DOD News Briefing with Gen. McChrystal from the Pentagon
MODERATOR: Well, good afternoon and thank you for joining us. It's my pleasure to welcome back to the room a man who needs no introduction at all, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
General, we want to thank you for taking the time. We know that you've had a very busy schedule this week. But we really appreciate you taking some time to come and give us a brief overview and also take some questions.
So thank you very much.
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Hi. Good afternoon. A lot of familiar faces.
I'm pleased to be here this week to participate in President Karzai's visit to the United States. It's been a productive visit, and I thought it would be good if I spent a few minutes with you this morning, to share my thoughts with our ongoing efforts in Afghanistan. I know most of you have been covering this for years. So I'll try and measure my remarks with that in mind.
Our strategic priority is the development of Afghan national security forces. While both the army and police have demonstrated considerable growth, significant challenges remain. The bottom line is, there's much more work ahead to mature Afghan security forces. But I'm pleased with the progress made thus far.
While our strategic priority remains building the ANSF, our operational priority lies in securing the southern part of Afghanistan, an area that includes Kandahar, the spiritual center of the Taliban, and Helmand, an economic hub for the insurgency and for Afghanistan overall.
Ten months ago, we began a series of operations into Taliban-controlled parts of the central Helmand River valley, expanding the Afghan government's influence in key areas.
There's been considerable progress in security and governance. But as is expected in counterinsurgency, progress is often slow and deliberate.
This reflects the challenge of changing not only the dynamics of security, governance and development but also the attitudes of a population long pressured by insurgents.
As additional forces flow into Afghanistan, we'll -- we will reinforce ongoing efforts to secure Kandahar, an environment that's uniquely complex and will require a unique solution. This effort is being led by the Afghans and will focus on the complex political and governance aspects of Kandahar.
I suspect you'll have several questions regarding Kandahar, but I also want to make a point that there will be considerable efforts in other areas of the country as well that I'd be happy to discuss further.
Ultimately, our efforts across Afghanistan are about changing the perceptions of people. Afghans believe more of what they see than what they hear.
This is a process that takes time. It will demand courage and resilience. We should expect increased violence as our combined security forces expand into Taliban-controlled areas. Over time, security responsibilities will transition to Afghans.
Thank you. Now I'd be happy to take your questions.
Q Can you tell us a little bit about the efforts ahead of the major operations in Kandahar to secure local buy-in and support for that operation? You spoke ahead of the Marja operation about how important that would be. And I know at one time it was part of the plan in Kandahar as well. Have you been able to carry that through? And what obstacles are you encountering as you get closer to the real operation?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: That's a great opportunity for me to describe what we are doing in Kandahar already. We're not using the term operation or major operations, because that often brings to mind in people's psyche the idea of a D-Day and an H-hour and an attack.
Kandahar is not in fact controlled by the Taliban. So it's not a case of having to recapture an area under enemy control, as Marja was.
But similar to Marja, it's important that we engage the population, so that we shape the leaders, the natural leaders, the elders, political and economic leaders, so that their participation helps shape how we go forward, and also so that clearly we have their buy-in for the operation.
Now that has begun actually months ago. And so when we talk about our efforts at Kandahar, this is something that's ongoing, and it's a process, not an event.
I went down with President Karzai some weeks ago for the first of a series of shuras in Kandahar, in which leaders from not just the city itself but the environs or district around it were brought in. In a very candid series of meetings over two days, they gave him their feedback. He described his vision for the way ahead. And so that's one of the processes.
And then there are a number of other things that the government of Afghanistan is doing to try to shape the power of the governor, the effectiveness of the mayor, capability of the police, and we're partnering with them on that, as well as being partnered with security operations which will happen inside the city and in the areas around it.
Q General, the Institute for the Study of War just came out with a report saying that the Kandahar Strike Force and other private militias in and around Kandahar should be disbanded. And I'm wondering: Do you agree with that? And if not, what is the role of these militias in the upcoming mission, operation, whatever you want to call it?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I think, over time, that all armed groups in Afghanistan should be under the government, the control of the government of Afghanistan, both to protect their sovereignty and to reflect it. There are private security companies that operate, and they've been a necessary requirement in some years past, and there have been some other forces as well that have grown up.
But I think increasingly President Karzai is committed to bringing all of those under government control. And I personally think that that's the right -- (inaudible).
Q What about in the short term, though, for the Kandahar mission, operation, whatever you want to call it? What will be the role of the Kandahar Strike Force and these other groups?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I'm not going to discuss any of the specific forces like that. But I think all of that will reflect President Karzai's intent to move things under government control.
