BBC: Hard Talk: Stan McChrystal

* BBC Hardtalk: 08 Nov: Stan McChrystal.

Stan McChrystal: Leaders: Myth & Reality

BBC Hardtalk, 08 Nov 2018



Sarah: The US midterm elections were a mixed picture for President Trump, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and that will allow them to block the Presidents legislative agenda. As a leader Donald Trump has been accused of dividing the country and now Congress is split. My guest today is one of America’s best known and celebrated military leaders. General Stanley McChrystal oversaw the American war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since leaving the military he has studied and taught the principles that make good leaders effective. So what kind of leadership does he think the United States needs now?

Sarah: General Stanley McChrystal, welcome to hard talk.

Stan: Thanks for having me.

Sarah: Divided country, now divided congress. What would you advise your commander in chief to do given the situation that faces him.

Stan: Well I think in the short term view was winning the 2016 election and then another short term view was trying to hold onto what he had in the 2018 elections, I think right now what he has to do is take a long term view. A long term views means he’s got to think not about his legacy, but about American values, about America’s sustainability as a working democracy. I think that means you have to bring people together. I think that means you have got to get America to have a national conversation on leadership because I think we have a crisis of leadership right now, and if we don’t fix it, we are going to be in trouble.

Sarah: Do you see him doing that?

Stan: Not a glimmer yet, and I actually don’t see enough leaders in America from either side. There’s a little bit of rhetoric about it, but actually acting in that way, I think its time.

Sarah: Okay you talk about a crisis in leadership, why?

Stan: Well I think we have a number of activities. One, we have incentivized individual behaviour and politicians because parties are weaker and politicians can push their own personal agenda and well-being. I think we’ve also incentivized very extreme on the left and right. We pull at people’s emotions. We use fear, we use those things which excite people to generate support and excitement and at the end of the day, you have got to move to the middle because a working democracy depends upon an informed electorate that’s engaged and willing to compromise.

Sarah: So you’ve written about leaders, your latest book, Leaders: Myth and Reality. Would you describe President Trump as a successful leader.

Stan: It would be impossible to argue that he has not been successful by his metrics. He has been elected President of the United States. He has gathered power within his party. He has been able to push a number of items on his agenda. So he has been effective at doing that. He has been successful by a certain set of metrics. I don’t believe that those are the metrics or the goals that are best for the United States, but you can’t argue that he has had success.

Sarah: Okay so has he been a good leader, you would say what, No?

Stan: Well again if you say effective or not, that’s one measure. Good or Bad I do not believe that he’s been the leader America needs, really comes from inside Americans. We need to look in the mirror, we need to decide who each of us are, then we need to decide what our nations is, what is our character, what are our values. How do we want to be viewed in the world. What do we want to leave for our grandchildren. We need to make those decisions and then we need to decide what our leaders should be and then from that who our leaders should be.

Sarah: Okay but you will know there are millions of people who recognize Donald Trump for the leader they feel they haven’t had.

Stan: There has been a frustration with the failure of I’ll use the word elites in American politics, for probably decades, at least since the end of the second world war. The Vietnam war, the financial crisis. There is a large part of American electorate that feels left behind economically, feels threatened socially and culturally and feels helpless politically. They have a point, its an absolutely legitimate view. As a friend of mine once said, he thinks Donald Trump is the wrong answer to the right question. I think that’s true. I think it is fair to question our political system, its fair to question the direction we are going. I just think that in this particular case we followed someone who is more populist than someone who is a good long-term leader for our country.

Sarah: Okay so lets look at one of his policies and his approaches in the run up to the election, which is the way that he is dealing with the thousands of people coming through Central America up to the United States, the caravan as its called. He’s referred to it as an invasion. Is it?

Stan: In my view, no.

Sarah: Because as a military man, an invasion represents something different?

Stan: Well it creates a mental image, when we think of an invasion, we think of a column of Russian tanks going along a highway to crush our line or take over the country. That’s the image that people get and it brings a certain emotion and a certain willingness for certain action. Nations must control their borders. Actually the United States of America like any nation should control our borders, nobody should be able to cross our borders without our permission and agreement. Its hard to but that should be the goal. period. That said: nations should be compassionate, we should have effective immigration laws when you see a column that’s made up of women, children and young men who want to get across to avoid danger in Guatemala and Honduras, its hard to consider them invaders.

