In his new book “Team of Teams,” retired US Army General Stanley McChrystal and his co-authors lay out how to navigate through decisions when facing dynamic foes in uncertain environments.
The book draws from his experiences leading the Joint Special Operations Task Force in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq in the 2000s.
Today, the US Military faces a perhaps even more unpredictable enemy in the form of ISIS, the terrorist group that reportedly recruits 1,000 foreigners a month.
In an interview with Business Insider, McChrystal discusses what makes ISIS unique, what it has in common other groups, and what the US can do about it.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Business Insider: How is ISIS different than the paramilitary groups that have come before it?
Gen. Stanley McChrystal: If you look at the Mahdists in the Sudan in the 1880s, you start to get something. It’s a different movement, but it had similarities — a popular movement that sort of erupted. It was ‘over there,’ it was a long way away, and it couldn’t transmit beyond that.
The unique thing about ISIS is that it hit in a unique time. It hit in a time when the Mideast is in absolute disarray. The analogy I use is, HIV/AIDS does not kill you. What happens is, your immune system is so weakened that some stupid little disease that your body normally fends off easily comes and becomes life threatening. And I think that the Mideast and North Africa have gotten so weakened that they’re like a patient with almost no immune system now. There’s no political narrative; there’s very little leadership. There’s very little sense in the population that there’s any direction in a single way.
Into that comes ISIS, which has an unacceptable doctrine, an abhorrent set of behaviours. So they’re not really a compelling organisation for many people to follow, but they are like weeds in the cracks of the footpath, they grow there because they can — everything else is so weak.
When people see absolute chaos in every direction around them, suddenly that one very strong, seemingly sure entity that says, ‘We know what we’re about, this is what we’re going to do,’ it has a certain attraction for part of the population. And then on top of that, you run into the information age technology.
BI: Like Twitter.
SM: Suddenly, they’re on the front page of magazines, they’re on TV everyday. They’re superb at [social media].
And they’re superb at it, not because they’re a centralised well-coordinated entity, but because they are decentralized, because they allow all the different parts of ISIS to do it and just execute.
They don’t try to over-control it, because that would slow it down, that would give you a lowest common denominator solution. Instead what they do, is they’re on there all the time, and their sheer volume, makes it a quality all its own.
BI: Huge volume. Incredibly flat. From an organizational perspective, there’s something impressive about that.
SM: It’s brilliant. How do we respond to it in an informational sense? We in the West, particularly in an informational sense, particularly in the United States, and more with information technology than anything else, we try to centralize it because we’re terrified of sending a bad message.
I used to tell visiting congressional delegations in Iraq, I had the authority to kill someone, an enemy leader on an authorised target list, but I didn’t have the authority to send them an email. What’s wrong with that picture?
It was the sense that you have to centrally control the message, and you see it in corporations, you see it in government, and see that now people constantly try and control discipline of their message. I understand that, but at a separate point, things go so fast that you can’t. You have to loosen the reins on the discipline of your message, try and get a general direction, and then let the organisation execute.
BI: How do you see that being applied?
SM: It’s not being applied very well. We are struggling. We are doing those things we’re very good at right now — we’re very good at bombing, we’re very good at doing certain things because you do those things in going after senior leaders.
The problem is they don’t address their ability to communicate, to get more recruits; they don’t address their ability, right now, to regenerate to create new franchises in different areas, which is their great strength. I think we’re going to have to take a much wider view of ISIS, and stop thinking of ISIS as a traditional force or entity, don’t worry as much about the piece of ground that they own, as much as the entity, the ideas they’re propagating are what you’ve got to go after.
And of course, as the end of the day, even if ISIS went away, the region has got problems that are going to have to be addressed. That’s really what we’ve got to have our eyes on.
BI: Is that an issue of culture?
SM: It’s culture, but it’s political culture. There’s religion and social culture, but political culture is really what’s badly badly broken.
BI: And it’s a power vacuum.
SM: Look at what they have had since the end of the First World War. They have had a succession of different kinds of governments in the region, ranging from pan-Arab nationalism to now fundamentalist Islamist, but also a series of strong leaders, autocratic dictators, kingdoms and whatnot.
If you really stack all that up, not many of them look like the right solution for those nations. You can argue for a short period that they might have worked for a while, but they’re not the kind of thing were most people sign up, ‘This is how I’d like to be governed in perpetuity.’ I don’t think that the people have a sense right now that they’re even moving towards that.
We’ve got to help them create sense that things are going in the right direction, albeit slowly.
NOW WATCH: We went inside a secret basement under Grand Central that was one of the biggest World War II targets
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.