The former commander of military forces in Afghanistan, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, this week related a striking behind-the-scenes account of the US Special Operations forces hunt for Taliban insurgents, revealing US government agency roadblocks that made his job more difficult.
Speaking at the Net-Centric Warfare Conference in Washington, the former general related the story of the US pursuit of a one-legged Taliban commander who operated in Afghanistan with considerable impunity, much to the consternation of Special Operations forces. The commander regularly traveled into and out of Afghanistan to visit his Taliban troops – what McChrystal referred to as a “battlefield circulation,” US military parlance for visits by top officers to check on their soldiers in the field.
“We were not fast enough, and not precise enough to get him,” he said at the conference, sponsored by the Institute for Defense and Government Advance. “So we started trying to find out why.”
To that end, McChrystal returned to Washington to meet with “one of our intelligence agencies." He recounted the conversation. “They said, ‘Well, actually, we know before he comes in when he’s going to come in, but we can’t give you that information.’ I said, ‘All right, why?’ They said, ‘Because you’re JSCOC [Joint Special Operations Command] and you target people. We’re not allowed to give you information until they are somewhere where you can target them legally’ – which is like telling someone to 'shoot skeet, but leave the weapon in the trunk of the car.' ”
Eventually McChrystal came to an agreement with the US intelligence agency. “They agreed to tell us” when the Taliban leader was in the country, “and I agreed not to go across the border” into Pakistan to get him.
Thanks to that cooperation, “He’s dead,” McChrystal concluded.
Now a professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., McChrystal began his hour-long speech by remarking on what he called the “ironic” nature of his new job at the Ivy League school. “I couldn’t get in a school like that,” he told the audience, “but I grade their papers.”
McChrystal cautioned that what looks to Americans like a victory does not necessarily appear that way to the rest of the world, including Afghans. He cited the role that US funds played in helping Afghan insurgents buy weapons to drive out the Soviets in the early 1980s – which many Americans should inspire US loyalty among Afghans.
Conventional wisdom in the US is that, “They ought to be very thankful to us because we helped our Afghan brothers” against the Soviets, McChrystal said. But the war also left 1.2 million Afghans dead, which he estimated was proportionately equal to 15 million Americans “in today’s numbers.” An understandable view from an Afghan fighter’s perspective might be, “We fought them, how about a thank you” from the US government? McChrystal pointed out.
The same goes for Iran, added McChrystal, perhaps offering a glimpse into his teaching style at Yale. “What do Iranians think” of America? he asked his audience. McChrystal ventured an answer, “In 1953 we overthrew their government” in a CIA-backed coup and imposed a Shah who “turned out to be a despotic dictator.” He concluded, “It doesn’t matter what’s right or wrong.” What matters, he said, is perspective.
McChrystal also offered his own take on the Wikileaks release of Pentagon secret and classified reports and State Department cables. “The thing I hate about that is there’s a bunch of people who want to pull back” on information-sharing, and the WikiLeaks episode provides a good excuse to justify that. “As soon as they see WikiLeaks they think, ‘Great.’ ”
He called the decision by WikiLeaks to release the classified cables “unconscionable,” because Wikileaks staff members are unable to “evaluate that information” for the damage it might inflict on troops. But the leaks should not affect the impulse to share information among government agencies, and even with journalists who are reporting from the field. Occasionally, “You are going to pay some price for sharing,” McChrystal said. “But at the end of the day, it’s better.”