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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Commander, NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal February 04, 2010

Press Roundtable with Gen. McChrystal in Istanbul, Turkey

Q General, can you give us an update Marja offensive, the plans? Have the operations begun? Where does that stand?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: What we're doing in the Helmand River valley writ large, we really started last summer increasing security in a number of areas. You saw where the Marines went in. And British forces, Danish forces, Estonian forces went in.

And they started to create a series of secure -- bubble security zones -- pretty classic counterinsurgency. But they were not contiguous, not connected. So what we're doing is, we're expanding that, increasing the areas that will be under government of Afghanistan control.

The big thing that I am most happy about where we are now is the progress with Afghan national security forces being in the lead. I probably misspoke there, because it's more than Afghan national security forces. It's Afghan government.

So the planning that we've gone for here has actually been led by the governor, supported by the aligned ministries. And they started from rear to front, in terms of operation.

They started with the build, planned the build, planned the hold, planned the clear and then the shape, which is actually the way you need to think through, so you don't get partway.

So the planning is in great shape. I went through a number of recent planning events with them. And I'm very confident and very impressed with where they are, particularly the partnership.

Q And any more timeline on this? I mean, are you still just saying operations will take place very soon?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, that's as specific as I'd want to be. But it's going to be relatively soon.

Q General, why speak so publicly about this? It is somewhat unusual to be so open? And what's the thinking behind that?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Well, there's inevitability that is associated with the growth of security here: the growth of Afghan national security forces, both in number and quality, the improvement of Afghan government capacity, which has got a long way to go, but we're growing that, and then the growth of coalition force capacity with the forces that -- additional coalition forces that have been approved recently.

What we're doing is we're trying to signal to the Afghan people that we are expanding security where they live. We are trying also to signal to the insurgents, the Taliban primarily in this area and the narcotraffickers, that it's about to change.

If they want to fight, then obviously that will have to be an outcome. But if they don't want to fight, that's fine too. If they want to reintegrate into the government and what-not, because as you've heard us talk before, we're not interested in how many Taliban we kill.

We'd much rather have them see the inevitability that things are changing and just accept that. And we think we can give them that opportunity. And that's why it is a little unconventional to do it this way.

But I think it gives everybody a chance to think through what they're going to do before suddenly in the dark of night, they're hit with an offensive and they may not have thought through what they want to do.

Q And if I could follow up, how important a test case, for your strategy that you've developed and for the president's larger strategy, is this offensive? I mean, is this the first real test of your theories?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I think we've actually been operating the doctrine already. And we're seeing a lot of good cases of it.

I think this is the next example of the evolution and I guess the maturation of the capacity, the maturation of coalition forces as we get better at it but also the maturation and development of the government of Afghanistan and their forces.

So I don't consider it a test case. I consider it the next step as we go forward.

Q Just following up too, can you talk a bit about the risk factors in announcing ahead of time, particularly the IED threat? Because obviously even if the guys do run, they've had this opportunity now for several weeks to lay the IEDs.

How concerned are you about that as a problem going forward?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Anything that is a threat to our forces is something I worry a lot about. Obviously one of the risks of being more overt about an operation is they can make the kinds of preparations, particularly IEDs.

And so we're taking great care to put ourselves in a position where we can deal with those. So yeah, it's a concern.

Q Are you able to say at this point the extent to which you have seen fighters flee the area or are starting to see them try to cut deals in the Marja area, or what's your sense of what is happening ahead of the actual event?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I'm really not comfortable going into detail on it, but we are seeing a lot and we're talking to a lot of people inside the area.

Q You're talking to more people, or the Afghans are talking to each other about this, or --

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Afghans and coalition are talking to people that are inside Marja all the time. So there's a very healthy dialogue, and I think that's good.

Q Sir, you said -- you underscored the importance of ANSF (Afghanistan National Security Force) being, you know, in the lead here. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, progress you've seen since you took command? And also a theme of the talks here at NATO are to get the allies -- (inaudible) -- the rest of the trainers that you're looking for. So both progress you've seen and the gaps that will be overcome.

