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DoD Media Roundtable with Gen. McChrystal NATO Headquarters in Brussels

Presenters: Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal
June 10, 2010

                 MODERATOR:  Friends, we're on the record and off camera.  And we'll -- (inaudible) -- we'll reserve the last 10, 15 minutes for our two TV standups afterwards.  Thank you.

                 GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Thanks, everybody, for being here.  I do have some comments I want to make, maybe a bit longer than usual, but I'll try to go through them fairly quickly.  I just want to provide a little bit of context. 

                As you know, a year ago to the day is the day I came to Brussels on my way out to Afghanistan.  We stopped here with part of the team.  I went -- been back here, I think, four times since then into Brussels, and not a heck of a lot has changed in Brussels.  But I will tell you, in Afghanistan in the last year a lot has changed.  And so I want to give you a sense of that. 

                So I think it's important that we look back a little bit in the year to see what we've done, because it is critical to where we are going.  And I'll give you some perspective on where we're going and how we assess that progress. 

                If you look back in the last year -- I'm not going to try to tell you that everything changed day to day, because it does not do that way, but over the course of the year it's been pretty significant.  As you remember, we began it with an exhaustive assessment that was directed by the secretary general and our secretary of Defense. 

                We refined our strategy.  We made some difficult resource decisions.  We overhauled our approach to how we were going about operations.  We retooled how we developed the Afghan National Security Forces.  They are the strategic main effort, and they're key to the long-term stability in the country.  Their growth is on track.  We're ahead of the plan, I should say. 

                A year ago there were about 150,000 total Afghan National Security Forces.  Today there are 230,000.  That's a significant growth in a 12-month period.  In 18 months, that 12 plus the next six months, we will have equaled the growth of the last seven years.  So you see the pace has accelerated. 

                But numbers certainly don't tell the entire story there.  It's about quality.  Quality, we think, has improved through partnering.  We talk about operating our forces at every level together.  A year ago there were almost no partnered units in the sense that we define partnering now.  Today about 85 percent of the Afghan National Army has real partnerships, as I go around the battlefield, at COPs (combat outposts) and FOBs (forward operating bases).  That's what we push.  That's what we see.  And where we do it, we see it very, very effective. 

                It's effective for our forces as well.  It makes us better, as well as, we believe, helping mature the ANA.  They're still a force in development, though, and it will take many years for them to reach the kinds of professionalism that we would expect of American military forces.  But we are many, many years into that. 

                The Afghan National Police, we all know, is still challenged.  It is lacking of trained forces.  And it, in many cases, doesn't have as much trust of the populace as a police force must have.  And we recognize those challenges and are working to improve. 

                Last year we had a greater than 400 percent increase in officer training for the Afghan National Police; again, leadership being a key foundation.  A year ago, few police even had formal training.  If you remember, we had a recruit-deploy-train model.  Today only about 50 percent of them have had formal training, but that's significantly up from 12 months ago.  And we are now in a recruit-train-deploy model, and we are going back to pick up deployed police as well.  That will take time, but that has a significant impact. 

                In the operational campaign, as you're aware, the main effort's in the south.  During the past year we've focused in particular on Helmand.  A year ago, the Taliban owned most of the central Helmand River Valley.  You remember in early July we started putting forces down there to augment the small number that had been there.  And they don't own the Helmand River Valley anymore.  There are still challenges.  There is still violence.  It is by no means a completely secure area.  But a year ago, when they owned it, is starkly different from what exists now. 

                We also changed how we operate over the last year.  I was unsatisfied with the structure and the unity of command that we had.  Today we've unified that.  We've created some subordinate commands; the Joint Command General Rodriguez commands.  We've stood up JTF 435 and some others.  And we've tied our efforts closer with the civilian side and more integrated than in the past, and I'm happy with that progress. 

                A year ago, close air support was a leading cause of civilian casualties, and we focused on that.  And today it's down, and Afghans see that.  And some of the feedback I get from Afghans is appreciation for that.  We still have more to do to try to bring civilian casualties, by all measures, as low as we can.  But we've made real progress in parts of that. 

