U.S. General Stanley McChrystal recently assumed his position as the commander of both the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and all the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Hamid Mohmand, he emphasized that protecting Afghan civilians is now at the forefront of the military strategy of the United States and its allies. McChrystal said that the "fight is for the Afghan people, it's not with the Afghan people."
RFE/RL: You recently concluded a "listening tour" of Afghanistan. What were your major findings from across Afghanistan?
General McChrystal: It's typically not enough security forces. What I did find was that the Taliban insurgency is not a popular insurgency. It's not something that the people are rallying to and particularly supportive of. What I found was that in those places where the government did not have sufficient capability to provide army or police or we could not have then an effective government structure that's where the Taliban were able to get in and establish themselves to some level. In some areas they established themselves better than others. So what I found is that it's not a popular insurgency that is followed by a lot of the people with their enthusiastic support; it's more a case of they are coerced or forced.
RFE/RL: Since you have assumed charge here, you have reiterated the need to minimize civilian casualties, what kind of changes should we expect to see?
McChrystal: This fight is for the Afghan people, it's not with the Afghan people. It's to protect the Afghan people. And so I think, that's got to be foremost in how we operate. Often as you know the Taliban will use buildings or the Afghan populous as human shields and they will take cover behind them hoping that we will cause civilian casualties. And as you know, some times in the past we have done that. And we are sorry about that and we are working to prevent that in the future. And we can never guarantee that will not happen at all in the future because it can, but what we are going to try to do is institute some procedures for approval of operations, for approval of things like air strikes that require us to make sure that before we use munitions like that we have stopped, we have thought about it. We will also work with our forces to try to get, what I call, a cultural shift inside our forces that says that the most important thing is to not hurt the Afghan people because the most important thing it to win their support.
RFE/RL: In remote regions of Afghanistan, particularly in the south and east, people complain that Western troops do not respect their cultural and religious values and conduct house searches, which in fact, create a distance between the people and the international troops. How are you addressing this?
McChrystal: I think that is very, very important because war is complex and war is difficult. But it's also difficult when there are cultural differences. Most of the international forces don't speak Dari or Pashto. They are not as familiar with the culture and some of the things -- the way Afghans treat each other or would like to be treated. So we've got to teach our forces, we have got to make them try to learn the things which might be offensive here that we might not realize are offensive, we've got to take them into account. It's like the issue of civilian casualties. Anything that we do that offends Afghans, whose support we need, works against us. So we have to modify the way we operate.
RFE/RL: With the election campaign under way in Afghanistan, what kind of support are ISAF troops providing?
McChrystal: We all know that security is very important because it's got to be a free and fair election. And every Afghan who makes the decision to vote ought to have the freedom and the security to do that. There are parts of the country where that will be difficult. This is an Afghan-run election. It is going to be supported by security, primarily by Afghan police and Afghan army elements, but ISAF is there to provide essential support like logistic support, help move Afghan forces around, help with communications -- all the things that we often partner in combat operations. But to allow them then ability to provide essential security, because I think that's appropriate.
RFE/RL: Some election candidates worry that the international forces in the country might favor certain individuals. How would you respond to such concerns?
McChrystal: I have understood that that could be a concern on someone's part. And I would say that's absolutely untrue. In fact, I think it is people who are just uninformed or in fact, are trying to mislead other people. The coalition is here to try to help the government of Afghanistan build the ability to run things like elections. And build the ability and provide the ability for Afghans to choose their own future, so we absolutely don't want to be involved in what future they choose. We want to be involved in giving them the opportunity to choose.
RFE/RL: Counterinsurgency experts suggest that a guerilla war can only be won if all supply routes are cut off and the insurgents are secluded from the civilians. Are such tactics part of your new military strategy in Afghanistan?
McChrystal: We will try to stop infiltration from outside Afghanistan that supports the insurgents and that means money, weapons, fighters, and all things that can help them. I am heartened by the fact that our allies in Pakistan are taking a more aggressive approach against their internal insurgency because I think the two efforts -- ours in Afghanistan and theirs -- can complement each other. The other part is really even more important, because the one thing a guerilla or insurgent needs is access to the people; he has to be able to control the people, and he needs to get some materials from the people and he has to have the ability to force people to follow his ideas. So our intent is to try to protect the people by getting amongst the people: what we call shape, clear, hold, and build. But the idea is that after we clear an area from insurgents, we'll hold it with security forces -- Afghan and American -- and then we'll start development projects. That's the 'build.' And that gives people a sense of ownership. And of course, we have to provide all the other things a government does -- rule of law and fair governance.
RFE/RL: Critics suggest that during the past eight years, the international community has emphasized a military solution. How do you view the situation here? Can it ever be resolved militarily?
McChrystal: No. It has a military component but the real solution here is developing a government that can protect people all the way down to the local level. Provide them an environment in which they can live and work and they can have protection of the law and they can develop businesses -- that's the real solution. What we need in the near term is military to help provide security to allow that.