The retired four-star general sits down with Bob Schieffer during Afternoon of Conversation. He talks about his military career, leading troops in Iraq, the Joint Special Operations Command, and how he thinks about leadership today.
Stanley McChrystal on Leadership
MR. SCHIEFFER: How are just a second to kind of stretch? (Applause) MR. SCHIEFFER: I'm Bob And I have -- I don't often begin interviews by saying I have the honor to interview someone. But I am truly honored to be here with General Stanley McChrystal, retired four-star general. (Applause) MR. SCHIEFFER: He was the commander of our Afghanistan. Before that, he came out of what the Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, you It is probably one of the most important forces in is called call it. components of the American military today and also one of the least understood, perhaps by design, because it started out very much in secret. General McChrystal probably had more to do with shaping this force into the -- this incredible force that it has become today than any other single person. He talks a lot about leadership. Now he is teaching leadership in a course at Yale and that's what he likes to think about. And General, I can't think of a better way to explain what JSOC is, how it works and the changing challenge that the American military has today, then to take you back before the days when you were in Afghanistan, in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had just been caught. And your folks came to know about someone who was emerging as the leading al-Qaeda agent in Iraq. Tell us the story of how you heard about it, who this person was, and how your operation caught him. MR. McCHRYSTAL: Bob, thanks very much. Bob and I were in the back before we came out talking about quantum physics and quantum mechanics. (Laughter) MR. McCHRYSTAL: I'm going to buy a new set of wrenches. That's as far as I got. (Laughter) MR. McCHRYSTAL: What we had was an interesting situation -- it's not many years ago, but it's in perspective now that strikes me in terms of leadership. We had been in Iraq as you remember for about 8 or 9 months when Saddam Hussein had been captured. And there were a lot of different views on it, but I'll give you a sense from what it felt like on the ground. There was a hope that the capture of Saddam Hussein would cause things to calm down. But in fact what we found was some of the previous activities, terrorist attacks in the previous months, and the rise of a guy name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was causing al-Qaeda in Iraq to get new power in the country. And so we began the force that I commanded which was made up of different parts of our counterterrorist forces in the U.S. military, were assigned to go after al-Qaeda in Iraq. and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in particular. He was an uneducated guy who'd grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in the small village of Zarqa in Jordan. Then he had become extremist when he was in prison. Then he had gone to Afghanistan to become a fairly hardcore member of al-Qaeda. But he had also become, despite his limitations in education, a very effective leader. He led through many different ways. He leveraged the fears of Iraqi Sunnis with the future. He leveraged other senses people had and he caused really the beginning of a wildfire of resistance both to the government of Iraq and of course to the coalition forces who were there. So we were tasked to go after him. We started that really about the beginning of 2004. And if you remember in March and April of 2004, Iraq got much more difficult. In Fallujah, there were the murder of the contractors. There were all the different problems and then we also had the complication of the tragedy, the crime of Abu Ghraib came out. And what that did was it caused people in the region to believe that everything that they heard negative about America was true. And it was extraordinarily negative for us because even though it was a fairly limited number of people who had done it, it was a precipitant, an accelerant for extremism. And so we were faced with fighting a guy who now is getting himself an organized effort and he is creating absolute havoc. They brought in to me that month in April into my office a laptop computer and you've got to watch this. We'd been American named Nick Berg, a civilian the country and he'd been kidnapped. they said, sir, going after a young who'd been working in And what they showed me was a short video that al-Qaeda had posted of Nick Berg sitting in an orange jumpsuit and behind him were a number of black-clad individuals. They read some words while Nick sat there. And then at the end of that one of the individuals pulled out a large knife and beheaded Nick Berg. I remember sitting there with my clinched fist watching it and we were starting in a new kind of war, a war that America wasn't really, mentally, physically, or organizationally prepared for. For the next 2-1/2 years, we hunted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi until June of 2006 when we killed him and we had -- en route to him we dismantled much of his organization. But we had to do it in a way -- and this is where the leadership part came in -- we had to do it in a way where we were on a moral plane that we were comfortable with. We were asking people to fight every night. The commanders that I led fought every night. And they went into difficult places. We suffered a lot of casualties, but we asked them to do it in a way not, only to treat detainees, but to treat everyone in a way that would put us in a position where we had a moral high ground and we could feel good about what we were doing. We finally in the spring of 2006 had a position where we thought we had a tremendous amount of information on this guy and we captured an individual who started to tell us about his habits and where he was. Through an extraordinary collection of capabilities from across the intelligence community, supplemented by partner nations and whatnot, we were able to put together a picture of his what we could call pattern on life and finally track him to a location -- or track an individual going to him, watch that individual do a number of things like vehicle swaps en route and then finally able to kill him. It was the evolution of a force that is difficult for me to describe to you. It's people who had grown up a sort of big knuckle, big shoulder commandos who instead had become a combination of intelligence operatives, social scientists, very refined thinking on legal matters of how you operate because you can't take part in the policy of the country unless you operate at a level of complexity we'd never seen before. MR. SCHIEFFER: It's amazing, an amazing story. And it does to me kind of underline how leadership and the requirements of leadership have changed. A military commander now doesn't just say take that hill. Go do it. How is it different? You're different -- we are dealing with different kinds of young people. MR. McCHRYSTAL: Sure. MR. SCHIEFFER: A different kind of culture maybe. MR. McCHRYSTAL: There is a perception that military leaders order people to do things. The entire organization goes left, goes right. It's never been entirely true although Frederick the Great's cavalry, hundreds of years ago served behind his lines to keep people from deserting during the battle. But in reality what we find is although you are given the power to order soldiers to do things, soldiers only do what they want. They may fear you. They may fear their sergeant in training. They may fear their sergeant in garrison. But when you're in combat they have a far greater fear. The enemy is a far greater fear. And so at that point soldiers only fight because they believe in the soldiers on their left and right, their comrades, and they have confidence in their leaders and a little bit more hazily confidence in the cause. It's much more focused in the people that they're around. So what you're really trying to do is get people to believe in each other. MR. SCHIEFFER: General, one of the requirements of leadership is taking responsibility for what your people do. And after you were in Afghanistan things were going very well. You took a break and went to Europe -- I think went to Paris it seems to me. And you took along a reporter from Rolling Stone Magazine. He heard some of your people say some pretty disparaging things about the President, and you were called to account. We all read about it, but as far as I know, I've never heard your side of what happened there. Would you share that with us? MR. McCHRYSTAL: Sure. I don't have a subscription of Rolling Stone right now. (Laughter) MR. McCHRYSTAL: No, here is the background of what happened. When you are in a war like Afghanistan, a coalition war you have got to build support. You've got to explain that to the coalition nations. So what I was asked to do -- I wasn't -- was not a vacation. I was asked to go to capitals, and I'd done that a number of times before, to Brussels, to NATO headquarters. And then countries would ask me, come explain in face -- face-to- face as the commander there what is going on in Afghanistan to maintain their support for the cause. So for that particular trip, we were going to Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, and to Paris. As you remember, right before we took off, the tragic air crash killed the president of Poland and some of the other leaders. And so we cancelled that part of the trip, but the French had asked us to go. So we went to do that. And we did a number of sessions at the War College, with the parliament, met with key leaders. We had been doing a number of interactions with press and we did them constantly through the years -- through the year. And he was another one. Wasn't particularly unique, it was a desire in this case to have a story -- explain how we operated, and he was with us for certain periods. Not constant, he saw us a couple of times in Afghanistan, he came to Paris, and intersected with us for a couple of days and that sort of thing. The story that came out, when it came out in June, was completely different from the story that I would have expected. I was completely surprised. And it was -- it depicted a team that I think was an unfair depiction of the people I worked with. I held them in far greater regard. But the real issue is -- at that particular point when the story came out it was clear to me the import of the story. My position as commander had two priorities. The first was the mission and the second was my commander-in-chief I worked for. And regardless of how I felt about the story, I have a responsibility to the mission, I have responsibility to my President, although I work for NATO and the U.S. President to not put him in that position. And so what I did was flew back that day, offered my resignation to President Obama and I said, if you want me to stay, I'll stay, if you want to leave, I'll leave. I am absolutely at your desire for the mission because I think that's most important. Because I think at the end of the day what -- no matter how you feel about it, a commander is responsible whether you like what happens or not. The one thing you can never and should never want to dodge is responsibility. (Applause) MR. SCHIEFFER: Let's talk a little bit about some news questions. I guess by the end of the year, will be back -- all of the surge troops that went to Afghanistan will be gone, but there'll still be about what, 68,000 Americans there. So I guess the question I would ask you, General, right now is how does this war end? MR. McCHRYSTAL: Yeah, it's -- of course no one knows for sure. I would remind everyone -- and people sometimes come to me and they say, we went to Afghanistan to help the Afghans. Well, the reality is we went to Afghanistan because we wanted to go to Afghanistan because of al-Qaeda. We did not go at their invitation. We went and in the process of driving out al-Qaeda, we upended Afghan politics, we drove out the Taliban regime, and a new regime took over. So we had -- we were there. And the reality is you navigate from where you are and not from where you wish you were. Each year in Afghanistan there's been a growing gap between the expectations or desires of the Afghan people and what they see. Now, those desires may be unrealistic and we can have that view or not, but the reality is there's a gap between what they had hoped for and what they see as reality, politically, security-wise, economically, and whatnot. So that's really what we're dealing with. The Taliban are not a popular movement. They're not a particularly strong movement. They derive their strength from the weakness of the government of Afghanistan and the weakness of Afghan society after 32 years of war. And so I really think where we are now is the Afghan people, hopefully with our help, not huge numbers of help, but hopefully with international help, I think can put them in a position where they can sort out a modus vivendi. It may not look exactly like we thought it would in December 2001. It may not look like we thought it would in even 2005. But I think if it's something that includes all of the parts of the population as President Musharraf said, the Pashtun minority is 42 percent of the population. So it's a huge -- it's the biggest single ethnic group in the country. So they have to be a part of this. And so I think it's going to have to develop into a workable agreement. There are going to have be some concessions made on every side. And Pakistan of course is going to have to be a big part of that. They are going to make some ground to concessions, I would expect as well. MR. SCHIEFFER: Did you favor going in on the get Osama bin Laden? MR. McCHRYSTAL: I did. And I was very glad chose that particular method. There is a that they perception sometimes when America uses either drones or missiles from afar that we are striking without putting any of ourselves at risk. And whether or not that is a good thing and -- because it protects American lives and from one standpoint it's very good and I protect -- I support us having that capability. There were times you've got to demonstrate your willingness to do that particularly to people around the world who don't know you as well as we know ourselves. It's important to say this was so important we were willing to put Americans in harm's way. And it was important that we be able to prove that what we were doing was based on solid intelligence. So I think it was extraordinarily important we put those people at risk and of course they performed brilliantly. (Applause) MR. SCHIEFFER: Would you talk a little bit about the use of -- the increasing use of drones there becoming a -- we know they are very effective. How often should we be using drones? MR. McCHRYSTAL: Yeah. It's -- we should be using drones a lot because we can look at things. It gives you an extraordinary ability to see and get one part of an understanding. But we need to understand what drones are not. If we were to have a drone above and providing what we call full-motion video to everyone in here of a location down the street you wouldn't know what was going on down there. You would have a view, but you wouldn't smell it, feel it, or understand it. You'd only have a one small view. But I think it adds to the picture. So what I'd say is I hope we won't be a country where we use them to the exclusion of teaching people languages, sending people to live there, getting people to understand. A quick story on that; we made a grievous mistake one night in Afghanistan and we killed a civilian farmer in the middle of the night with an attack helicopter who was -- based upon what we got from an aerial platform. The guy was digging by the side of the road, a very dangerous road where we had a lot of IEDs. And we fired a missile and killed him. We thought initially, okay, that's a good thing; went down and found out it's a farmer. I took a next morning and I made a mistake and laptop in to see President Karzai the said, President Karzai, I think, we we killed someone with good intentions, but bad outcome. And I showed him the video and he said, that's a farmer out diverting the irrigation ditch in his neighborhood because each farmer gets a certain number of hours in the day and it's his responsibility to divert it to his field, then to divert it back. And I