                A year ago we were in the detention business and we really didn't have a plan for transitioning that to the Afghans.  Today the deputy commander of our Joint Task Force 435 is an Afghan officer, and we're on track to hand over all detention operations at the defense -- or the detention facility in Parwan to Afghans in January 2011.  That will constitute all our detention operations. 

                Other things we don't talk about much is special operating forces.  We had about a third a year ago of what we have now.  In the last 90 days, we've captured or killed 121 Taliban leaders around the country.  Now, even in a population-centric COIN campaign, you must have all the aspects.  You must have that part to target key enemy leaders.  You must also have that part which protects the population; and then, of course, the critical governance and development parts.  But this is a significant piece of what we're doing. 

                In the regional dynamic, there's been significant improvement in our cooperation with Pakistan.  We've established new border coordination centers.  We've renewed the tripartite conference structure that we used.  And we've increased and improved relationships at all levels with their forces primarily. 

                It's an important year that brought us to an important point in time.  And I think it's put us in a position to make progress, and they were necessary actions.  And I think the year ahead will be critical.

                 Now, where are we headed in Helmand?  A year ago we talked about -- last July we started by putting Marine forces as far south as Khan Neshin in the north, and many of you have seen that.  In February, we increased that with forces in Nad’Ali (a district west of the Helmand Province) and the Marja area. 

                Where we've been the longest, we see the most progress.  We see progress everywhere, but it's still incomplete.  It'll take time, and it'll require us to consolidate gains.  And importantly, it will require our Afghan partners to be part of that at each step of the way, both the police, army, and then, of course, those governance and development aspects as they rebuild Afghan control of an area that they essentially have not had control for a number of years. 

                In Kandahar, a year ago we couldn't do the kind of effort we have already started around Kandahar today.  We've begun extensive planning and shaping operations, and that's ongoing.  Our force uplift is expanding our ability to secure and clear.  And security forces continue to arrive.

                 A year ago there were about 7,300 total forces in Kandahar city and the environs, and those are the key districts contiguous to the city.  By August of this year, by the end of August, we'll have about 20,300 forces in that same area, so almost three times as many as we had a year ago. 

                The president of Afghanistan is going to conduct another in a series of shuras in Kandahar in the next few days.  I'll be there with him.  And he'll be focusing on all things to improve in Kandahar -- security, governance, reducing corruption, increasing capacity of Afghan governance there and development. 

                We also will be looking at contracting reform, private security companies, and what we can do to help with land disputes, because, as we you know, they underlie many of the problems. 

                In reconciliation and reintegration, last year there was -- in the last year there has been progress in that area in terms of developing concepts and developing a program which the Afghan government has signed out, implementing guidance for their reintegration program. 

                In the recent consultative peace jirga, that represented an event in that process to bring national consensus to it, and I think it was an important step to explain and bring the Afghan people toward that, toward more inclusive governance and bringing dialogue on reintegration back.  And I think they gathered the thoughts of the people and got the mandate that they wanted to move forward in those programs. 

                Transition to Afghan leadership in areas; a year ago, transition was not really being discussed seriously or worked hard.  In the next year, we envision that it will begin.  You heard in the president's inauguration speech in November his dedication to establishing Afghan sovereignty in as many areas as he can, as rapidly as he can.

                 We think that the leadership of the NATO secretary general will be key on this, and we'll be working towards meaningful and credible transition, which we think is important.  We view it as a process, not an event, which enables Afghan ownership and reinforces Afghan sovereignty.  And it puts Afghans in the lead and responsible for their future. 

                I don't think that it immediately reduces the requirement for international-community support of differing kinds, based upon the conditions in each area.  Some areas it will be security assistance.  In some areas it will be less military and it will be more based on help with governance and development.  We must remain committed to Afghan stability and sovereignty as we move through this. 

                Now, how do we assess the campaign progress in Afghanistan?  We've got a very detailed process we are going through.  We focus on three major areas:  GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) capacity, Afghan National Security Force growth and development, and then the security situation, which necessarily means protecting the population but also degrading the insurgency. 

                All three show signs of progress.  It is slow, but it's positive.  It varies from region to region.  And in areas where we have operated, it typically reflects how long effective counterinsurgency efforts have been applied.  Sometimes that progress is modest, but I think it's important that the perception of insurgency, the insurgency having momentum, is reversing. 

                There are going to be tough days ahead.  Violence is up, and I think violence will continue to rise, particularly over the summer months.  It's necessary we roll back Taliban influence as we move towards increased security in the future. 

                Afghan confidence is improving, and they are a courageous and resilient people.  But they have been at war for 31 years or they have been impacted by violence for 31 years, and that's significant.  They want a better future.  And I think that we're setting conditions for them to shape their future.  Progress won't show every day, but it will show over time, week by week and month by month, and it will be evident. 

                And thank you, and I'm prepared to take your questions. 

                Q     Can you talk a bit more about the training and expansion of the army?  I was interested in your assessment that it will be years until they reach the level of professionalism or abilities of U.S. forces.  What letter grade overall right now would you give the army?  And what letter grade do you think would be sufficient in order to turn over some of the security control to them? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Yeah.  If you saw my college transcripts, you'd know I shy away from letter grades. 

                What I will tell you is when we talk about comparing the Afghan National Army to a long-term developed army like the American Army, which is extraordinary, you have to understand that the Afghan -- Afghanistan has had an army for many years, but it was essentially broken.  It was broken by the war against the Soviets.  Then it was broken by civil war.  And then it's been resurrected in just the last few years. 

                The hardest thing about developing an army is developing leaders, non-commissioned officers and officers, and that takes many years.  Typically, as you grow those, you need formal schooling processes, which we are standing up for the Afghans, with the Afghans.  But you also need -- a young lieutenant learns from his platoon sergeant.  And if his platoon sergeant is not experienced, then it slows that process. 

                And so it will take them years to build the kind of wisdom and maturity and experience in the force that allows them to go to the level that we might think.  On the other side, though, there's a lot of experience in Afghanistan with war.  There is some military experience from previous years.  And they are melding that together.  So I think it will go faster than it might otherwise, but it's still a long-term process as we build each piece of it as we go forward. 

                Q     How will you know when a particular unit or the army as a whole is ready to take on security for itself? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  One of the things that helps us is the partnering program, where we are operating with each Afghan National Army force; as we say, “shana ba shana,” “shoulder to shoulder.”  You see them very closely, and so you see what they're good at, you see what they're not good at, and you can help them develop.  And so I think it gives us, which we run through the IJC (ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) Joint Command), an effective way to measure.  And we have a process for measuring the effectiveness of units as we go forward. 

                Q     I'm sorry.  Can you just say, like, two things what that process is?  What do you measure? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Yeah.  You can start with some numbers.  How many people do they have?  How much equipment do they have?  How many people have been trained?  But we also build into that subjective assessments by our commanders that say, "How well have they operated?  How will do they operate partnered?  How well do they operate independently?"  And so there's a combination. 

                If we just go with objective measures, it just doesn't capture some of the key intangibles like leadership. 

                Q     You talked about beginning transition in the next year.  Does that not amount to a delay?  Wasn't the talk of beginning the transition by the end of this year? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  That's a process that is still being worked.  And so the secretary general is working a number of things, along with, obviously, Afghan leadership.  So I think it's a process that's still being discussed.  And the exact start date is something that I don't think has been affixed.  I do know the commitment to move forward with transition as rapidly as practical. 

                Q     When you spoke about special operations force and that increase, can you quantify that a little bit more?  You said it was from one-third or up from one-third.  And are you concerned?  Because it seems like a lot of the civilian casualties tend to be from a lot of these special-operations raids.  So what sort of oversight -- are you increasingly involved in those? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Yeah, our special-operating-force operations are -- almost every one is conducted Afghan and coalition forces together.  And that's a key point as we move forward, both to mature Afghan capacity but also to make our forces better. 

