Former US general Stanley McChrystal: Israel gives Palestinians no incentive to co-operate

Retired US commander who led special forces in Iraq war and coalition troops in Afghanistan says political solution is vital

Gen Stanley McChrystal is seen by many as the architect of modern counterterrorism. Getty Images
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Israel’s war to “wipe out” Hamas in Gaza, which has killed more than 15,500 Palestinians and displaced about 1.7 million since it started almost two months ago, has no political endgame, merely continuing a century-long conflict, retired US general Stanley McChrystal has told The National.

Gen McChrystal, seen by many as the architect of modern counterterrorism, says finding a political resolution is vital but Israel has given the Palestinians “zero incentive” to work towards one.

In an exclusive interview, he said the US must mount pressure on Israel to engage in multilateral talks to secure a long-term resolution to the war.

The veteran commander of campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan stressed there was no military solution.

His remarks come as US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin cautioned Israel that it faced a “strategic defeat” if more was not done to protect civilians.

“It’s necessary but it's really hard,” he said, of the need for Washington to apply pressure on its Israeli allies.

“I think we are a better friend to Israel if we remind them that they do themselves great damage when they alienate the rest of the world, when they give in to their passions in the moment,” he said, describing the country’s response to the October 7 attack.

“There have to be boundaries.”

Iraq special forces legacy

At nearly 70, Gen McChrystal does not seem like a man credited with creating what some called “industrial counterterrorism”.

The retired general founded the McChrystal Group, an advisory services firm near the US capital, Washington, but in military circles, he is known for pioneering technology and intelligence-driven strategies.

Tactics he developed led to the capture of Saddam Hussein – an operation he oversaw – the death of Al Qaeda in Iraq commander Abu Musab Al Zarqawi and, ultimately, the killing of Osama bin Laden.

He is credited with turning US special forces units into a globally connected network at the height of George W Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There's not a clear path to a two-state solution, even with ongoing negotiations right now. And so, on the one hand you've got this terrorist problem, and Israel wants to maintain good regional relations. On the other hand, the Palestinians have zero incentive to co-operate with the Israelis
Stanley McChrystal, former US general

By late 2003 in Iraq, waves of suicide bombers struck at coalition and civilian targets – about 1,800 attempted or completed suicide attacks in seven years.

It was the most sustained campaign of terror in history but it took the US about three years to develop a strategy to counter it.

Gen McChrystal’s direction of US special forces massively increased their operations by harnessing unprecedented intelligence collection, including drones and cyber warfare, leading to 300 night raids a month.

It helped to shatter Al Qaeda's bomb networks, greatly reducing the extremist group's leadership.

It also resulted in a massive drop off in attacks, from a peak of 135 car bombings in a single month in 2005 – often massive, co-ordinated attacks – to about 10 a month in 2010, which were often smaller.

But he told The National that such campaigns have little meaning without political momentum. Relying on a military approach risks “mowing the lawn”, indefinitely.

“It was only a partial solution, it was a stopgap measure, to bring things under some kind of control. But there has to be a political solution. There has to be some kind of pathway to one,” he said.

Gen McChrystal transformed the US Joint Special Operations Command – a military headquarters given the task of co-ordinating branches of the special forces – from a secretive organisation to a nimble network that worked across branches of the American government.

The approach was called network-centric warfare – the idea that to defeat a loose global network of Al Qaeda operatives, you would need a flexible network that shares information and ideas in real-time, with a flattened hierarchy – almost the opposite of a rigid conventional army with rigid chains of command.

Terrorist organisations, according to this idea, were highly decentralised and adaptive, meaning that it was easier for terrorists to stay one step ahead of a regular army, particularly one seen as an occupier.

At the same time, the terrorists were hiding in civilian populations, meaning regular armies were completely unequipped for an intelligence challenge that resembled policing, but within another culture. Firepower risked serving as a recruiting factor for militants.

This fight, he said, would become 80 per cent intelligence analysis and 20 per cent operations – the opposite of traditional warfare. Winning over a population and political strategy was a primary goal.

Wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan therefore, could not be won militarily, with the same logic applying to Israel and Palestine.

“In Iraq, of course, you needed some kind of a functioning government, you needed to keep the Iranian armed groups at arm's length, and you needed to get the armed groups, particularly the Sunni armed groups initially, under some kind of suppression. But it's not the long-term solution.

“In Israel, what scares me – and I spent a fair amount of time with the Israeli Special Operations Forces – is that the better you get at that, the more it feels like a status quo you can live with.

“For instance, if you've got a really good lawnmower and you can mow the lawn, after a while you start to think, ‘well, OK, we'll just mow the lawn every week. It's no problem'. But that's not a good thing.”

Gen McChrystal stressed in 2009 that “protecting the Afghan people, understanding their environment and building relationships with them” was vital.

In Gaza, Israeli forces have dropped more bombs in the war so far than the US in Afghanistan in all of 2017.

“Every time you eliminate a terrorist or insurgent, you take away somebody's brother, or somebody's son, or somebody's husband, and you create another disaffected person, or at the very least just one, likely many more,” Gen McChrystal said.