said, well, Mr. President, we didn't know that. And he goes, that's the point. You have to know those things as you deal that the ability to get down and get your feet in the mud and understand the people is absolutely required for anything we do, not just counterinsurgency, for dealing with anyone. MR. SCHIEFFER: General, how would you the state of the American military right now? I when we were talking about the surge and putting troops into Afghanistan -- I was at a conference assess remember more like this and Colin Powell said, wait a minute, we're not talking about putting more troops into Afghanistan. We're talking about putting the same troops into Afghanistan. These wars have taken the toll -- a toll on the U.S. military. Would you talk about that a little? MR. McCHRYSTAL: Certainly, I will. I grew up in the Ranger Regiment. And last summer, a noncommissioned officer, a sergeant first class, was killed on his 14th rotation to combat. Now they do 3- month rotations, not years, but 14 times 3 months is a lot of rotations to combat. And he had joined the Rangers right at 2001. So his whole career had essentially been at war. He had a wife and two children. He was doing what he did - - he was doing with the organization he left. But that's an awful lot of combat. We've never done an extended war with a professional army like this. We've got a very professional army, volunteer army and volunteer Reserve and they've done a lot. So we're in uncharted territory. I would tell you it performs magnificently. The things that you do to support it -- and you do a great job of it -- are completely warranted. They are tremendous. But at the same time we have -- we've got two concerns in my view. One, we're running it very, very hard, and at a certain point you just can't expect it to go forever. The second, it's less than 1 percent of America's -- touch by this -- less than 1 percent is in the service, has a child in the service, a spouse in the service, a father in the service. We don't have the same up-close touch of this and nor does the service have the same up-close connection with society that I think is important. And so for that reason I think we've got to do things, consider a draft and whatnot to try to get a better connection. (Applause) MR. SCHIEFFER: You know I'm very interested to hear you say that because I was at a –- at one of these sessions this morning when Charles Murray was talking about the disconnect that is now developed between the very upper classes and the middle class. There seems to be no real common experience for Americans anymore that we can all share. I mean I'm old enough to remember World War II, and when everybody had an uncle or a father or somebody that –- everybody had a stake in it. And it saddens me now to know that –- I actually know people, good people, who don't know a single person in the United States military. My guess is we're not going to get a draft through. But what is your take on some sort of mandatory national service? GEN. McCHRYSTAL: I am becoming a little bit extreme on this each year. Right now I think everybody 56 years old and younger ought to have to serve 2 years. I'm 57. (Laughter) GEN. McCHRYSTAL: The –- no, what I really believe is I think we need National Service, and I think you need it either at the conclusion of high school or university. (Applause) GEN. McCHRYSTAL: I don't think people –- I don't think young people would really fight it if it was fair, if everybody did it. You can only take a small part of that, the military, so I'm not talking military, I'm talking about all kinds of things. But I also think that the payoff is not what they do, it's not whether they go build roads and parks or that sort of thing. It's what you put inside them. Because once you have contributed to something you have a slightly different view of it. And I think that it would be good to have a shared experience if every person that's aged 25 and older gets –- meets in a play area and they all –- the first question is, hey where'd you serve, what did you do? If that's the start of the conversation I think it would be really powerful. I think Israel gets amazing value out of that. (Applause) MR. SCHIEFFER: How would you evaluate the state of America's security right now and what do you see is the greatest threat to our security? GEN. McCHRYSTAL: I thought –- MR. SCHIEFFER: Is it in –- does it come from Afghanistan, is it some place else, is it al-Qaeda? GEN. McCHRYSTAL: No, it's a lot closer. It's in our schools. (Applause) GEN. McCHRYSTAL: Yeah. Let me scare you a little bit. You know I hate to use fear. A third -- almost a third of all high school kids don't graduate. They can't –- they're not eligible for the military. So you now have broken it to two-thirds or even “eligible.” And then you break it down with people who've got physical problems, obesity, different, you know, legal problems and you are really down to about 33 percent of the nation is actually even eligible to serve in the military. And that's the same third that you're competing with Yale, Harvard, all those other places. So it's a national security issue, and I think that's the one that ought to really worry us. I think the other things around the world, we can sort those out, we can figure them out over time. We have the ability, the technology and the forces to do that. I'm much more worried about sort of the fundamentals. MR. SCHIEFFER: General, it's a pleasure to interview you. Thank you, sir.