General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, talks to SPIEGEL about his new approach to the war, negotiations with the Taliban and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
SPIEGEL: General McChrystal, a couple of months ago you said, "Since 9/11, I have watched as America tried to first put out this fire with a hammer, and it doesn't work." What did the Americans do wrong in Afghanistan?
Stanley McChrystal: At the end of the day, a counter-insurgency is decided by people's perceptions and by how people feel. I think any war like this is not a battle between material. It's not about destroying the enemy's cities. It's not even about destroying their army, their fighters. You have to weaken the insurgency. But it's really about convincing the people that they want it to stop and they ultimately will. The most effective way for us to operate is to be really good and effective partners with our Afghan counterparts, because it's not a technical problem, it's a human problem.
SPIEGEL: Your 66-page assessment of the situation in Afghanistan was the basis for US President Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional American soldiers to the country next year, coming on top of the 68,000 which are already there. In your report, you wrote that the situation is serious but doable. Is it doable?
McChrystal: I think it is doable. But it is going to be a significant effort on everybody's part and it will be very complex. Here is a resilient insurgency with elements of the Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Hekmatyar network that threaten the existence of the state. But there is also a crisis of confidence in the people which comes from expectations that were not met after 2001, regarding development and governance and positive things. Additionally, you have a disappointment in what they have seen from local and national governance and a sense that it's not a fair system, that they are not getting basic justice. Those two things feed each other.
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Best part of interview:
SPIEGEL: Afghanistan is famously known as "the graveyard of empires." Alexander the Great failed in the 4th century, the British in the 19th century and the Soviets only 20 years ago. All of them lost their status as a world power shortly afterwards. Why do you think you will succeed?
McChrystal: Well, I won't succeed, the government of Afghanistan will succeed, and that is the essential difference. This may be the graveyard of empires, but there is not an empire here, there is a coalition of 44 nations. And a coalition of 44 nations is never going to try to occupy a country and that's the big difference. That's why we are not viewed as occupiers. That's why the people haven't risen up like the mujahideen did against the Soviets.
The intentions are different, that is what a lot of people miss when they try to make simplistic historical analogies that tell you nothing of the current conflict. It makes a good title to a book, yet there is more to a region, a state, a people, an ethnic group and their interests. It's an absurd statement to say "Well if Alexander the Great couldn't do it, surely we can't." It completely neglects changes that exist through time, from the structure of the world to challenges that states, both developed and developing, face when it comes security. This is more about Afghanistan than it is about the United States, as McChrystal says, "I won't succeed, the government of Afghanistan will succeed, and that is the essential difference."
Here's to Afghanistan succeeding.
Update 6/23/10: McChrystal resigns. Petraeus to take over.