Speaking publicly for the first time since being relieved of command in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal opened up at The Daily Beast’s Innovators Summit in New Orleans about WikiLeaks (“it’s sad”), Karzai (“a great partner”), and the “great danger” of the instant news cycle. Plus, read more from the Innovators Summit and watch the livestream this weekend.
In his first public comments since being relieved of command in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal broke his silence on military and foreign-policy matters at The Daily Beast’s Innovators Summit in New Orleans today.
In an onstage interview with Bush administration Homeland Security official Frances Townsend, McChrystal addressed a wide range of subjects, including the breaking news of WikiLeaks’ release of nearly 400,000 Iraq War documents, his close relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the prospects for protecting women’s rights against the Taliban, and the media’s impact on modern leadership.
“It is likely that the leak of some of that information could lead to the deaths of some of our own people or some of our allies,” McChrystal said of the WikiLeaks document dump. “A level of responsibility toward our people needs to be balanced with a need or right to know.”
“The decision by anybody to leak classified information is something that not only is it illegal… that individual is making judgments about the value of that information and the threat to comrades, that almost nobody is qualified to make,” McChrystal said. “If somebody leaks information that puts me or one of my soldiers at risk, I think that's a level of irresponsibility that’s very upsetting.”
While Karzai has come under criticism from other American leaders, General McChrystal had strikingly warm recollections of Karzai, describing “a relationship not only of trust but of real affection for each other.”
McChrystal recounted that when he took over the Afghan command in the summer of 2009, collateral civilian deaths from coalition forces were high and causing harm to counterinsurgency efforts. “First off, we changed how we employed air power so that we would reduce [civilian casualties] to the absolute minimum,” McChrystal said. “The second thing was to connect with the Afghan people at the local level and all the way up to President Karzai. When an event would occur, I would go straight to President Karzai and I would start by apologizing to him and the Afghan people… It’s like offering sympathy for a loss…Then, as events would occur that would test that trust, we had a reservoir to fall back on. I thought that was the most important thing, and President Karzai became a great partner.”
When asked about America’s “erratic” alliance with Pakistan, McChrystal again reached for a relationship metaphor. “As with any friendship, hopefully you have consistency—and its consistency on both sides…if you took a neutral look at U.S. policy you might make the same argument from a Pakistani side-point...it’s gone back and forth since 1947, all with good intentions at the time, I might add. But it adds a lot of inconsistency and uncertainty to the relationship. And if you don’t have that in a long-term relationship, I think it’s very hard for allies or friends to be there when it’s difficult. And it’s difficult for both sides right now. The Pakistanis have a very big challenge economically—the floods in Pakistan were much more devastating than Katrina was in New Orleans, with much less capacity to deal with it. And then they’ve got a significant insurgency inside its borders...I’d argue for the perspective that we try to see it through each other’s eyes.”
Reaffirming America’s mission in Afghanistan, McChrystal recounted a local Afghan military aide’s experience watching the Taliban beat his mother with metal wire because she raised her burqa a few inches to navigate a muddy path. “It’s that kind of fate that awaits many women if we don’t give them an opportunity to defend their own society.” McChrystal said. “Protecting women’s rights will move forward if the government continues on generally their same course. If the government is increasingly threatened by the Taliban, those rights are absolutely at risk.”
While General McChrystal didn’t address the circumstances surrounding his dismissal, he made comments about the challenges that the new media environment creates for modern military leaders, which seemed to reflect his own experience with Rolling Stone magazine.
“I think that media—both the amount of scrutiny, but also the speed at which scrutiny comes now—has changed the environment for leaders in ways that we don't even fully comprehend yet,” McChrystal said. He described how news of an incident “will ‘go viral,’ as they say, before additional facts can be gained, before there's time for people to take a deep breath, and actually assess what has happened. It causes a leader to operate in an area where even a perceived problem or mistake is attacked suddenly… most forces are trained to project only the truth, so they tend not to be as fast as someone who doesn't bear that same responsibility.”
“I think the media right now doesn't carry the same level of responsibility it probably needs to, because they can affect the situation as well as report the situation, even more than is generally understood,” McChrystal reflected.
“I think that media—both the amount of scrutiny, but also the speed at which scrutiny comes now—has changed the environment for leaders in ways that we don't even fully comprehend yet,” McChrystal said.
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• Read all the Summit HighlightsBut the newly minted Yale professor also saw “great danger” from this instant news cycle for future leaders, “because it will cause leaders to be overly cautious. I also think it's likely to have an effect to keep people who would be leaders from entering the field, simply because it becomes such a ‘no fail’ experience.”
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.