, frustrating and whatnot. People say we did nation building.

Of course we did. We did counterinsurgency after World War II by building up Europe to make it durable against the potential of Communists or the reintroduction of fascist tendency. We gave the people an opportunity and a choice. It was nothing more than counterinsurgency, but nobody would call it that now.


AMANPOUR: That's it for our weekend edition of this program. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.