Q General, there's been a lot of focus in recent months about civilian deaths in Afghanistan. I wanted to ask you about the numbers of U.S. killed and wounded. This has -- these numbers have increased drastically. At the same time, so far this year, at the same time last year, they've doubled. So how has this impacted the force? And how has this impacted and affected you as their commander?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Before coming here this morning, I spent time with President Karzai at Arlington and walked through part of the cemetery, ran into soldiers that had worked directly for me and been lost in Iraq and now in Afghanistan as well, as did President Karzai. Every single casualty affects people. It affects leaders, but more importantly it affects families, it affects children, it affects parents, spouses. So each one of them is sacred. And I think we all know that.
The force is strong. The force believes in the cause. The force understands that what we're doing is important. But casualties are something that I hope that the American people will keep in their minds as -- and their hearts -- not just the killed -- but we also went to Walter Reed this week. And we went up and visited wounded. And life-changing wounds also affect the individuals and families as well.
Before we came over, President Karzai and I also went to the Bagram medical facility, where we visited Afghan National Army forces, Afghan National Police, civilian and then coalition casualties as well. So it's important we keep all of that: casualties, our casualties, our Afghan partners, our coalition partners, and Americans, and then, of course, Afghan civilians. And they all matter. But I think everybody's committed to the task.
Let me go toward the back. Sir.
Q Yes, sir. As you know, the U.S. government has been investigating possible links between the Times Square bombing attempt and the Pakistani Taliban. I know that's not in Afghanistan, but obviously related. Can you give us some sense of your view of whether or not the Pakistani Taliban indeed may have more global reach? This morning, there were additional arrests -- or detentions here in the U.S. of Pakistani nationals in Massachusetts. Talk if you can, just broadly, how much have you been briefed on this investigation, but also this other, bigger question about the Pakistani Taliban. Is that -- if indeed they are connected to these operations, is that more of a threat to the American homeland than some of the insurgents you're fighting in Afghanistan?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I only know some of the intelligence on this. But I think what this does point out is the rise of extremist groups, whether it's TTP, Pakistani Taliban, or al Qaeda or others. They all represent to some degree or another the ability to generate threats that can go outside of the local area that they are. So the degree to which the government of Pakistan is focused on bringing to an end the insurgency they face for -- from the Pakistani Taliban, I think this highlights just how important that is -- important for them, and important for our partnership with them -- to do that.
Q Sir, can you give us an assessment of the ongoing security situation inside Kandahar city, and on particularly the wave of assassinations there? And are you concerned that the fear that's spread is going to prevent you from, you know, reaching out to the population there and gaining their trust?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: It won't prevent us from doing that, but I think it highlights the importance of doing that.
Many insurgencies use targeted assassinations as a way to intimidate the population and undercut the ability of the government to establish effective mechanisms. And that's what I think we're seeing here. Certainly some of those murders may be criminally related, but there is a clear insurgent thrust to the primary part of this.
So I think it's key that we see just how dangerous a threat that is to the government of Afghanistan and to Kandahar, and it also highlights the importance of us establishing security inside the city and around it.
Q And has the buildup started -- I'm sorry, the military police, have they started arriving there?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: We have already -- have a number of U.S. military police partnered with the Afghan National Police. That is increasing in the months ahead.
Q General, I wanted to ask you about the peace jirga that's coming up later this month. What are your expectations for it? And can you talk more broadly about what role that reconciliation will play in the eventual winding down of this conflict?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I think the consultative peace jirga is an opportunity for the government of Afghanistan and more widely the people of Afghanistan to come together and to discuss the way forward. I think that necessarily and appropriately includes how they will end this conflict; the resolution, peace. And so I think reintegration will be discussed. I think reconciliation will be discussed.
I think they will try to come out with a -- as a result of extensive discussions -- with a sense of consensus, a sense of the sense of Afghans. And I believe that that puts President Karzai then in a position where he understands and can have an opportunity to lay out his case in front of the people of Afghanistan, the direction he thinks things need to go.
I think, more widely, reconciliation is an Afghan-led process that they are doing an awful lot of thinking about. I think it's an appropriate effort on their part, to help figure out the way ahead for the nation. Because the way ahead cannot be war; the way ahead has to be a resolution to it. So thinking about it during the conflict I think is very, very responsible.
