McChrystal on Al-Qaeda, Karzai and post-2014 Afghanistan

David Sterman/New America Foundation

[This post was written by NSSP Intern Daniel de Lisle]

Stanley McChrystal’s steely gaze is the only ‘General’ stereotype that he could be accused of fulfilling. In a New America talk last Friday with National Security Studies Director Peter Bergen, which included discussions of McChrystal's new book, My Share of the Task, there was no empty rhetoric or rambling Vietnam stories. McChrystal’s insights had the after-work crowd nodding with thoughtful consent, particularly his opinion of al Qaeda. While some world leaders try to leave you with the impression that al Qaeda recruits in hell, McChrystal recognises the familiar in the enemy: it’s a ‘political, regional insurgency, made up of people who are looking to belong to something, much as those who join an NGO or a political campaign.’ As part of al Qaeda, ‘people had the opportunity to make a difference, and that’s a powerful thing’, and in his view, there wasn’t ‘that much of a difference between the terrorists and the counter-terrorists.’ For him, both the CIA and the Base for Islamic Jihad give people the chance to be part of something greater than themselves. 

On the counter-terrorist side, drone warfare is ‘a tool, not a solution’.   While the drones can be ‘incredibly effective’, they create a dangerously asymmetric conflict. A conflict in which the people of Peshawar, Pakistan or Sana’a, Yemen think of themselves as at war, but the people of Miami or Boston do not. McChrystal warned against creating a group of people who were not the intended targets of the strikes, or are even hundreds of miles away, but who are frustrated by ‘the arrogance of the US taking shots’. 

Looking back on his time as head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, McChrystal’s aim was that the Afghans should take the lead, or at least they should feel as if they were: ‘if they felt emasculated, that’s bad.’ He had a noticeably good relationship with Hamid Karzai, and he was dismissive of allegations of vote-rigging in the 2009 election. Within his own ranks, he appeared amused (and perhaps a little frustrated) that commanders would mistake ‘secret’ information for ‘accurate’ or ‘at all useful.’ Looking ahead to US presence in the region after 2014, McChrystal wants to see ‘however many troops it takes to make [Afghans] think that it’s credible; if that’s one, great, but you can’t put a fixed number on these things.’ Hamid Karzai was quoted by McChrystal as having another type of American presence in mind: ‘I want to see American businessmen’. He probably thought that if the US saw financial as well as moral profit in Afghanistan, they would be more likely to stick around. 

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