Last month, I sat down for a two-hour talk with Gen. Stanley McChrystal over dinner in Kabul. Our interview was off the record, because President Obama hadn't yet laid out his Afghan strategy.
But now that the strategy is unveiled, and McChrystal has testified before Congress, I'm free to use some of the conversation. Much has been written on Afghan strategy since we spoke, so I want to focus on some aspects that are less understood.
I met the general in his spartan office in the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force, which includes all nations involved in Afghanistan.
The guards at the gate were Macedonians, and the level of security involved in entering the headquarters paled beside the multiple checks and pat downs required to enter Baghdad's Green Zone. That's testimony to the fact that the violence level in Kabul doesn't approach that of Baghdad in its bad days.
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McChrystal is serious, low-key and very straightforward. Contrary to his reputation for spare eating, he tucked into a dinner of salmon chunks over pasta.
What will happen if we don't try to stabilize Afghanistan, I ask? His sober answer: "Civil war that kills ... 1 million? No side can win. Al-Qaeda will come back. If Afghanistan implodes, I'm not sure Pakistan would survive."
So what are his objectives? "In the near term, to deny the insurgency the ability to be an existential threat to the government of Afghanistan, and to buy time and space for the Afghan government to protect its own country, over time, using the Afghan National Army."
But how can we rely on an Afghan government riddled with corruption?
McChrystal's answer, which is key to the U.S. strategy: "Absolutely we need a credible partner. But we can leverage the good people at the local level simultaneously to working with the center." That means working with effective cabinet ministers, such as those at defense, interior, rural development and agriculture, and bolstering their staff in Kabul and at the provincial and district level. It also means funneling more aid through competent provincial governors and district heads, and pressing President Hamid Karzai to increase their numbers.
"We need to go more local," McChrystal says. "In Iraq we went local and built to the center." Watch whom Karzai appoints to his new cabinet this weekend.
How does the general's strategy play out on the ground? "I don't think you can go after an insurgency (just) by targeting leaders, nor is it necessary to do expansive nation-building," he says. "But you need enough security in enough places to let the seeds of development grow, and let people see that.
"The Taliban need access to Kandehar and Helmand (two key southern provinces, where the bulk of the new U.S. troops are headed). So if we can control things there and show it's better, much of the insurgency dies out." As the Taliban are pushed back from these provinces, aid money and agricultural assistance will flow in.
But how can we transfer security to Afghan control when training the Afghan army is such a long-term project?
"The Afghan army will have a bigger role than some fear or think, but it won't be decisive," McChrystal says. When it comes to standing up Afghan security forces, "we will see multiple factors start to roll."
In some parts of Afghanistan, traditional tribal defense forces called arbaki will stand up, he continued. In others, "the Community Defense Initiative will empower individuals to take responsibility for their village." That program is under joint U.S. military and Afghan Interior Ministry control. (McChrystal acknowledges they must be careful not to empower old, or create new, Afghan warlords.)
McChrystal's strategy also aims at reintegration of mid- and low-level Taliban into society. "Reintegration is hugely important, incredibly important," he says. But he knows his reintegration program requires a parallel effort by the Karzai government, including guarantees that potential Taliban returnees won't be arrested or killed. "They want protection against the government and former compatriots and a chance to make a living," he says.
(The Karzai government endorses reintegration and negotiations with Taliban leaders who break with al-Qaeda and disarm, but has yet to put forward a serious program.)
Last, but far from least, I ask what the United States needs from Pakistan - where Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders are hiding.
"We need (Pakistani) tribal areas not to be sanctuaries," McChrystal says bluntly. He was dubious that Pakistan's military would go after the Afghan Taliban, at a time when the Pakistanis are battling their own Taliban.
Yet despite this reluctance, the general believes the Pakistanis want the United States to be successful in Afghanistan. "Their worst nightmare is that we should fail," McChrystal says. "If more U.S. forces lead to our failure they are worried about the backlash (in Pakistan)."
If that's true, let's hope the Pakistanis find a way to work in tandem with U.S. troops across the AfPak border, which would catch the toughest Taliban in a pincer.
Meantime, Gen. McChrystal fully recognizes the complexity of the challenges ahead.