Q Could you just talk about what you call progress in Helmand, where you -- where are the trouble spots, besides Marja, and how do you think Marja is going right now with the government? I know there's been a lot of bumps and problems. And also, you referred in your opening remarks to operating in these other parts of the country. If you could just refer -- just give us a little more detail on that.
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I'll focus most on the Helmand River Valley. The Helmand River Valley, of course, is a rich agricultural area. It's also an area that's had extensive Taliban pressure for a number of years now, dating back really to 2005 and 2006. Some of the areas, like Marja, have been -- were under, until about 90 days ago, complete Taliban control.
What we did, starting last July, is put additional forces into selected areas along the Helmand River Valley, as far south as Khanishin, Garmsir, Nawa. We expanded those areas with a move west of Lashkar Gah into the Marja and Nad Ali areas.
The intent is to create security bubbles, or security zones, that increasingly expand until they are contiguous.
So a farmer, for example, in the south of Khanishin could raise crops and drive his produce all the way up to Lashkar Gah, across to Kandahar, and then potentially down to Spin Buldak, where he could sell those in Pakistan.
We are growing those areas, and that is continuing apace. And I'm happy with the progress of that. I've walked through Marja a number of times. I was in Nawa last summer, in July, days after the Marines went in, and then I've been back in several times since, and the change is stark. I mean, it's dramatic.
If you go every day, each day, it's not a dramatic change. If you go months' difference, then it is.
But a counterinsurgency effort is long-term, because I described -- it's a process, it's not an event. When we come into an area and we start to make a change in the security situation, we start to help the Afghans bring governance, it's halting and it's challenging. In area where there has been very little capacity before, to introduce that is hard.
And to convince the people is even harder, because they watch the change in security, they watch the beginnings of governance, the beginnings of development, and they have to -- as I put in my statement, they have to see it to believe it, but they can't just see it once. They have to see it until they believe it's durable, until they believe it's real.
As I walk through -- down and talk to countless groups and individuals, I'm convinced that's absolutely what they want. But they remain to be convinced. And so I think that that is the challenge over time. It's really a government of Afghanistan challenge, with our help. They must convince the people they have the capability to deliver and then the political will to follow through.
Q Can I do a follow-up on that?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: (inaudible)
Q You talked in the beginning about -- Kandahar, you said, is not controlled by the Taliban. But I'm confused about that, because we keep hearing that the Taliban certainly do move at will through the city and through the egresses in and out of the town.
So what is your assessment of how much they control? And the enemy force that you believe you will be facing in that region, how strong? Have they been stockpiling weapons? You've given them plenty of advance notice.
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: They certainly do not control Kandahar city. They can contest parts of Kandahar city and they can create acts so there's not sufficient security in Kandahar city, but the Taliban do not control the city. You know, you can walk around the streets in Kandahar and there's business going on. It's a functioning city. But it's not at the level of security that makes the people feel comfortable, and ultimately that's going to be critical.
I can't give you numbers of insurgents in and around the city, but they are contesting at various levels in Arghandab to the north, Zari and Panjwayi to the west, Dand and Daman to the south. And that is more classic counterinsurgency, where in some cases they've reinforced, in some cases they've brought in additional weapons, in some cases we've seen additional fighters move in.
But we are working through those methodically with our Afghan partners. There is some up-close difficult fighting that occurs, some incredible performance on the part of our security forces, but that's going to be a difficult fight as we go forward.
I'm absolutely confident that we are moving forward, and I already see progress in it, because I've been up and spent the night in Arghandab about a week ago. So I see and feel that, but it's a process that will take time.
Q Could you walk down the street in Kandahar?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I just walked down the street about a week ago, Dave Petraeus and I next to each other. And he bought bread and distributed it to all the people in the neighborhood, so he's more popular than I am right now in Kandahar. But we did.
Q General McChrystal, I know you've had a lot of talks with General Kayani in Pakistan of late. Did Kandahar come up in those discussions? Have you asked for extra Pakistan help to make sure that as you move into more districts of Kandahar province, they're not simply going across the border to Pakistan?
And on that note, there are reports that after your operations in Helmand, the kinetic side, that actually the Taliban have returned. And in Marja there are reports -- credible reports -- of intimidation and even beheading of local people who work with your forces. Is that your intelligence? And if so, does it worry you?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. It absolutely is things that we see. But it's absolutely predictable. As a counterinsurgency force pushes out insurgents, their smart move is to contest that, to try to undermine what we've done. They can't come in and control Marja like they did before. They can't raise the flag; they can't hold terrain. But they can try to convince the people that they're not secure: Murders, night letters, taxation. And they can try to send a message that says, "This won't last. The coalition will leave. The government of Afghanistan will leave."
