Welcome Michael Hastings (RollingStone) and Host Ambassador Peter W. Galbraith (Vermont State Senator)

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan

General Stanley McChrystal told journalist Michael Hastings that he wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone and so he was. The resulting story—describing an alcohol fueled dinner in Paris and the General’s staff mocking the Obama Administration—ended McChrystal’s tour as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan and his military career.

The Operators, by fellow Vermonter Michael Hastings, is a book about the story. It adds detail to what was in the original Rolling Stone article, recounts Hastings experience in writing the article, and describes the establishment media’s harsh reaction to the story. McChrystal and his team included Hastings in classified briefings, staff meetings, dinners, and visits to the troops. They recklessly shared the substance of private exchanges between McChrystal and Obama (and McChrystal’s frustration with a president who approved McChrystal’s strategy but didn’t believe in it) and frat boy jokes at the expense of Vice President Biden (“bite me”), Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and National Security Advisor Jim Jones, among others. Neither McChrystal nor his media handler established ground rules for what Hastings could or could not use, which is all the more incredible for the fact that McChrystal had served as the Pentagon spokesman during the invasion of Iraq. After the Rolling Stone story was published, Hastings’ colleagues in the mainstream press—and notably those writing for the New York Times—excoriated Hastings for having reported what he heard and saw. Hastings rightly strikes back at the cozy relationship between the mainstream press and the Pentagon that has limited candid writing about the shortcomings of the US strategy in Afghanistan.

This is no small point. In 2011, the US spent $117 billion and committed 100,000 troops to a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan that never had the slightest chance of success. As its architects would be the first to admit, the strategy depends on having a local partner who can take over security and provide good governance once US troops have secured an area. The corrupt, ineffective, and illegitimate Karzai government is not a partner and, as Hastings writes, local warlords, drug runners and power brokers –many supported by the US military—are equally bad.

Yet, the military claims its strategy is working. Hastings explores the circular nature of this argument. When violence in Afghanistan is up, it reflects the aggressive NATO campaign against the Taliban. If violence were to go down, it would be because the campaign had succeeded in pacifying more of the country. But, the troops on the ground know better and one of the book’s most poignant scenes is where troops fighting Helmand Province tell McChrystal his strategy isn’t working.

I met McChrystal in 2009 when I served as the Deputy UN envoy in Afghanistan and I liked him. He was determined to minimize civilian casualties, articulating a “zero tolerance” policy. He spoke of the strategic consequences of such collateral damage—killing the wrong person in tribal Afghanistan can make hundreds of new enemies—but I also had the sense that he did not like taking lives unnecessarily. And, unusual in the military, he was apparently a Democrat.

I was less impressed with McChrystal’s Spartan lifestyle: he famously ate just one meal a day and slept no more than four hours a night. When I met him to discuss security arrangements for polling centers in the forthcoming Afghan presidential elections, he struggled to stay awake. (1200 polling stations were ostensibly located in places so insecure that no Afghan election official had ever been there and, of course, the polling centers never actually existed. The Karzai-controlled election commission reported more than a million votes for the President from these ghost polling centers. The fraud not only denied Afghans their democratic rights but undercut US strategy by making a weak partner—already burdened by corruption and ineffectiveness—illegitimate. In September 2009, UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon fired me for urging–privately and internally—that the UN do something about the fraud in elections that the UN had paid for. Hastings covers this episode in two chapters.)

Some of the more intriguing—and least explained—parts of the book are the snippets of insight that Hastings provides into his own life. He is a self-described war junkie who encouraged his girlfriend to join him in Baghdad only to have her die in 2007 in a botched kidnapping. He has had his own alcohol issues, having spent three days in jail following a college binge drinking episode. The reader slightly wonders if the book’s focus on the McChrystal team’s drinking (the front and rear covers shows a faceless four star General with alcohol in hand) doesn’t, in part, reflect the author’s own demons.