Sarah: You talked about the importance that a nation should be able to control its borders. President Trump has sent thousands, or will ultimately send 15,000 US soldiers to the border to control it. There has been some push back from various senior military figures, would you be among them?

Stan: I don’t think its the move that I would recommend. I think it also plays to emotion. I actually think it was designed to go before the midterm elections, to meet with the idea of the invasion of this caravan. But it actually should be viewed separate from ‘should we control our border’. I think that shouldn’t be a debate. That is something that we as a nation should do. But when you send a bunch of troops down to the border, and there are some legal limitations of what they can do. You need to make sure that you explain to the American people, that this isn’t a classic invasion, and our soldiers aren’t going to man the ramparts and shoot the invaders, because that is inaccurate.

Sarah: Okay, except we know that President Trump has said ‘I’ll tell you this that anyone throwing stones and rocks like they did in Mexico where they badly hurt police and soldiers in Mexico. We will consider that a firearm’. Implicit in that idea is that they may be shot at.

Stan: Well I think it would be dramatically tragic to put soldiers in a position where they potentially shoot immigrants moving forward.

Sarah: Okay that is where this is a fascinating extraordinary issue, but there are senior military figures, General Jim Dubik, who oversaw the effort to rebuild the Iraqi army and police and you will know these figures. The biggest issues is whether the military is being used for partisan political purposes. Its dangerous because it will politicize the use of force in ways that democracies should avoid. Now he said that actually just about the sending off the troops, and he’s right?

Stan: I think Jim Dubik is right. I think we’ve used military force for political reasons as far back in history as you can record. That said it doesn’t make it right, particularly for a symbol like this, for internal domestic politics. I am critical of this move. What I want to make sure that we don’t do is, we don’t then say well we should control our borders. Of course we should. We need to make sure that is clear. Sometimes when we get around the political rhetoric, we forget it. Can you imagine the image that would come up if immigrants came forward and we used physical force against them? I mean what it would do to the United States reputation in the world, to the morality of the soldiers put in that position is unconscionable. .

Sarah: So you have written what you said to your own troops in situations like Iraq and Afghanistan: If when you get on the ground and the order we gave you was wrong; execute the order we should have given you. If you were in a situation where you were controlling troops on the Mexican border, would you effectively defy the Presidents order?

Stan: Well, all soldiers have a responsibility not to obey any illegal orders and I would consider shooting innocent civilians an illegal order. There are rules of engagement put out. If an order is not illegal, but its just not very smart, leaders have a responsibility to contest that order, to go back up the chain of command and say ‘this doesn’t make sense’; but they don’t then have the right not to follow the order if they simply disagree with policy.

Sarah: Right, but we’ve already seen that, haven’t we? At least certainly from relatively senior figures that we hear of in the White House, we hear from Bob Woodward’s book that Whitehouse aides have been thwarting presidential orders. We know also that someone you know well, Secretary of State Jim Mattis, according to Bob Woodward, when there was a chemical attack believed to be by the Syrian leader, and President Trump said, lets kill him, lets go in and kill the lot of them, Jim Mattis is reported as saying, once he had hung up the phone. We are not going to do any of that, we are going to be more measured.

Stan: I don’t know any more about it, than what is written there.

Sarah: But that is the right approach is it?

Stan: Well, if it is illegal, you have a responsibility not to do it. If it is bad policy and you disagree with it, you should argue with it, you should make a counterclaim. If you can’t live with it, you should resign. If you just find that its not a good idea, but the military can’t have the decision whether or not to implement the orders of the civilian leadership of the government. The civilian leadership must control the military, so the military doesn’t pick and choose what it wants to do. The military must follow legal orders, because if it doesn’t then suddenly we end up in a strange situation where the military actually considers itself the leadership of the country, and that’s not the American constitution.

Sarah: Now you experienced where you were leading operations laterally in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and you experienced what you called ‘an unfortunate deficit of trust’ between the White House and the Department of Defense; and this was over the time there was talk of about sending more troops, a surge of troops, to Afghanistan. You said of it, that loss of trust, or the absence of trust, that the effects were costly. In what, in lives

Stan: Well its hard to put a metric on it, but the reality is that it makes everything harder and therefore potentially in terms of costs in lives, because what happened with the new arrival of the Obama administration in January of 2009, there was some misunderstanding. There were requests for troops which were tabled right after the Obama team took office and they naturally recoiled at the request. I was in the Pentagon at the time and that request had been around for several months and the Pentagon had not put it forward because they didn’t want to do it before the election, they thought it would be unfair to a new President to make a decision like that before the election. With the result that they put it in, right after the new team came in. Well it felt an awful lot to the Whitehouse team like a power play. Brand new administration comes in and the Dept of Defence asks for more troops. It wasn’t that, in my view, and I was in a place to see from the Pentagon. But it started this mistrust that built up over the months and the sad thing is that it was good people on both sides, trying to do the right thing, but when that mistrust builds up its hard to bridge that gap.

Sarah: Were you aware of both sides at the time, or is it just with hindsight that you have come to the understanding.

Stan: I was aware from others that the mistrust was building. I have a better perspective on it now, but you could feel it, and you actually could have sympathy for both sides, saying hey we are just trying to do our job, what we think needs to be done.

Sarah: But this was of course in Afghanistan, so one of the metrics must be lives?

Stan: Well lives, success of the mission, there are always tied together.

Sarah: Okay well lets talk about the success of the mission, but before we do, you have written about Afghanistan. You were actually in control for a year, prior to that you were much longer in Iraq. Yet you said about Afghanistan, that the mission affected you in a way that Iraq didn’t. You developed strong feelings for the Afghans and their nation. Why?

Stan: The afghans are a people that really can endear themselves. I mean they have had a very difficult thirty plus years if you go back to the late 70’s and when you actually get close to Afghans, you see people who have been subject to civil wars, subject to invasion from the Soviet Union, subject to Pakistani operations inside their country. They have tried to put their society back together, but its really hard. Are there people who are really corrupt? Is there inefficient government, all of that is true? But when you actually watch soldiers die for their country, policemen guard posts, you watch politicians try to make it work and up close its much more sympathetic, than it looks from afar.

Sarah: And yet here we are in 2018, seventeen years after the United States removed the Taliban regime and according to a US congressional agency the Taliban owns more territory now than at any point, since they were removed all that time ago. The levels of deaths are 20,000 this year of civilians and combatants on all sides, another record high. Afghanistan has been a failure for Afghanistan as well as for the United States.

Stan: Well you can’t claim its a roaring success, I’m not going to stand here and tell you that. Its been very frustrating. But if you go back to 2001 and the Taliban regime prior to that, the number of females in school now for the last 17 years has skyrocketed. There is a young generation of males as well. There are opportunities that have been created admits all of the problems, that I think has changed the underlying foundations of what Afghanistan is. I don’t think the future looks like the past. I don’t think very many people want to go back to a pre-911 Afghan Taliban run regime, and the Taliban has changed itself.

Sarah: So even though there are all these attempts and talking to bring the Taliban back in to the government, you don’t see that as a backward step.

Stan: Well I see it as a challenge, I’m telling you that Afghanistan is an extraordinary difficult challenge. I’m probably biased but I don’t see it as something that we should just automatically walk away from, because I think the Afghan people deserve better.

Sarah: Do you think that that at the moment is the intention of the United States and others basically want a way out?

Stan: I think there is an awful lot of people who would want a way out and I think that causes the Afghans to have a tremendous apprehension. Remember after the defeat of the Soviets in 1989, the United States and others basically turned our backs on Afghanistan, we said ‘okay problem solved, Soviets are out’ . Yet the Afghans had lost 1.2 million people, fighting against the Soviet and in their minds, they had fought our Cold War enemy as our surrogates. We had given them some arms and money, but then we disengaged.

Sarah: And yet you have someone like the former British Ambassador to Kabul Sarah Cooper Coles who said ‘what we are doing essentially is cultivating an alotment in the jungle, what happens when the gardeners leave? Do you sympathize with that, cause it sounds like you are sentimental about it, when in reality what practical difference can the United States make?

Stan: Again I am sentimental about it and I think the Ambassador could make a hardcore business decision we don’t invest good money after bad, that kind of stuff. Get up close to the afghan people, turn your back and say ‘okay we’re out of here’. I’m not for thousands of troops there, I’m not for billions of dollars, I think we have got to get a negotiated settlement, but we also have to be compassionate about how we think of the world, and if we do walk away and the Taliban regime takes over and Al’Qaeda is invited back, then we have a political problem that goes back to the pre-911 problem and that puts politicians in a difficult position.

Sarah: Okay well lets turn to a parallel story of American intervention in Iraq, where you were in control for years, you ran ISAF and US forces for Afghanistan just for a year, but you had made your name in Iraq, and it was commanding special forces operations there. A unit which has been described as a killing machine. Is that really what it was?