And this gets to the heart of us making a credible performance over time to convince the people. So I expect that they will contest this as long as they can. I expect them to contest it for months credibly, and then I expect them to try and contest it after that in any way that they can.
So there will always be some indication of insecurity. But increasingly, security and life will just get better and better. The school is open in Marja, the high school. That has been closed for years. So things that you don't take -- you don't focus on but change the minds of the people over time are key.
In regard to seeing General Kayani, I coordinate with him often. And we have a really solid relationship, and I'm appreciative of that. We do coordinate our campaigns together. We will talk about what one can do to help the other. Our subordinate commanders do that very well, his core commanders and our regional commanders and General Rodriguez at IJC. Is it perfect? No. But it's a huge, long border with two difficult campaigns. But I'm really happy with where that's gone.
Q Sir, when you say that Taliban is not controlling Kandahar city, and when you say that we're not going to see a D-Day operation in Kandahar, how do you explain what we heard in the past two days, that we are facing -- the U.S. military is facing a tough period ahead? Don't you see a contradiction between those two pictures?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Not at all. I actually think the U.S. military would love to find an enemy that was dug in on a piece of terrain, that we could establish a D-Day and we could attack with no civilians around, because that would play to every strength that the coalition has.
What is difficult for the coalition and for the government of Afghanistan is to deal with a more insidious threat, and that's an insurgency; to have to go into areas where civilians are living their lives and try to protect them there without destroying their property, without unintentionally causing harm to them, but at the same time trying to root out those insurgents who threaten them. So I think that this is a difficult challenge. It's just a unique challenge.
Q (Off mike) -- understand that the -- what we are facing in Kandahar is going to be easier than we faced in Marja?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I didn't say easier. I actually said this is a very difficult challenge. The governance part, the political part is different. It's very difficult to convince people of something, that things have changed. You have to -- you have to produce things that they see and feel over time.
So I think that's part of the challenge that the government of Afghanistan faces. We as security forces face being very precise and very careful to try to do what we call a rising tide of security without lapsing into major fighting. And of course, the insurgents would love to see a major block-to-block fight in an area like that.
Q Yes. You're not using the word "operation," because I know the Afghans are very sensitive about that word, but your activities seem to have already started in the Kandahar area. And yet, when you went to that shura with President Karzai, he said to the tribal leaders, "Nothing's going to start until you give your assent." Are you still -- is there still some process by which the tribal leaders have to give their assent to this -- these activities?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I think it's continuous. What we -- and I've talked to President Karzai at length about this, and he's given me his guidance. We're really talking about engagement over time, so that not -- we don't go to the tribes and say, "Do you approve all of the following?" What it is is now, through a more inclusive process, they participate over time and continue to shape it. And I think that's what we're really looking for.
Q General, two questions. Is it true that you are contemplating -- awarding some sort of special honor for soldiers who make a special effort to avoid civilian casualties? And two, what -- how important for your future strategy is redeployment of British troops from Helmand to Kandahar?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I can take the second on. There's no planned deployment of British forces from Helmand to Kandahar.
The issue of courage -- we have a number of ways to recognize courage in uniform. And I think courage in uniform can come under enemy fire in the most traditional ways, or it can come under actions that may not be as expected or as traditional -- involve killing the enemy; it may involve protecting civilians.
There's a great photograph from the Marja operation. I think it's a U.S. Marine shielding an Afghan man and an Afghan child with his own body. He wasn't shooting anyone; he didn't kill any Taliban; but I would argue that he showed as much courage as any that I've seen on the battlefield.
So when we talk about courage, I think -- I don't think we need a different medal to differentiate different kinds of courage.
Q Have you had the flexibility to make these awards anyway? That's correct; isn't it?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I have much flexibility. I do not -- there's a chain of command. I don't approve all awards.
Q I want you to focus a second on two groups that don't get a lot of publicity in the whole counterinsurgency campaign. One is this Treasury-led threat-finance terrorist cell that's going after -- that's supposed to be going after Taliban finances. And two, the role of your special-mission units in targeting Taliban hard-core insurgents: Are they being used in Kandahar City to go after some of these assassination teams?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: The effect of the terrorist threat- finance organization is another, more holistic way to understand the challenges. And that's one of the things that I think Mike Flynn laid out in his intelligence report that I completely agree with. We've not understood all the pieces of this to the depth that I wish we had in the past, and we still don't. We still need to do more. So the terrorist threat finance allows us to understand and, where appropriate, to bring legal action, along with our Afghan partners. And it works very well. It's another way to continue to tighten things down. But a lot more has to be done.
