EXCLUSIVE: Gen McChrystal on SOTU: “It’s an American soldier and so getting him back, to me, is a pretty sacred responsibility”
Today on CNN’s State of the Union, Gen Stanley McChrystal (USA, ret), joined chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto to discuss his perspectives on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the trade of PFC Bowe Bergdahl for the ‘Taliban 5’ , and a security risk assessment if their confinement terms for the “Taliban 5” change. Gen. McChrystal also discussed whether he would ever consider running for U.S. president.
Text and video highlights and a transcript of the discussion are below
MANDATORY CREDIT: CNN’s “State of the Union”
On if the confinement terms for the Taliban 5 change, will they “go back to the battlefield”: “The five that are back — presumably, they will go back to the battlefield but they won’t change the dynamics. It’s not going to change the balance of effort there, five guys, but it’s just something we are — watch as we go forward. … I say presume, because you have to assume to worst case in a case like this. We can’t have assumed to have changed their thinking in a time they were in our captivity, I mean, anymore than we would want an American who had been held by the enemy to change his thinking.”
On having extended military operations in Afghanistan: “I think it is just a recognition that we can get a balance. Most of the fighting on the ground is being done by Afghan police and military and they are bearing most the casualties. I think America brings some very specific capabilities to do precision operations with Afghan partners in many cases. But I think it goes back to confidence as well. Afghans will do well if they believe they have got the kind of strategic partnership that President Obama offered them in 2009 when he explicitly said, we will be your strategic partner. You can’t put a number on that. It’s not a specific number of Americans planes or boots on the ground. It’s the sense that we are an absolutely committed friend that will help them protect their sovereignty.”
On running for president of the United States: “No, Jim. I really want young people — qualified young people. I’d like to see more young veterans going in but I have zero intent. …I am not going to run for any office, period. ”
THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Welcome back. I am Jim Sciutto in Washington. General Stanley McChrystal is four star general and commander of American forces — coalition forces in Afghanistan. He was — he’s credited with transforming the U.S. forces into the elite fighting force they are today. He is author of a new book “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.” And it is certainly a very complex world.
General McChrystal, thanks very much for joining us. Had the pleasure of seeing you when you were commander in Afghanistan. You’ve been travelling around the country a little bit so it’s nice to see you out of the uniform.
GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. ARMY (RET.): It’s great to be here. Thanks.
SCIUTTO: I want to begin with the case of Bowe Bergdahl, Taliban Five because today that deal is expiring and we are still waiting here what the next step will be. But first I want to ask you about Sergeant Bergdahl.
You were commander when he was taken. Were you a deserter?
MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I’ve been in command for about a month and when he left his base we didn’t know. We had reason to believe he walked off his base but he could have been a confused young man, and that may still be the ruling, I am not sure. So, we made every effort we could like we would for your son or daughter to try to recover him as fast as we could.
SCIUTTO: Now, if it was discovered at the time, and I know that the questions — the details were certainly murky then and to some degree there are still questions today, but if he was a deserter, would that change at all U.S. efforts to rescue him?
MCCHRYSTAL: It’s hard to make that kind of judgment because it would have been impossible to know at the moment if he was a deserter. We were trying to prevent him from being taken into Pakistan where we thought he would fall into the hands of Haqqani for two reasons. One, because he’s an American citizen and one of ours, a comrade. And second, because he would then become a chip in the power gain there, and we were concerned about both of those.
SCIUTTO: Do you have any concerns about the deal that was made a year ago to trade these five senior Taliban leaders for his freedom?
MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I think if you look going forward getting back an American soldier was important particularly until he is adjudicated it impossible to say what was the cause. So, it was important to get him back. I think now we’ve got to move forward. We got to decide what we deal with. The five that are back — presumably, they will go back to the battlefield but they won’t change the dynamics. It’s not going to change the balance of effort there, five guys, but it’s just something we are — watch as we go forward.
SCIUTTO: But that’s an enormous concern. You say presumably they will go back to the fight, first of all that’s an alarming assumption. And yes, there are a number of members of Taliban who won’t change but they are quite senior in the organization. Would that not be a loss? Would that not put U.S. forces in danger there?
MCCHRYSTAL: I wouldn’t make it too important. They were in captivity quite awhile. They’re not going to go back, I think, to a key operational role. I say presume, because you have to assume to worst case in a case like this. We can’t have assumed to have changed their thinking in a time they were in our captivity, I mean, anymore than we would want an American who had been held by the enemy to change his thinking. So, I think we have to presume that their bonds with their old organization are probably going to be pretty strong and just go from there.
SCIUTTO: And if they do go back, that deal you still think was a good deal to gain his freedom?
MCCHRYSTAL: It’s hard to make a judgment on a deal like that. It’s an American soldier and so getting him back to me is a pretty sacred responsibility.
