In an interview offered for Pirsm magazine, retired General Stanley McChrystal, made several observations and gave some warnings in regards to the current state of affairs. He is best known for leading Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and for his successful counter-insurgency operations (COIN) in Iraq. He wrote a novel, called “Teams of Teams” and is now the head of McChrystal Group, a consultancy and leadership company. Stanley McChrystal is also a distinguished thinker and strategist, being one of the few who really managed to understand and anticipate how a terror organization acts and moves. Alongside Mike Flynn and under David Patreus, Stanley McChrystal implemented the famous “fusion cells”, that managed to keep Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) on its toes, gain support from the Sunnis that eventually led to the the targeting and killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – the leader of AQI. That later made way to the Anbar Awaking – the rare moment when the Sunni triangle revolved against AQI and cooperated with the US.
He offered his opinion about Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria but also about the emerging security environment in Europe with hybrid warfare on the rise and Russia’s resurgence. But he also emphasized the need for a total structural/ institutional change inside the national security network if the US wants to remain efficient.
What do you see as the starkest, most challenging characteristics of the emerging global threat environment?
McChrystal: There are two characteristics of concern. First is the reemergence of great power nationalism; the rise of China, the reemergence of Russia, both with enough power and self-confidence to go back to traditional nationalist objectives. Russia is trying to move back into areas in Ukraine and perhaps even into the Baltic States, to try to reassert itself. That is a natural ebb and flow of power going back hundreds of years. I don’t think we saw the end of history in 1989; rather we are back on the track of history. Russia and China are major factors, and they are enough that we might not be in a post-modern period of history. A European war is not unthinkable. People who want to believe a war in Europe is not possible might be in for a surprise. We have to acknowledge great power politics; we can’t pretend they are gone.
In regards to Syria and the whole Middle East, he said that “we are paying a high price for is reduced American credibility in the region.” and underlined that “our ability to influence the region declined.” A consequence of these trends is that the regional actors began rethinking their positions: “as we started to show political fatigue and frustration, people in the region started to make new calculations. If you look at the behavior of the various countries—some former allies, the Saudis for instance—they have recalibrated their relationship with us and their role in the region, because they perceive that going forward the United States will have a different role than in the past. That has weighed very heavily in Syria. We have signaled very precisely all the things we will not do. Once you signal all the things you will not do, your opponent has the luxury of saying, “I know where my safe zone is.” That was probably a mistake. There needs to be some ambiguity about what we will and won’t do so that our foes are in doubt, and don’t know where we’ll stop.” The loss of credibility in the region can be easily attributed to the “red lines” that the past administration kept drawing without enforcing them when needed. Here’s what he said about “red lines”:
Would you then argue against “red lines?”
McChrystal: Red lines are dangerous things. Anytime you draw a red line you invite your adversary to call your bluff. If they do cross it you have to be prepared to act. If you don’t act, you pay a big price in credibility with not just your foes but with your allies as well.
In Syria, former President Barrack Obama made repeated threats to retaliate against Assad’s Government if it will use chemical weapons. Damascus did use chemical weapons, yet Washington failed to respond. Now the Government has an utmost comfortable position in the war, after it captured Aleppo and cleared most of the capital’s suburbs. Bashar al-Assad political position is at its strongest since the war started. The same goes when speaking about Ukraine, as the retired general says – “Once you signal all the things you will not do, your opponent has the luxury of saying, “I know where my safe zone is.” That is one mistake that the past administration and the European allies did in the eve of the Minsk negotiations. They signaled clearly that they will not take any military option, which was a free hand for Russia in continuing to wage its war in Ukraine. But what about ISIS?
What can we do today to defeat ISIL or the Islamic State?
McChrystal: The Islamic State is the symptom, not the cause. Some argue that if the Islamic State were eliminated the problem would be solved. I would counter-argue that if the Islamic State suddenly vanished, most of the problems in the region would still be there and they would be just as intractable as they are now. The Islamic State is a reaction to the chaos and the weakness of the existing regimes in the region, the lack of legitimacy, not just of the Bashar al-Assad government, but in Iraq and elsewhere. The weakness of these regimes is the absence of a compelling narrative that signals to the people that there will be political, economic, and social opportunities in the future. ISIL is a rejection of the status quo. That is also what the Arab Spring was about. It wasn’t a move to democracy, it was a rejection of the status quo. The great tragedy of the Arab Spring was that there was no compelling narrative around which the people could coalesce. There was no pan-Arab nationalism as there was in the past, nor any other compelling narrative. The only counters to the ISIL jihad narrative have been the narratives of status quo organizations and governments that, in the minds of populations, are, at best, 20th century entities. People don’t want to maintain that; even though they might not want ISIL they haven’t seen another option yet. ISIL must be contained for the moment and ultimately destroyed over time, but most importantly the region needs a narrative that is compelling and credible to the populations. That narrative must include a vision of what the region will look like in 25 years. Of course the vision won’t get everything right because things change. But there seems to be a sense in the region today that leaders don’t know where things are going. So many of the stabilizing factors have changed. Those autocratic regimes may not have been good but they were stable, as was the presence of the United States since we were so tied to the flow of oil. Today a mother in Ohio is not going to be nearly as willing to send her daughter or son to protect the lanes of oil delivery in the Middle East as she might have been in 1978 because we frankly don’t need Middle East oil today. That’s not lost on people in the region. They believe they need some new kind of believable and credible defense and security structure that looks durable.
The new administration talked about defeating Political Islam, as highlighted by National Security adviser, Mike Flynn, an ideological variation based on the religion itself, that is actually fueling these militant groups. One of the many factors Flynn but also retired General Mattis said, is to help and aid individuals and government that speak against it, as they once gave Egyptian President al-Sisi as an example. The later, called out clerics and individuals from Egypt for inciting hatred, weaponizing religion and for not condemning violent behavior from Islamists . Also, the role of wealthy Gulf sheiks and clerics in the development in terror organizations is no secret. These are the elements that need to be addressed on the long run.
Stanley McChrystal seems to have a similar opinion when speaking about hitting the roots, not just the symptoms. Read the full interview here.