Retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal has learned that some insurgencies are better fought with a microscope than an M16.
In a novel presentation Tuesday to a Yale University audience that included former presidential candidate Howard Dean, McChrystal and global health researcher Kristina Talbert-Slagle compared notes on how to deal with attacks from within: Military insurgencies and medical viruses.
“As we began to map out the differences, but also incredible similarities, between the human body as an organism and what happens in a nation, we thought it would be instructive for both sides to take a look at how they compare,” said McChrystal, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
“If you think of an insurgency, think of an argument. It’s an argument between the government of that nation and an insurgent group, and each are trying to win the support of the population,” McChrystal said.
Using Afghanistan and the AIDS crisis as their test cases, McChrystal and Talbert-Slagle came away agreeing that a holistic approach is essential in both situations.
The similarities abound, they contend. Both types of incursions saw years of early inaction and denial, followed by years of struggle to understand the root problems and find effective strategies to bolster the immune system.
Talbert-Slagle talked about the body’s constant exposure to viruses and the way immune cells patrol the body looking for threats. She also noted that fighting AIDS has required a sustained commitment of funding, research, education and adaptation.
“This is a problem of real people,” Talbert-Slagle said, to which McChrystal responded, “Afghanistan is a problem with real people, as well.”
He said that like the AIDS crisis, helping Afghanistan achieve sustained stability will require a long-term commitment to restoring faith in government. It means keeping schools open, helping farmers get their crops to market safely, putting criminals in jail and making sure people have electricity.
Much of that work involves a better understanding of Afghanistan and its culture. McChrystal recalled an instance where a farmer was killed mistakenly by counter-insurgency forces shooting from a helicopter at night. Afghan President Hamid Karzai explained to McChrystal that farmers get specific time slots for irrigation, which is why the farmer was in his field at night.
“We didn’t understand,” McChrystal told him.
“That’s the point,” Karzai said. “You didn’t understand.”
Asked by an audience member about remedies for Afghanistan comparable to medications for AIDS, McChrystal offered several. “The first vaccination is education,” he said. “And then the next thing you do is help businesses grow.”
A targeted response to insurgency doesn’t have to mean drone attacks, he added. “It can be sitting down and talking to the right people,” he said.
The idea of comparing war and medicine was Talbert-Slagle’s, McChrystal acknowledged. He said the most enlightening aspect of the exercise was “thinking about war in the holistic sense. It’s hard to do, but it’s critical.”