SCIUTTO: I want to ask you about Iraq. The fight against ISIS is not going well. The map really immutable for the last several months despite a massive U.S.-led air campaign and a massive advantage among the Iraqi and Kurdish forces aligned against the forces of ISIS. You have been very public in saying you need U.S. forces — boots on the ground to fight this fight and win. Is that what is necessary to turn this around?
MCCHRYSTAL: Well, what I have actually said is we first need a very clear strategy to deal with ISIS and to establish a framework for the region. Because if we don’t have a direction of where we are going, where the instate will be, the just defeating ISIS will just be a sort of a meaningless act.
Second, we have got to recognize what ISIS is, and it’s a phenomenon of the 21st century. It’s based on some age-old ideas but as you and I both know is they are operating in a way that is disorienting to organizations of the region. They’ve got this incredible tactical ability to combine suicide bombers with pretty flexible tactics on the ground and this superb information warfare campaign. It’s very decentralized. It makes us all worry about what they are doing.
I think we are going to have to show leadership in the region. I think American presence and leadership is going to be critical to build a team of teams against ISIS.
SCIUTTO: To demonstrate leadership do you have to commit American forces on the ground?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think you have got to demonstrate American revolve and leadership. In some cases it could be Americans on the ground with Iraqi forces helping leverage as you know one (INAUDIBLE) army in a difficult time like the Iraqi army is needs that feel of the cloth of comrades. And I think Americans can be a big part of that, but I don’t think thousands and thousands of American forces on the ground to be ground forces (INAUDIBLE) would do that is probably the right move right now.
SCIUTTO: So, you mean — and this is something that General Dempsey and others have raised, the idea of forward deployed advisers. So, in other words military advisers instead of back in the base, they are on the forward lines or forward ground controllers. Is that what you’re talking about?
MCCHRYSTAL: Yes, it is. Because war is about confidence.
If you know when the Iraqis pulled out of Ramadi, it was a military calculus, but in reality it was much more a loss of confidence. Sometimes just the presence of American advisers with their connection to air power and whatnot can bolster the confidence of leaders and provide additional advice as well.
SCIUTTO: And confidence seems to be key because you here this — the words of Secretary Ash Carter saying, they didn’t have the will to fight.
MCCHRYSTAL: Confidence is everything at every level. It starts having confidence in your leaders all the way up to your national leaders and then in yourselves. And I think that’s something we could potentially help with.
SCIUTTO: I want to ask you about Afghanistan because this was meant to be the year of the end of the U.S. Military presence in Afghanistan.
The president has extended the smaller force that is there for a bit of a longer period of time. But the reporting on the ground is that those forces are doing more kinetic activity than the president had described. Initially he said, well, they will protect U.S. forces for its protection et cetera but there is evidence that they are doing offensive operations, going after Taliban leaders. Is this a stealth extension of the U.S. war in Afghanistan?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think it is just a recognition that we can get a balance.
Most of the fighting on the ground is being done by Afghan police and military and they are bearing most the casualties. I think America brings some very specific capabilities to do precision operations with Afghan partners in many cases. But I think it goes back to confidence as well.
Afghans will do well if they believe they have got the kind of strategic partnership that President Obama offered them in 2009 when he explicitly said, we will be your strategic partner. You can’t put a number on that. It’s not a specific number of Americans planes or boots on the ground. It’s the sense that we are an absolutely committed friend that will help them protect their sovereignty.
SCIUTTO: But that sounds like a long commitment. And I’m harkening back a number of years.
I remember you said to me when we were in Kabul, and this is a good five years ago, you made the comparison to U.S. troops in Germany and Korea, they of course been there for decades. That that kind of commitment is not unusual when you are facing an enemy, in this case like the Taliban. Are you saying that you need an American force presence in Afghanistan for years and years to come to give that confidence?
MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I think you make that calculus. I think both Japan and Germany turned out pretty well and they could have turned out very differently. And so, I think, that if you look in the long sweep, wars don’t have a set beginning and set end. As you know, all the things you do that lead up to a war and of course more importantly after a war prevents the next one.
So I think, if we look at our policy as a long continuum, and not being in a hurry and say, we may have people there for a long time. But in reality it’s cheaper than doing spasmodic moves of big forces into (INAUDIBLE).
SCIUTTO: Finally, as you write this book about leadership, you have got a very strong reputation, of course, from your commands in Afghanistan. There are some who talk about you as a future political candidate. Do you plan or have any ideas or thoughts or ambitions to run for office?
MCCHRYSTAL: No, Jim. I really want young people — qualified young people. I’d like to see more young veterans going in but I have zero intent.
SCIUTTO: A lot of politicians who’ve said that and then changed their minds.
MCCHRYSTAL: No, let me be — let me be. I am not going to run for any office, period.
SCIUTTO: OK. General McChrystal, thanks very much for joining us today.
MCCHRYSTAL: Jim, thanks so much.