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. Certainly. And when I talk ANSF, I'll be talking Afghan National Army and police. They're a little different, but many of the same things apply.

What we've done -- and we have increased -- we've recommended a faster growth rate, and we just got approval for the 2011 targets for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. So we've got a growth -- (inaudible) -- by the fall of 2011. What that demands of the Afghans is to take a number of steps forward; to increase their recruiting, which they -- in the last about 2-1/2 months they've increased it dramatically. It also requires them to decrease things like their attrition. And they are working that. It's not yet what they want it to be or what we want it to be, but they're working that hard.

We've seen improvements in the training performance. But as we -- as we were able to recruit more together, we've also found that our capacity to train the numbers that we need requires more trainers. Now, we've always been under-resourced in trainers. What has happened is, as we were able to speed up the growth of the force, it highlighted how much under-resourced and the gap between where we need to be for just the initial entry training and whatnot.

Probably the best part of this though is -- and we've talked about it -- is the partnering aspect, which is a bit different than we have done in the past, and that is marrying units together really at every level. And they do as much as possible together. It's a little different in every area. But in some cases they literally live in tents right next to each other, they eat together, they train together, they plan together, they operate together, they grow together. And it marries the strengths of each together.

So as you know in any army, most of the soldiers' training and development actually happens after their training. They go out into the profession and it's the leaders that build. So the next thing we're trying to work with our Afghan partners is on leader development -- noncommissioned officers, officers. That, of course, is a big -- big requirement. But Lieutenant General Bill Caldwell, who's running NTM-A/ CSTC-A (NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan / Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan) now has really got a focus on leader development. Some of that takes a long time.

I would highlight -- we've got some things that are less known. The military academy just is going to -- very quickly -- is going to graduate another class, a four-year class. The police academy just graduated, I think it was about 500 police officers who finished a three-year training program. So there are a number of things that have been in train a while but are actually producing now, which we think, of course, will help mature the force.

Q General, as you increase these trainers, do you also have the logistical capacity and the facilities to manage this additional training? And as you get deeper into this recruiting pool, can you talk about some of the obstacles, such as literacy?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Sure. Right now we have the facilities required for -- in the near term as we get additional trainers. As that expands more, there are certainly some more facilities and improvement of some facilities that we need to do for the long term as we have regional training facilities in the regional command areas. So that will take a constant maturation.

For the police, we've got more to do than we did for the army because frankly, the army had a greater focus on it in early years than the police has had. So we've got to do more. We're just standing up a -- the Afghans are standing up a police training command to run their initial training.

I flew down here today with Minister Atmar, who I spend a lot of time with. Well, we talked an awful lot about his desires to increase leadership training in police and development. And that's -- I think he's absolutely right. Along with growth in size, we need to do -- professionalization, I think you could call it.

And it gets to your point about what are some of the challenges. Clearly, literacy is a -- is a challenge. And as I remind people, literacy -- being illiterate does not mean you're not smart. The Taliban's illiterate. So -- it means you haven't had a chance to learn to read. And so the problem with that is it is harder to train someone, particularly on modern equipment and things, who doesn't have literacy. A policeman who can't read license plates has a harder time being effective.

So we know that we need to build programs both to try to recruit more people who have the skills, but also a number of programs we've already instituted to create literacy inside the force.

We're also working to get a better geographic representation in the army and police. As you know, it's very difficult to recruit in areas under Taliban control. And someone could say, well, why doesn't a young person just come outside Taliban control and join the army? Well, if his family's in an area under Taliban control, it's difficult.

So as we increase security areas, we'll be focused to try to get a better -- not just an ethnic balance, because actually the ethnic balance in the -- particularly the army, is not far off. But the geographic balance, having people from every geographic part of the country, is something that the Afghan leadership is very interested in improving.


