A top general canned by the president for inflammatory comments he made in Rolling Stone magazine about the administration's conduct of the Afghanistan war spoke Friday about the need to build relationships in a complex, dangerous world.
Addressing students and academics at Carnegie Mellon University, Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. Afghanistan war commander until President Barack Obama fired him in 2010, said events halfway around the world have an increasingly profound effect on the United States.
"What happens in Baghdad matters in Baltimore, what happens in Pakistan matters in Pittsburgh," Mr. McChrystal said in a wide-ranging speech about America's security challenges. "The world is that way now."
He said Americans need to realize that people in other parts of the world view the same events much differently than America does, and person-to-person contact is critical to resolving conflicts.
The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, are examples of how the U.S. largely ignored that human understanding in its war on terror.
He cited several other examples of how the U.S. makes simple mistakes on the foreign stage, often unintentionally, that undermine its credibility.
One is the fact that most ambassadors are asked to resign when a new administration takes over. As a result, countries are left without an ambassador for as long as nine months because the process of appointing new ones takes so long.
"We let our process get in the way of relationships," said Mr. McChrystal, who teaches leadership at Yale University and lectures around the country.
In an example from his own experience in Afghanistan, he said tribal leaders in 2006 asked coalition forces to build a school for their children. So, Mr. McChrystal said, the school was built in between two villages about three kilometers apart.
But when the building was done, the Afghans destroyed it.
Why? Because, it turned out, the people in the two villages had hated each other for 100 years, even though they were part of the same tribe. In addition, Mr. McChrystal said, the U.S. brought in an outside contractor to do the work instead of giving the job to the Afghans.
Even though the U.S. was trying to do the right thing, he said, the effort backfired because of a lack of understanding.
Another example he cited was the use of armed drones to conduct "surgical strikes" on enemies.
While drones have their place, he said, their use also has a lasting impact -- much as real surgery does on a human body -- that U.S. leaders must consider before deploying them. He said the U.S. favors such weapons because they are antiseptic and don't risk American lives, but people on the ground see them as "arrogant."
Addressing other topics in a question-and-answer session, Mr. McChrystal said the growth of social media around the world is a security issue because it "moves faster than we can think." Social media can generate a movement before anyone has time to consider its implications, he said.
He also echoed the concerns of many leaders in decrying the eroding U.S. education system. While American universities are still top-notch, he said, public education is in "crisis." The high school dropout rate is at Third World levels, he said, and America's future is in peril because the workforce of the future will not be able to compete.
"It's the tsunami coming," he said. "We've taken our eye off the ball."
Torsten Ove: tove@post- gazette.com or 412-263-1510.