All of our special operating forces are doing a lot of things right now. And so what we're trying to do is maintain pressure on the insurgency, on their networks and on their leaderships, while we do what is typically thought of as more traditional counterinsurgency.
It's interesting. Some people think that it's either/or, that in counterinsurgency you're either handing out volleyballs or you're doing conventional war with tanks. And that's actually not the case. Counterinsurgency is a wide effort that's as much civilian as it is military. In some cases, it's targeted operations against enemy leaderships. In other cases, it's protecting Afghan civilians in the street. And so we do have an ongoing effective effort.
Q How successful has that ongoing effort been?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Tony, I'm satisfied with it so far.
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Let me go back here.
Q In terms of the lessons learned from Marja that you hope to translate for Kandahar -- I know it's two different areas, two different strategic objectives, in terms of what you're trying to do in Marja and Kandahar.
What are some of those lessons learned? And what do you think the Taliban and other elements -- what do you think their lessons learned were for Marja that they hope to incorporate for Kandahar?
I know it's different groups and different elements. But if you could, talk about that.
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I think it's not a done deal, so I think there are lessons still to be learned from that. And when I talk about Marja, I really mean that operation, Operation Moshtarak, which was Nad Ali and Marja, wider than just the one small area of Marja. There are a lot of lessons learned.
For me personally, this was the first time that we had engaged senior Afghan leadership in the planning and the execution of the operation, to the degree that we did. And it was an absolute thing that I think must be the future.
We briefed President Karzai, as many of you have heard, the night before the operation, the air assault. He gave final approval. That's something that I think has to be the model for the future, his engagement and role.
I think the planning that happened together has to be part of that as well. It can be better, as we always learn from that. Our engagement with the local civilians, people -- some people questioned why we telegraphed our punch, why we announced what we were going to do.
And it was because, one, I was happy for the Taliban to leave. We wanted to control the area. If they went elsewhere at this particular point, and they didn't allow the area to become a free fire zone, then I was satisfied with that.
We also wanted to engage the leadership inside Marja and those who had left Marja but stayed in the area, so that we could help craft the political future of the area.
That's another thing that we took away that we need to do in the future, and that's part of what you're seeing in Kandahar.
Now as we did that in Marja, we learned some lessons that we can do that better. The first shura that was pulled together that we met with and coordinated with turned out not to be fully representative. And so over time, within weeks, that was modified so that it was more inclusive, because the most dangerous thing you can do in an area in Afghanistan is to engage parts of the population through tribal structures or other interest groups and leave parts of it out, because if you leave parts of it out, then they obviously have a reason to be frustrated with the government, and they become much more likely to join the insurgency. And you're likely to -- unlikely to get a durable outcome.
Tactically, we learned pretty much what we expected. We knew they'd use a huge number of IEDs. Afghan forces performed well, but they are maturing as we go. We learned that partnering "shana-ba-shana," shoulder to shoulder, with Afghan forces is the way to go. We're better -- coalition forces are better when we're shoulder to shoulder with Afghan forces, and they're better when they're shoulder to shoulder with us.
I think we have time. One more. David.
Q You said the Afghans were going to be in the lead in Kandahar, but what is the actual troop ratio? And how long before we know whether it's working or not?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. I don't have the troop ratio in front of me, David, but it will be -- they will be a significant portion. Whether it's 1-to-1, I'm not sure, because at this point their growth of the Afghan army and Afghan police just doesn't yet allow us to be 1-to-1 everywhere we'd like to be.
They're at about 225,000 total Afghan national security forces. But they of course have got to have a portion of that spread in there -- all around the country, so areas where there's not fighting.
We're particularly thick with coalition forces in the south. So that affects the percentage there.
And what was the second half of your question, please?
Q How long before you know?
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I think it's going to be the end of this calendar year before you will know. I may know before that.
Q (Off mike.) (Laughter.)
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: No. I may know and feel before that, but I think that it will matter when the Afghan people know and when the Afghan people have made that judgment. That will be the key point. That will be the decisive point in all these areas, when the Afghan people have come to the belief that this is the direction things are going and they accept that. So I think they will be key, and we'll go from there.
Q Thank you.
GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Thanks.
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