“And so the danger is – and this can sound contradictory – you need to be really good at counterterrorism operations, high-intensity counterterrorism operations. But you don't want to get so good that you start to think that you've solved a problem.

“Because if there are terrorists, you already have a serious, likely long-term underlying problem in the first place.”

The US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the latter of which he would command between 2009 and 2010 – emerged from an “emotional” rush to strike terrorists and their sponsors, he says, in the heated months after 9/11.

It is a strong parallel to Israel’s shock on October 7, Gen McChrystal said.

Today, Israelis may be in the same trap of taking action before thinking about conflict resolution.

One reason for this is overwhelming military force: Israeli forces outnumber Hamas many times over and have a large air force and a formidable number of tanks.

This can create a distorted sense of what can be achieved by force, Gen McChrystal warned.

“I think we made a big mistake after 9/11, rushing in, emotionally. And it wasn't shocking, because if you look at the decades before, we'd had the frustration of Vietnam and then the rebirth of American power with Grenada, Panama we came out of the First Gulf War feeling [invincible].

“And then we had that decade with the no-fly zones over Iraq. So, we're effectively constraining Saddam Hussein and then 9/11 happens, and there were these two things: One was the emotion of wanting to strike back,” he says.

“And the other was the sense that we could. That we had the capability and were the right people for the job.

“And, of course, we found that we didn't know enough. We were arrogant in the way we approached it.

“We looked at the challenge simplistically, all the things that I'm so frustrated about now. It’s hard to counsel that, even in high-level meetings, because of senior people.

“Because saying, ‘let's step back, let's take a deep breath’, it just doesn't play to the mob mentality well, even if the mob is a small mob.”

In Israel, there are divisions as there were in the US after 9/11, with some leaders and public figures calling on the government to increase devastation in Gaza while others – a small minority now – call for restraint.

Hardline allies of Mr Netanyahu, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, have called for maximum force against Palestinians and increased settlement construction, while there have been reported splits in the country’s war cabinet over truces.

Israeli counterterrorism

During the second intifada or uprising, US defence think tank Rand reported how Israeli security forces prided themselves on close co-operation between Shin Bet, the internal intelligence service, and their army, claiming deep knowledge of the communities where they operated.

It did not stop intense urban combat in the town of Jenin, where about 140 buildings were flattened.

With Jenin once again a flashpoint, the conflict has never been more violent.

It has put focus on Israeli operations as never before and close allies are ramping up pressure to rein in Israeli actions.

One risk is that fragile regional relationships could be broken, Gen McChrystal warned. Both Egypt and Jordan have strongly condemned Israel’s actions.

The other risk is that Israel could open up new fronts through its actions, with violence rising in the occupied West Bank and on the Lebanon border, with Hezbollah.

Maintaining alliances is “extraordinarily important. I am very much in the view of ‘measure twice, cut once”, he said.

“We're seeing around the world, even in the United States – there is growing backlash against Israeli operations. Israel has to consider all of that.

“I actually don't think they should have gone into Gaza at all. But that's just one guy’s opinion and I'm not there. The difference is in Afghanistan, we were trying to give the Afghan people an option, something that was theoretically better than a Taliban government influenced by Al Qaeda.

“In the case of Gaza and the West Bank right now, it doesn't appear that the Israelis are offering much alternative options.”

Current discussion between Israeli and foreign diplomats is said to revolve around creating a “buffer zone” inside Gaza’s borders.

Gen McChrystal said sealing off Gaza again would only postpone future security problems.

“There's not a clear path to a two-state solution, even with ongoing negotiations right now. And so, on the one hand you've got this terrorist problem, and they [Israel] want to maintain good regional relations.

“On the other hand, the Palestinians have zero incentive to co-operate with the Israelis, at least in my perception from afar.”

Gaza blockade

During the early years of the war on terror, US forces drew increasing anger for using too much force to protect themselves – with deadly shootings of Iraqis at checkpoints and detentions of innocent suspects making headlines.

The latter problem exploded onto the world stage with the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

From behind security walls, US forces became alienated from Iraqis. This protection, Gen McChrystal said, was an illusion that made them less safe in the long run.

The US eventually rewrote its doctrine and tried to shift emphasis to actions that were not violent, or “non-kinetic” in military terms, in a new field manual.

“More force reduces tactical risk in the short term. But in counterinsurgency, the more force that is used, the less effective it can be. It is more likely that counterinsurgents will achieve an end state by protecting a population, not the counterinsurgency force,” the new manual written in 2006 warned.

“One of the most dangerous things was when Gaza was walled in,” Gen McChrystal says.

“Even though they were launching rockets periodically, it was a little out of sight, out of mind. The fact that the security wall proved to be imperfect, I think, was a great wake-up call for Israel.

“It says, ‘hey, we’ve got 2.3 million people here. They're not happy'. And there's a reason for that. There's a reason they're not happy. It's not all their fault that they're unhappy.’

Whatever happens next, Israel must closely politically engage with Palestinians, he said.

“There's just almost no situation where I think a lack of interaction is valuable. I think the more interaction you have, it forces both sides to adapt to learn and all those things.

“It's just painful. This will be painful in the near term,” he said, warning there were no easy answers as to what comes next.

Updated: December 06, 2023, 10:15 AM