Last night U.S. General (ret.) Stanley A. McChrystal, former Commander of ISAF forces in Afghanistan, gave an hour-long interview at the Council on Foreign Relations as part of the HBO History Makers series. The talk can be viewed here. The discussion focused on his experiences in Afghanistan and raised several important issues about SSR in the country.
In particular, McChrystal noted the challenge of building security forces “from scratch” after the devastation of war, the insufficient leadership in the Afghan Police, and the improving performance of the army. He posited: “As much as we sometimes get frustrated with them [the Afghan National Security Forces] – we as a nation – they’ve made an awful lot of progress, but they’ve got a long way to go.” Just hours later in a separate interview, however, Afghan President Hamid Karzai lamented the failure of security in Afghanistan despite ten years of international intervention, explaining: “We’ve done terribly badly in providing security to the Afghan people and this is the greatest shortcoming of our government and of our international partners”.
General McChrystal also noted the dilemmas of establishing security amidst the insurgency, and effective policing in particular. He described his experience in Marjah, a former Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, when he met with village elders before entering the area. The local leaders accepted ISAF’s entrance on three conditions (as described by McChrystal): “[one,] if you are not going to destroy the place in the process of coming in; two, if you’re going to stay; and three if you’re not going to bring the current Afghan police back in”. The last condition was a reaction to the abuses of Afghan Police under Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, the former Governor of Helmand appointed by President Karzai who “was as close to a local dictator-warlord as you can imagine”. The General responded to the elders’ request by bringing in the Afghan National Police, but noted the dilemmas of hiring and expanding the police force because “the people who want back in power, the local warlords, they do everything they can to get the boys back in, and this is part of not knowing the area – sometimes you don’t know who the boys are. And so you’re trying to talk to enough people to get a really clear view of what ground truth is and that can be very difficult, and if you ask one person, you’ve got to remember you may be getting their bias.” In Marjah, this meant consulting leaders of the 20 different tribes of the area and constantly talking to ordinary people in order to vet Police development.
Finally, McChrystal noted the link between security provision and the struggle to win hearts and minds, stressing the importance of good governance in this relationship. He explained that “you first provide security that they think is credible and durable, then the hearts and minds tend to be in a position where you can convince them… All the time, Afghans are doing some mental calculations. Their first calculation: are you going to be effective, because if you’re not going to be effective, they don’t want to get off the fence because they don’t want to be in your camp when you fail… Second is they are trying to see if you are going to get the governance part right. You get the government part wrong, they can also end up on the wrong side there.” He noted that he and Deputy Commander David Rodriguez “agreed that the hardest part was going to be the governance part. We were convinced that we could make enough progress in security but it’s that tipping point in the minds of people that the government’s going to be better next year than this year and better the year after that. It doesn’t have to be good, they just have to believe it’s getting better.” In this vein, he highlighted the importance of civilian expertise to complement and support military efforts.
The interview developed these and other key insights that underscore the importance of concerted security sector reform in Afghanistan and the challenges that remain as international forces begin their withdrawal. Such issues are analyzed by Mark Sedra in recent articles in The Mark which can be viewed here (part 1) and here (part 2). Further, a coming British Government review of the Afghanistan conflict warns of the risk of civil war, Taliban takeover, and the reversal of coalition gains.