                We're about three times the capacity we were.  And special operating forces is not just the special operations operator himself.  It's ISR.  It's intelligence architecture.  It's, in many cases, lift, fixed and rotary-wing lift, because that's what really gives you precision and agility in those operations.  And we've brought those all up by about a factor of three, and in some cases greater. 

                Q     Do you know what time frame that three-time -- from when -- 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  In about the last year. 

                Q     And as far as concern about civilian casualties with special ops? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  We're concerned about civilian casualties on everything we do.  And so we do tremendous focus on trying to reduce or prevent them.  Numerically, special operating missions don't produce the big percentage of civilian-casualty events.  But each one is one that we look at to determine, "Okay, what could we do in the future to reduce the possibility of" -- because we do have cases where that occurs.  So we look very closely what we can do to reduce that. 

                We've changed the way we operate, to a great degree.  And we've also brought in -- in the last year we brought in our Afghan partners to a much greater degree to include giving President Karzai detailed briefings of how we operate, detailed demonstrations, so that that partnership's complete. 

                Q     Are they informed before these operations are carried out?  Are they given a chance to decide whether it goes forward or not? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  They are, and they do.  And they are part of the coordinating process. 

                Q     General, that was a relatively upbeat description you gave at the beginning, certainly compared to what we heard a year ago about what was going on in Afghanistan. 

                Yesterday Secretary Gates said that by the end of this year you'll need to show progress, that we're no longer in a stalemate.  Are we in a stalemate still, or are you feeling confident that you'll be able to do that by the end of the year? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  I do believe we'll be able to do that by the end of the year.  I believe that we have set the foundation in a number of areas that allow us to move forward.  The challenge remains that violence is up and it will remain up, and there will be very, very difficult days. 

                As you know, a suicide bomb killed 38 Afghans in the Arghandab today and wounded as many as 72 others.  And there will be more events like that.  And they will give the impression that may counter or be contradictory to the idea of progress. 

                But what I will tell you is if you look at the Helmand River Valley -- and I ask you to step back and look at it -- people can move places they couldn't move before.  We have Afghan officials in places there were not Afghan officials before.  And so if you look up close and you see some problem with something, you also have to step back and see the trend in direction.  And so that's what we'll be working not only to produce, but to communicate. 

                Q    And one specific follow-up on Helmand.  Secretary Gates was with -- in London meeting with Secretary Fox and said that there was discussions about the need for more American forces in British areas in Helmand and that he was saying they may have to come from the new American forces coming into Afghanistan.  Is that true?  And how much help do the British need there?  And isn't that an indication that things are tough? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  As you know, in an area like the Helmand River Valley, things are tough and have been tough.  And we've been fortunate to have great forces -- British forces, U.S. Marines, Danes, Estonians -- all doing a tremendous job there. 

                We have not made a decision where to put additional forces at this particular time.  That's the kind of thing that we work at the operational level.  General Nick Carter, who commands Regional Command South right now -- a British officer, great officer -- that's the kind of decision that he would make in coordination with General Rodriguez at the IJC. 

                So we have not made that decision at this point, but I would never limit our ability to move forces on the battlefield if it was required. 

                Q     How concerned are you about the resignations of the interior minister and the intelligence chief?  These were people you praised very highly and worked with closely.  Were you aware that this was coming?  And what's your view of all that? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  I was not aware that it was coming.  But I would give you a bit of context in it.  First, both had served in the government for a long time at ministerial-level positions, longer than most ministerial-level operators would serve in our nations.  So I think turnover is not something that we should automatically assume is unnatural in a governmental process.  So if we step back and look at it that way, I think it's probably natural that way. 