Q And there was a significant pay raise, as I well remember in '09 for both the army and police. And as a consequence, apparently, the recruitment rate went up. Has this trend confirmed, or was it just a peak and then it stabilized?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: It has stayed high. We're only about two-and-a-half months into that. I don't think it was all the pay raise. I think the pay raise was part of it; but I also think that Ramadan came and went, the election period came and went, and I think that the leadership in the Afghan security forces gave renewed focus on it, a lot more energy on it.

So I think the pay raise helped, because it clearly got them closer to what I would call a living wage. But I don't think this is really about money. And I don't think retaining soldiers is about money. I think it's their quality of life. It's do we give them a decent place to live, do we give them opportunities. And I think that's something that -- I know that's something that the ANSF are focused on across the board.

Q General, we heard earlier today that -- 2010 described as the year of maximum effort in Afghanistan for NATO. How much of a reduction in future effort do you expect after 2010? Or do you think the maximum effort will have to be sustained for some years?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I haven't heard that term before. I think 2010's going to be -- I would describe it as a(n) exceptionally important year, because the Afghan people, after all the years of war, are very interested in coming to a conclusion. And I think that's true in the insurgency, as well. And that puts pressure on us to make progress, but it also offers opportunity, because they are just not interested in doing things that are going to extend this.

So I think that we are going to have to be very focused this year but we'll have to obviously base future years on what happens this year.

Q Well, what's your sense of -- you know, this transition has to start July 11, maybe a small withdrawal. What's -- what's your sense? Is that a sort of a year-and-a-half, two-year process? Is it a five-year kind of a line? What's your sense?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I don't have a sense for that right now. What I do look at is the increase in coalition forces and the Afghan security force growth means that when we get at the end of 2010, we've got significantly more ANSF. By July 2011, which the discussion is on, we've actually got very significant ANSF growth.

So if we start a -- we will start a withdrawal of at least American forces at that point. I don't know the rate that that will occur. President Obama says it'll be based on conditions. That's what he told me. And I absolutely think that we'll look at that and make recommendations to him based on that.

But I think that Afghan capacity will have grown to the point where that will be an option without a reduction in the ability to provide security. I think that's the key point.

Q Can you address the front end of this, though? There's been a lot of sort of hand-wringing in Washington about the extent to which forces are arriving at a rate that you would like, some discussions of actually perhaps a particularly the Army not getting -- as fast as you would like. Can you address that and how that's been going over the next few months?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah, I want to address that, because, I'll tell you, I spend a lot of time on this, and the services are working miracles. And so the surge -- the forces are arriving. We've already got -- I think it's three battalions; the force on the ground, it's some thousands. They have done extraordinary work getting forces in, and they are absolutely moving as fast as physically possible. And "physically possible" means you need to have facilities, in some cases, bases; you need to have airfields that can accommodate it. You need to have aircraft the rate at which you can move that. So I think this is actually extraordinarily impressive.

I would remind everybody that this is much harder than many other places, like Iraq, because we don't have Kuwait next to us. You can't bring forces in, stage and then drive up. Here you're coming in through ground lines of communication through Pakistan air lines of communications; you're coming through northern routes as well. So it's a more complex process. But I'm very comfortable with the rate in which they're moving.

Q Can I follow up and ask -- about the allies? We've heard again earlier today about -- we'd like the allies to match our effort, to try to get them to the theater as fast as possible. Can you talk a bit about the non-U.S. NATO allies and how they're -- how rapidly they're getting to field?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Yes. Still being worked out --

Q Okay.

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: -- so I don't have the specifics on that, but I'm very comfortable they're going to make that push to do it.

Q Can we go back to the partnership? In Washington we've heard a little bit that there's been some problems with that, that it's not as -- the reality on the ground is not as close as the sort of model you've laid out, and I wonder if you could speak to that, and if there is any difference between U.S. forces and NATO forces, if you're trying to push NATO to be -- make a tighter partnership with the Afghan security forces.

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I'm trying to get our entire force to partner as closely as possible, not just the Army but with the police elements as well. It is different in every spot. Sometimes it's the relative maturity of the Afghan force. Sometimes it's the coalition force and where we disperse. Sometimes it's cultures of organizations. Different forces have different cultures or reasons that they don't -- they have not pushed as far ahead on partnering.

