Former General Stanley McChrystal Discusses War in Afghanistan, Risk Management, and Disinformation

McChrystal also shared his perspective on insularity and division in the United States.


Institute of Politics

The Institute of Politics building.

By Zachary Leiter

General Stanley McChrystal spoke with Institute of Politics (IOP) Director David Axelrod about the War in Afghanistan, national service, and the threat of disinformation at a live taping of the podcast The Axe Files in Ida Noyes Hall on November 30. McChrystal’s appearance was part of a speaking tour to discuss his new book, Risk: A User’s Guide.

McChrystal served in the United States Army for more than 30 years, including as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and of the United States’ Joint Special Operations Command. Since his retirement from the military in 2010, he has published several books and currently teaches courses on leadership and national service at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

Speaking with Axelrod, McChrystal explained his perspective on the United States’ 22-year-long war with Afghanistan. “What happened in Afghanistan when it collapsed was not that the military got defeated. The Taliban didn’t conquer Afghanistan. The Afghan people lost faith that the government could survive, and so it just all imploded, and the Taliban occupied [the country],” McChrystal said.

“When we signaled that we were going to start pulling forces out, [the decision] reinforced in the Afghans an insecurity that was already there,” he continued. “I think they were always hyper-insecure that we were going to walk away.”

President Joe Biden “had an incredibly difficult decision” regarding withdrawal, McChrystal said. “I actually respect his decision. It’s not the one I would have made, but I respect it a lot."

“I was an informal student of Vietnam,” McChrystal said. He explained that when the United States entered Afghanistan, he and his peers were aware that “anytime you try to [nation build], it’s going to be really difficult.”

“I got there in the spring of 2002, and…we’d gone in and swept out the government run by the Taliban and put Al-Qaeda basically on the run. The thing to remember is that Afghanistan, at that point, had been torn apart by conflict for twenty years already, and we didn’t go to Afghanistan because they invited us. We went because we wanted to get after Al-Qaeda, so we overthrew the government of the Taliban because they were supporting [and] giving sanctuary to Al-Qaeda. We get there, and this country is torn apart, this society is torn asunder.

“When I went to Afghanistan, I interpreted my mission as, ‘Create enough security for Afghanistan to protect its own sovereignty and therefore prevent Al-Qaeda from having a sanctuary,’” McChrystal said.

McChrystal stressed that everyone with whom he worked was fully committed but that in his mind, the overall strategy in Afghanistan was misguided. “It’s like a crime-ridden neighborhood here. You can get some really badass cops, and…you can suppress crime, but you’re unlikely to make the neighborhood a better place,” he said. “You really [have] to get at the root causes. In Afghanistan, the problem is [that] the root causes were corruption in the government, they were a lack of technocratic ability, [and] lack of economic opportunity.”

The conversation then turned to the American decision to shift focus to Iraq. McChrystal said that “once the focus went to Iraq, the major capabilities of the U.S. military went [there]."

“Your best talent gets pulled to the biggest fight,” he explained. “The communications infrastructure [in Afghanistan] was really weak. The talent on the staff was much thinner than we had in Iraq.… There were a lot of people assigned there [to get] a tour in combat, whereas the people in Iraq were the people who tended to go over and over.”

Axelrod noted that McChrystal’s book Risk talks about “developing a risk-immune system, [with] principles that should be applied to measure [and] evaluate how to prevent risk.” Axelrod asked McChrystal if the U.S.’ strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq violated these principles.

“In some cases, we don’t predict risk very well,” McChrystal explained, “because it’s very hard to predict the exact nature and timing of what’s going to arise. If you realize that that’s a bit of a fool’s errand, then what can you do about risk?”

“You can be very resilient. You can be very effective at what you do,” McChrystal answered, explaining that much of the operations of a government don’t change during a crisis. “You have to communicate clearly with each other, you have to have a narrative that you’re aligned on, you have to have effective leadership, you have to be adaptable to the conditions at hand, [and] you have to be able to overcome inertia to actually do things.”

McChrystal argued that the difficulties encountered in Iraq were predictable but not anticipated by the U.S. military. “The reality is, if you go into a situation like that, what you really need is to be able to respond to those things that do emerge,” he said.

When Axelrod asked what role disinformation plays in preventing the creation of a clear narrative, McChrystal answered bluntly: “The danger [is] not new,” he said. “The difference now is that we can distribute it with almost no cost.”

McChrystal went on to stress that everyone is vulnerable to disinformation. “We all think, ‘No, not the people in this room, we’re discerning, mature people,’ [but] the answer is, we’re all vulnerable to it because it’s just so powerful,” he said.

McChrystal identified disinformation as modern society’s greatest threat. “The reality is, you can get societies to do things that appear unthinkable,” he said. “In late April 1945, Adolf Hitler would still have been the majority selectee to run Germany after 12 years of [destruction], just on the eve of being completely defeated. He retained that level of popularity because he had used disinformation over the period just to be relentlessly effective.”

“We all say, ‘Well, if we were Germans in the 1940s in Germany, we wouldn’t be Nazis,’” McChrystal said before turning toward the audience. “The answer is no, statistically, you probably would have [been Nazis].”