Trust among Americans and for many of our institutions is at its lowest levels in generations, and stereotyping and prejudice have become substitutes for knowing and understanding one another as individuals.
.. I’ve seen articles that say PBS and its member stations are ranked first in public trust among nationally known institutions. Why then would we degrade or destroy an institution that binds us together?
We need public media that acts as our largest classroom. We need broadcasting that treats us as citizens, not simply as consumers. We need a strong civil society where the connection between different people and groups is firm and vibrant, not brittle and divided. We need to defend against weaknesses within and enemies without, using the tools of civil society and hard power. We don’t have to pick one over the other.
What did we get right and what did we get wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq?
McChrystal: In both cases we didn’t understand either the problem or our objectives going in.
.. Afghanistan in particular was a case of finding a problem of much greater complexity, much deeper roots, and much more difficult issues than we appreciated
.. Iraq was a war of choice versus a war of reaction. And yet, interestingly enough, we didn’t understand the problem there either. Most leaders knew about the Kurds, Sunni, and Shia. But once we got inside we found that the dynamics were actually far more complex. The idea of removing the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and replacing it with a government of our making, and the functions of state just continuing on was based on a fundamentally flawed assumption.
.. In the case of Afghanistan, immediately after 9/11, in terms of military action we should have done nothing initially. I now believe we should have taken the first year after 9/11 and sent 10,000 young Americans—military, civilians, diplomats—to language school; Pashtu, Dari, Arabic. We should have started to build up the capacity we didn’t have.
.. I would have made our case around the world that this is a global problem and that the whole world has to deal with it. I would have spent the full year in preparation. I would not have been worried about striking al-Qaeda that year; they weren’t going anywhere.
.. The Islamic State is the symptom, not the cause. Some argue that if the Islamic State were eliminated the problem would be solved. I would counter-argue that if the Islamic State suddenly vanished, most of the problems in the region would still be there and they would be just as intractable as they are now. The Islamic State is a reaction to the chaos and the weakness of the existing regimes in the region, the lack of legitimacy, not just of the Bashar al-Assad government, but in Iraq and elsewhere. The weakness of these regimes is the absence of a compelling narrative that signals to the people that there will be political, economic, and social opportunities in the future. ISIL is a rejection of the status quo.
.. That is also what the Arab Spring was about. It wasn’t a move to democracy, it was a rejection of the status quo.
.. The great tragedy of the Arab Spring was that there was no compelling narrative around which the people could coalesce. There was no pan-Arab nationalism as there was in the past, nor any other compelling narrative. The only counters to the ISIL jihad narrative have been the narratives of status quo organizations and governments that, in the minds of populations, are, at best, 20th century entities. People don’t want to maintain that; even though they might not want ISIL they haven’t seen another option yet
.. Those autocratic regimes may not have been good but they were stable, as was the presence of the United States since we were so tied to the flow of oil. Today a mother in Ohio is not going to be nearly as willing to send her daughter or son to protect the lanes of oil delivery in the Middle East as she might have been in 1978 because we frankly don’t need Middle East oil today.
.. It means a guaranteed level of participation and a willingness, when necessary, to apply strong economic and military pressure to show that we are a player in the region; that we are a permanent fact of life here. To most people that is a desirable thing. They will always complain about us. But like America in Europe after World War II we were a very stabilizing factor.
.. A European war is not unthinkable. People who want to believe a war in Europe is not possible might be in for a surprise. We have to acknowledge great power politics; we can’t pretend they are gone.
.. . The problem with the rise in power of these individuals—which really didn’t exist in the past—is that individuals in very small groups have a disproportionate ability to act. But they don’t have the vulnerabilities of a nation state. Nuclear power and nuclear strategy were always based on holding each other at risk. The problem is you can’t hold an individual or terrorist group at risk because you might not be able to find them—or they may not care. As a consequence, deterrence in its traditional sense doesn’t work. How can you prevent people from doing harmful things if you can’t deter them?
.. Technology has created the problem because it empowers individuals to do unprecedentedly destructive things. On the other hand technology empowers society to track and monitor people as never before. We are beginning an era in which our ability to leverage technology to track people and control populations is going to create a lot of tension; I think we are going to see a lot more population control measures. We are going to have to give up a lot more of our precious civil rights than most of us imagine because we want security. In other countries that haven’t had the freedom that we have, they may not notice as much, but we are entering a period where we will have to make those choices. And the choices are likely to go in the way of surrendering civil rights for security.
.. The special forces that were formed under President John F. Kennedy were regionally focused; they were taught foreign languages, and the idea was that they would know the people, they would know the culture, and they would be able to operate effectively because of that knowledge. But then we started deploying those groups all over the world and they lost their unique specialized knowledge and skills.
.. The indirect approach on the other hand is when you are essentially leveraging things, for example leveraging the feelings of the local population. You are trying to leverage the capacity, or increase the capacity, of local defense forces. Or if you’re in a guerrilla insurgency mode, you are trying to support an insurgency and leverage that. The indirect approach allows you to get much more scale than you can get with the direct approach alone. A few people if trained properly can have massive effect. More importantly if you use the indirect approach effectively, the local population you are training is owning and solving its own problems. This is hard to do, but if you don’t do it, the moment you’re out of there, there is a huge gap in capacity.
.. On the surface it looks as though for a relatively small investment, and no Americans killed, we beat the Soviet Union. We gave the Soviets their Vietnam. In so doing though, we changed Afghanistan. We created these warlord groups that fought a civil war that then allowed the rise of the Taliban. We created problems that we are now facing.
.. 0Traditional terrorist organizations are hierarchical, pyramid-shaped organizations with tight control and a set of unique attributes, in some ways very similar to a U.S. corporation. We were designed to go after that kind of organization. Al-Qaeda was organized like that, and still is.
.. Unless we step back and implement a fundamentally different approach, and create a fundamentally different environment, nothing will ultimately change. Sometimes you need new organizations or structural changes, but I am always a little suspicious of those because they are never as effective as you expect them to be. Process and culture are more important
.. Just 25 years ago, just being big was good enough, because size and scale created barriers to entry. But one after another, look at Sears and Roebucks, Walmart, Chrysler under stress.
In combat operations in places like Afghanistan, we often confronted the specter of dangerous people with powerful weapons who were a threat to their community and to our soldiers. Our aim was to quickly determine who in that community was a legitimate actor who could be trusted with a firearm and who was not.
Today, some of our politicians and the people who back them seem to promote a culture of gun ownership that does not conform with what I learned in the military.
.. Just as something as complex as a combat operation in a war zone meant that we could not eliminate every enemy combatant or prevent every American casualty, we cannot prevent every dangerous person from getting a gun, and we cannot prevent every gun tragedy. But wouldn’t preventing many of them be worth it? I believe it would.
.. Our leaders can start by doing more to keep guns out of the hands of those who cannot be trusted to handle them responsibly. That must be our mission.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal is a former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and of the Joint Special Operations Command, and a member of the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense.