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American Forces Press Service

U.S. Needs to Redefine Afghan Fight , Top Commander Says

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 1, 2009 – The war in Afghanistan can be won if forces there change the way they fight, the top military commander on the ground said today.

“We must operate and think in a fundamentally new way,” Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said in a speech at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.

In his first speech since submitting his recent assessment on the situation in Afghanistan, the general said that the fight needs to be redefined -- more focused on earning the trust of the Afghan people and less on chasing out the Taliban.

McChrystal called the situation in Afghanistan “serious,” and said that in some ways it is deteriorating. He also said that violence is up, not only because there are more troops on the ground, but also because the insurgency has grown.

At the same time, McChrystal said, he can point to progress, such as in road construction, healthcare and education.

The general said time is critical, and that the war will not “remain winnable indefinitely.” But it is not simply a matter of applying more force to the complex fight, he said. In fact, more is not necessarily better.

“We can’t succeed by simply trying harder. We cannot drop three more bombs and have a greater effect; it is much more subtle than that,” McChrystal said.

The Afghan people must be protected from all threats, he said. To do that, forces must be out, connected with the people. The Taliban many times rule, not because they are wanted, but because they offer protection and rule of law to the villagers.

“Villagers are supremely rational and practical people,” McChrystal said. “They make the decision on who they will support, based upon who can protect them and provide for them the things they need.”

Coalition forces also need to concentrate on areas that are most threatened, he said.

The commander called for faster growth of the Afghan security forces, both the Army and the police. The government also must increase its capacity, and corrupt officials need to be rooted out.

NATO forces must partner more closely with the Afghan forces, living, planning and fighting alongside each other, he said. And coalition forces must be more aware of their actions and their impact on the locals. If coalition forces are too aggressive in their quest to stamp out the Taliban, and end up killing locals or destroying their property, it counteracts their efforts.

“We say, ‘We are here for you. We respect and want to protect you’, and then we destroy their home, kill their relatives, destroy their crops,” McChrystal said. “It’s difficult for them to connect those two.”

Many times, even good intentions have the opposite effect that coalition forces expect, he said.

“Everything that you do is part of a complex system with expected outcomes and unexpected outcomes, desired outcomes and undesired outcomes, and outcomes that you never even know about,” McChrystal said. “In my experience, I have found that the best answers and approaches may be counterintuitive; i.e. the opposite of what it seems like you ought to do is what ought to be done.”

For example, blame is sometimes assigned to coalition forces if a bomb emplaced by the Taliban explodes and kills locals. If the coalition forces weren’t there, the bomb wouldn’t have been there, is the logic, McChrystal said.

“Sometimes, the things which are the most horrific done by the insurgents still reinforce to the Afghan people a decision that coalition forces are either ineffective, or at least not in their interest,” he said.

McChrystal said the stakes are high for security in Afghanistan, and that a loss of stability there brings a huge risk that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will return to operate there.

McChrystal acknowledged that most of his ideas are not new, but that they need to be implemented more aggressively and effectively. Problems there have stemmed from an under-resourced fight that, in some areas, has resulted a degraded performance. It took the coalition too long to recognize the seriousness of the insurgency, he said.

Efforts there still do not have enough expertise, continuity, or enough language-trained people, McChrystal added, .

To succeed there, he said, forces need patience, discipline, resolve and time. He warned against viewing the counterinsurgency fight through a conventional warfare lens.

“Our societies want to see lines on a map and they want to see those lines move forward towards objectives, and you’re not going to see that in a counterinsurgency because you don’t see what’s happening in people’s minds as clearly,” McChrystal said. “So we’re going to have to do things dramatically differently, even uncomfortably differently, to change how we think and operate.”

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