There are some facilities issues, where you've built it not this way and then suddenly you want to put forces together, you got to build some things, you got to move some stuff.

Part of this is all maturation of the force, and when I say "maturation of the force," it's not just Afghan forces, it's all of us. And it varies across every different nationality. All the American forces aren't the same. All the Brit forces aren't the same. So it's commanders.

But we're moving in that direction. It'll be a process. It'll be something that takes us a while.

Q What's your -- what's your goal? Is it by the end of this year to get a fuller partnership, or is there any way to quantify the timetable, I guess.

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: There's not, but I am -- and David Rodriguez particularly -- is just pushing as hard as we can. And where we see it done well, we see just extraordinarily good results.

Q And --

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: And so that reinforces --

Q And in the offensive that's about to happen, is it -- is -- how tight is the partnership there?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Very tight. In fact, anecdotally, we took some Afghan units with the Marine units that arrived in to -- here recently, that will be supporting the Afghan force, and we married them together for training and preparation for the operation. And the Afghan forces all have Marine haircuts right now.

Q (Chuckles.)

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: So, you know, it's building relationships. I mean, we talk about partnering. It's not just something that's mechanical. It's a cultural thing. You're going to go out and rely on somebody and fight with him and pull him out of harm's way when they're wounded. And so the degree that we build that and we see that in places, it's the magic.

Q General, can I ask you question about --


Q -- there was a NATO official today that told reporters he'd describe the situation in Afghanistan as explosive and catastrophically deteriorating.

Would you agree with that assessment? And then also to get back to the importance of 2010, it sounds like you see it as kind of a make-or-break year for the U.S. Is that right?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: The -- back to the characterization, I still will tell you that I believe the situation in Afghanistan is serious. I do not say now that I think it's deteriorating. I think -- and I said that last summer, and I believe that that was correct. I feel differently now. I am not prepared to say that we have turned the corner. So I'm saying that the situation is serious, but I think we have made significant progress in setting conditions in 2009 and beginning some progress, and that we'll make real progress in 2010. I wouldn't characterize 2010 as anything other than a very important year. I think that what happens can affect -- you know, what happens in years past. But we're going to be very focused this year to try to make as much of a shift in the momentum, as much progress as we can.

And the biggest thing is convincing the Afghan people. This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war, in terms of how many people we kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants. And I mean, the Afghan people are the most important, but the insurgents are another one. You're just convincing people. And, of course, part of what we've had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this. And I think we're --

Q What changed your mind, though, from --

Q Yeah, what changed? Why now is it not deteriorating?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we've done a number of things. We've implemented a number of things inside ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) command. We have partnered with our Afghan brothers. From the ministries on down, we have a closer relationship than we used to. We have done a civilian uplift that has brought a number of civilian(s) with a lot of expertise, and we've put them out on the ground in different places -- and then a lot of soldiers from across the coalition, Afghan security forces, and from all of our countries, and fought hard. And we've lost a lot of very good people. We have -- I mean, we've paid for progress we've made and for what we've accomplished. And we've paid for it individual by individual. So I think -- I think we've earned where we are.

Q But, sir --

Q But, sir, those are inputs. What -- can you point to some outputs that tell you that the momentum has at least stopped from where it was last summer?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah; they are more intuitive, now, than the kinds of metrics that I would tell you "x numbers of this." But I will tell you, I took a trip down to Helmand with President Karzai, and we walked through the bazaar in Nawa. And even some months ago, when I was there -- I was there right after the Marines went in -- the place was all shot up, nothing was open, the Marines were literally fighting every day to hold it. President Karzai, with nobody armoring him, walked through the bazaar, talked to people, had tea. He told me he had not been in a bazaar like that for -- we were there about 40 minutes. He hadn't been in a bazaar that long since he's been in power, so -- or at least for several years.