                I think that what we see now is the government of Afghanistan will replace those leaders.  They will stand up.  And they did a great job.  And so they'll find quality people to replace them.  And it'll be important that the new team meld together.  But I think it will be incumbent upon President Karzai to pick the right kind of balance and the right kind of talent to lead those ministries, and I'm confident that he will. 

                Q     And on Kandahar again, have you readjusted your plans to some degree, partly because of what you've got available from the Afghan Security Forces?  Do you have to adjust the pace to a certain degree because you might not have the Afghan units you need at a precise moment, or is that not the case? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  We reassess our plans about every day, as most military commanders do, because you react to developments on the ground. 

                We haven't changed the focus of what we intend to produce around Kandahar, nor have we changed the basic force structure.  What we do do is we continue to modify it.  I do think that it will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated. 

                As we conduct counterinsurgency operations around the country, in Helmand River Valley, we are reminded that it's a deliberate process.  It takes time to convince people.  And so as we go to do operations -- well, as we do the effort around Kandahar, Hamkari, we are already in the process of doing political and military shaping. 

                But it's my personal assessment that it will be more deliberate than we probably communicated or than we thought earlier and communicated.  And so I think it will take a number of months for this to play out.  But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.  I think it's more important we get it right than we get it fast. 

                Q     Just to follow up, when you talk about it will take a number of months to plan –do you mean how long they will have to be there longer, or the beginning of more kinetic -- 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Well -- 

                Q     In the outskirts, of course. 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Yeah.  We've always said that we'd need to be there for an extended period, and it would, over time, transition to Afghan National Security Forces. 

                I think that the timing in which we can be decisive in the environs around the city will probably happen more deliberately than we had originally laid out.  It's absolutely still going to unfold in the general way in which -- at least our plan now -- in the general way in which we've laid out.  But I don't intend to hurry it. 

                I want to make sure we've got conditions shaped politically with the local leaders, with the people.  We really want the people to understand and literally pull the operation towards them, as opposed to feel as though they are being forced with something they didn't want. 

                Q     Post Ramadan now?  Is that what we’re looking at, for when this would start, as opposed to starting before Ramadan? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Well, it's already -- again, it's already started.  There is not a single day when I can tell you, "It starts here and it ends here."  So I can't give you a day like that.  I will tell you it will play out over a number of months, which will -- some of which is happening before Ramadan.  But there will be significant things happening after Ramadan as well. 

                Q     General, how much would that reassessment or the decision to become more deliberate about these operations was a result of lessons learned in Marja? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  I think they contributed to it an awful lot.  As you know, when we -- some of the lessons we learned in Marja is we did very good coordination with the Afghan people, shuras and what not.  But then, as we did it, we found it's even more complex than we thought.  And so we need to educate ourselves from that and do it even better in Kandahar. 

                We learned that as we help develop Afghan civil capacity, governance capacity to go in, we need to do even more prep than we did going into the Helmand River Valley.  So we learned from our operations.  We know that everything we did in the Helmand River Valley has not been as good as we would like to do it.  We think we can get better.  We won't be perfect, but we think we can get better.  And we think the Afghans are learning as well, because we're doing joint after-action reviews? 

                Q     Is part of that process you're talking about that you've got still got more forces tied up in Helmand, in Operation Moshtarak, than you had expected at this time that you can't transfer, particularly on the Afghan side, that you can't transfer to Kandahar? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  That's not really the calculus in it right now.  We had intended to keep forces in the Helmand River Valley, so that's really not what's driving this.  It's more the shaping.  It's more conditions.  We want this thing to be as shaped as possible before we go. 

                Unlike conventional military operations where you circle a hill on the map and then you take the hill, when you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them.  And so we've got to do that shaping process to get that right.  And then when we show up, if we just show up with security capacity but we can't bring in as much governance -- and it won't be perfect, but as much governance as we can -- we have unmet expectations.  So what we're trying to do is improve our capacity to get that right. 