Stan: JSOC became an organization focused on Al’Qaeda in Iraq, we became very effective of going after what is called high-value targets, and taking out Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq. It was a necessary part of decreasing the ability of what was a growing terrorist network and it was really lethal in that job.

Sarah: You often accompanied the teams at night.

Stan: I did.

Sarah: Why?

Stan: Whenever people are doing a job that’s dirty and dangerous and complex. One, leaders have got to go, so they can put their own eyes on it, you have got to know what is happening on the ground. You have to have an appreciation for the reality of what is occurring there or you can’t make decisions about it. When you try to do something from miles away, you have very little appreciation for the nuance of it. That’s one part, the other part is that when the same professionals are doing it year after year, you have got to share a bit of the hardship and danger with them. They have got to know that you are willing to put yourself on the line, that you’re not worth more than they are.

Sarah: And the things that went wrong in the early years, Abu Ghraib of course, but there were others, Camp Nama and Balad where there were reports of the mistreatment. You have been very open about that we didn’t know what we were doing.
Stan: Right

Sarah: Were you too slow getting a grip on that?

Stan: I was as fast as I knew how to be for the parts that I was involved in, I wasn’t involved in Abu Ghraib at all, nor was my organization. We came into it with none of the trained people, trained interrogators, trained interpreters, none of the infrastructure and nobody had had experience in doing this before because the US army thought about it in terms of prisoners of war, a world war II kind of construct. This was a case where we had terrorists where we were trying to figure out what US policy and what military execution of that policy would be for dealing with them. We didn’t do it very well, I mean the reality was

Sarah: Did you get useful information because you know President Trump has spoken approvingly of some form of enhanced interrogation.

Stan: We got tremendously useful information but I would never be in favour of enhanced interrogation or torture, because in the long run it corrodes your force, it degrades your moral capacity. We got our best information from extended conversations with detainees. We had one detainee that ultimately led us to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and we had him for 50 days. We interrogated him with a man and a woman interrogation team every day, not pressure interrogation, conversation building up rapport, and that is what actually works.

Sarah: And you are talking about a man there, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who you oversaw the killing of. He features in your book on leaders. Alot of people would be somewhat bemused by almost the relationship you have with him.

Stan: Well its the right term. Zarqawi grew up in a tough industrial town in Jordan, he became more enthusiastic about fundamental Islam, went to Afghanistan, wanted to become a Jihadi, came back, got thrown in prison and then became a hardcore leader, not just a terrorist leader, but a leader, but a zealot, somebody who burned white hot with belief.

Sarah: We have a situation where you writing about leaders, I wonder if you were appraising your own role and self there.

Stan: Well you always have to look in the mirror. When I looked at Zarqawi the thing about him in Iraq was, he was a psychopath. He personally beheaded people, he killed thousands of innocent Iraqis, but he was an effective leader. I could disagree with him completely, but he was a charismatic leader.

Sarah: Were you an effective leader?

Stan: I think so.

Sarah: Despite the fact that ultimately you were in a position where you had to leave because of comments made infront of a Rolling Stone magazine journalist.
Stan: I’m not a perfect leader, I’m not without flaws; I’ve made big mistakes and I’ll probably make big mistakes again, but the reality is that an effective leader is someone who interacts with their followers in a way to produce the kind of outcome that is sustainable over a long term.

Sarah: Now you were in such an important position in Iraq and Afghanistan, when you look back at it. Did you see it as a form of arrogance perhaps that America thought that it could impose its form of democracy, somewhere like Iraq and particularly when you look at the situation there now.

Stan: I think the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. I’m not sure I would use the word arrogance because the people that I knew who were involved in advocating for that, I never saw arrogance, what I saw was almost a blindness, an inability to see a more nuanced picture, a desire through whatever you want to call it idealism, to come and bring democracy to an area, that was unlikely to stick easily. And if you knock down a regime of somebody like Saddam Hussein. If you look at all the pieces around Iran and the other players, it was hard to see how suddenly removing that regime was going to stabilize the region. That information was there and we didn’t do due diligence, but I will tell you I never saw anybody trying to do anything for what I consider bad intentions, or willful dishonesty. But I did see some bad decisions. I think Afghanistan is easy to criticize in its execution. I don’t think its as easy to criticize in its intent.

Sarah: General Stanly McChrystal, thank you for coming.

Stan: Thank you.