So when you see that, or when you sit with a shura and you talk to the leaders and they tell you things are much better -- I was up in the Arghandab two or three weeks ago, and that area had had a lot of challenges for the last couple of years. And already the local leaders are saying we got a big improvement. Again, I'm not prepared to draw it on a map; I'm not prepared to give you numbers. But I'm prepared to tell you that what I see and what I feel gives me that sense.

Q But --

STAFF: We have five minutes now, please.

Q Yeah, just, sir, what you were just describing, is it in contradiction with the statement by the chairman of Joint Chief(s) of Staff, who said yesterday or two days ago that the Taliban were actually gaining more influence right now?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I didn't hear the -- I didn't see the chairman's statement. What I will tell you is, I think that the Taliban are making a significant effort to expand their influence. So is the government of Afghanistan now, and I think that -- aided by us. So I think that there is a -- significant room to believe.

And I'm not prepared to say that we are winning; I'm prepared to say we are -- we are very much engaged. And I'm confident we're going to see serious progress this year.

Q How's it going connecting the government with the -- (word inaudible) -- convincing them that a centralized government will be working to benefit them?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Varies place to place, but it is -- it is one of the most significant challenges. After 30 years of war and different methods of governance and disappointment with governance and some -- in some cases some very brutal situations for some of the people, they're cautious. And in an area where security is not yet complete, the coercion of the insurgents can threaten the people from reaching out to the government. So the government not only has to provide security to allow the people the freedom to choose; the government then has to deliver on basic expectations of the people. And that's a tall order. That's much more than the insurgent has to do.

But the government works through it. And in places, it's very difficult, and the progress is slow. In other places, it's very heartening. It's the harder part of this.

Q General, do you have any concerns about the quality of some of the trainers in this big push to get some of the trainers in there at one time? Are you worried that there are trainers that may end up in these positions who don't have any experience doing that before, and what are you doing about that?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we'll certainly -- we'll try to get the best people we can. Any group of anybody you get is going to have a range of experience and expertise for the mission. What we'll try to do and I'm sure what General Caldwell will try to do is match expertise to the role the people do.

What I've seen so far out -- and people who are doing the training now; we just put another U.S. battalion against it -- is very good. It's more -- right now, it's been an issue of numbers, not quality. But it's something we've got to watch.

Q A small question and sort of a larger one: Do you have a sense of how many insurgents there are in the Marja region where you're going into? And then the bigger question is, we all spent many hours on Monday for the rollout of the budget and the QDR (Quadrennial Defense Review) -- big emphasis on ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). Obviously you could use more, but are you satisfied you can carry out the mission now with the ISR supplies that you have?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: We've actually been given an awful lot of ISR. As I told Secretary Gates some months back, though, I am genetically incapable of saying that I have enough, because I just believe it in so much. And in fact, he's just allocated more to us.

So we have -- we have a significant amount of ISR, and we're going to be very effective with it. We can always use more. It is just -- in this kind of warfare, it is so valuable.

And on the numbers of Taliban in the area, I'm really just not prepared to cover it here.

Q What about roadside bombs? Can you say anything about the sharing with NATO allies; what Gates is thinking; what you would like to see happen?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I certainly believe that our partners are -- Afghan partners and our coalition partners, everything we can share. It's one fight. We're one team. So I'm hopeful as much as we can share, expertise, equipment, you name it, that we should do that.

STAFF: The last question, please.

Q General, I'd like to throw one in. A couple of weeks ago in Pakistan the military said that they had their hands full in South Waziristan and Swat, you know, and -- (inaudible) -- going into North Waziristan -- (inaudible) -- months. What's your assessment of the current threat coming across the border, and how much of a problem is that?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I think the Pakistani military is doing some extraordinary work. And all people who looked at it, I think they've got to step back and give them some credit for some costly but also some very good operations. So we don't see huge numbers of people moving across the border at this time, but as I deal with the Pakistani leadership, with whom I have a very good relationship, we both realize that there are problems on both sides of the border. And you really need to solve both of them before you can have real security on either side. And so it's the -- it's the ability to work together that is my biggest priority.

STAFF: Thanks.

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