                Q     General, will we know by the end of the year if the Kandahar operation is decisive, if it's worked? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  I think we'll know whether it's progressing.  I think it will be very clear by the end of the calendar year that the Kandahar operation is progressing.  I don't know whether we'll know whether it is decisive.  I think historians will tell us that.  But I think, by the end of the year, we'll have enough progress around Kandahar to be clear to the Afghan people that a substantive change and improvement has been made, and we'll continue on that point. 

                Q     Are you feeling a bit squeezed?  On the one hand you have these political deadlines coming up that you've got to show progress by the end of the year and July 2011, and at the same time, as you said, you need to make sure you have time to do this right from an operational standpoint.  Are you starting to feel squeezed by those two needs? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  It's a balance.  And that's not the only pressure.  I mean, there's obviously the expectations of the international community.  There is just the desire to complete operations as rapidly as possible, which of course, we know, takes time.  But there's also the expectations of the Afghan people.  So there is -- after nine years of our involvement there, they also have a certain impatience.  And those are all factors we have to take into account. 

                MODERATOR:  Sir, I'm afraid we have time for just two more questions. 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Okay. 

                Q     I wanted to ask one more about -- I know it's always hard to talk about benchmarks, and a lot of this is subjective.  You talk about measuring leadership in the Afghan Security Forces as one measurement that's subjective, of course.  But can you give us any sense of what you will be looking for at the end of December of this year?  You mentioned Kandahar, some kind of progress.  Can you give us a couple other examples of things that you're looking for that you will say, "Okay, we did that; I get to check that?" 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Yeah.  We collect a huge number of metrics, but then the challenge is to bring them together into something that means something, like kinetic events, how violent it is.  Some people say, "Well, that determines whether you win or lose."  It doesn't.  Putting them in context is the challenge, because if we are prosecuting violent events to degrade the insurgency, it has different value than some other things might. 

                What we are looking at is, to make it start real easily, is the capacity of Afghan governance in areas.  So if you take a district, and we typically look at district level and then bring those up to province, do they have the people there that represent the district governor?  Do they have the representation for line ministry?  Have we started to bring in basics of rule of law so that the people feel that there is credible governance?  And again, that's a sliding scale.  It's not yes or no.  It's how much.  That's one of the critical ones. 

                We look at freedom of movement for Afghans, which reflects security to a great degree.  Can they drive from Marja to Kandahar?  Can they drive from Marja through Kandahar to Spin Boldak and sell products in Pakistan without being stopped or endangered by IEDs and things like that? 

                We look at -- when you talk about the combat capacity of Afghan National Security Forces, we look at their strength.  We look at their equipment.  We look at our subjective accounts of how they operate and what we think about them.  And we also look at what the Afghan people think of them, and we do that through polling. 

                So we bring all these together and we try to -- and there are others -- we try to say, "Are the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police getting better?"  And, of course, in cases like the police, you have to go very regionally, because the police in one area may be vastly different than in another area. 

                And then there are things; the price of goods, because it reflects freedom of movement.  It reflects the market economy.  It reflects is life getting back to a more normal place.  So we spend an awful lot of time trying to bring these together.  Those are the kinds of things, by the end of the year, that we look at.  But we look at them sort of constantly. 

                Q     Thank you. 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Thank you. 

                MODERATOR:  And our last question, please. 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Sir. 

                Q     Yes.  What do you think is necessary?  For example some many -- (inaudible) -- countries tried to contribute non-military aspect like Japan.  What do you think is necessary?  What is the most urgent from your point of view? Do you have any message to (inaudible)? 

                GEN. MCCHRYSTAL:  Yes, sir.  Of course, what Japan has provided has been very effective.  And, of course, the pledge to help with reintegration funding we consider very, very valuable.  There are a number of ways that countries can provide for helping with development. 

                I would encourage people -- countries, as much as possible, to put money not into narrow projects that the donor country wants, but to support the government of Afghanistan, because it builds their capacity and credibility as they do that.  I think we can hold them to account to do it well, but I do think it's important that we support the government as it goes. 

                Thanks. 

                Q     Thank you very much. 

                Q     Thank you, General. 

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