Hastings tells a story familiar to those of us who lived through Vietnam. The Pentagon’s counter insurgency strategy is succeeding and, if Afghanistan goes south (as it surely will, it is because irresolute politicians didn’t stay the course. As in Vietnam, the mainstream press has been insufficiently skeptical, perhaps because their access depends on good relations with the generals. While it may to be too much to say that Michael Hastings is the David Halberstam of his generation, The Operators is an important contribution to truth telling.

118 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Michael Hastings, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan”

BevW February 12th, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Michael, Welcome to the Lake.

Peter, Welcome back to the Lake, and thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:01 pm
In response to BevW @ 1

Great, thanks for having me. It’s very, very cold in Vermont today. Perfect for an online book chat.

dakine01 February 12th, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Good afternoon Michael and welcome to FDL this afternoon. Ambassador Galbraith, welcome back.

Michael, I have not had a chance to read your book (although I did read the Rolling Stone article).

Were you surprised at how open McChrystal and his staff were with you?

Did they think you were going to just be a stenographer (like it seems so much of the Traditional Media are these days)? Is that why the NY Times and other TradMed groups went after you because you weren’t a stenographer?

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 2:03 pm
In response to michaelhastings @ 2

Michael,

You paint a pretty dismal picture of civilian-military relations in the first years of the Obama Administration. Who is most to blame: Generals insufficiently respectful of civilian authority or a President unwilling to take responsibility? How has this changed?

Kathryn in MA February 12th, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Welcome, what a great topic, and timely what with Lt. Col. Davis’ push-back, too.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Hah, well definitely check out the book! I go into great detail about my reaction towards the level of access that Gen. McChrystal and his staff gave me. But yes, I was surprised. I quickly learned they had a very “free-wheeling” style that even applied to how they handled the press.

As for stenography: well, I think guys like John Burns and others reacted the way they did for a bunch of reasons. One is that they felt a bit embarrassed because people like John Stewart were publicly asking: Why haven’t we heard this before?

Mauimom February 12th, 2012 at 2:07 pm
In response to michaelhastings @ 2

Welcome, Mr. Hastings. I hesitate to note that it’s 75 in Maui right now, but still perfect for a book salon.

dakine01 February 12th, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Just as a technical note, there is a “Reply” button in the lower right hand of each comment. Pressing the “Reply” will pre-fill the commenter name and comment number you are replying to and makes it easier for folks to follow the conversation.

Note: some browsers do not like to let the Reply work properly if it is pressed after a page refresh but before the page completes loading

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I’ve been waiting for this book salon all day.

My very important Q is: How hollowed out is the U.S. military? U.S. diplomacy & U.S. democracy is completely hollowed out, but military is able to hide it more effectively.

McCrystal & Davis (a veritable-made-for-Disney-emperor-has-no-clothes moment) suggest that there is no there there.

And if U.S. military is as hollowed out as Hastings portrays, how much longer for U.S. empire?

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Yes, I think civil -military relations were at a low point in the last decade–perhaps at one of the historic low points. In fact, we recently learned, even beyond what I’ve reported, and what Woodward reported, that after Gen. Petraeus took over, he still had very bad relations with Ambassador Eikenberry. Part of it, I think, was that the military brass didn’t really respect President Obama, and knew they could push him around, at least for the first year. (They’ve since been put on notice.)

But I would love to hear Ambassador Galbraith’s view on civ-mil relations.

Jim White February 12th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Thank you Michael and Peter for being with us today, and as always, thank you Bev for your uncanny timing in scheduling.

This question is for both Peter and Michael. I was always dubious of McChrystal’s sincerity in the “protect the population” aspect of his COIN public persona. From my point of view, this is a man who got his start with Camp NAMA and hiding prisoners from the ICRC and whose primary tool was night raids that were notoriously inaccurate but still disappeared many innocent people for a very long time, often with torture occurring. And as Michael points out in the book, the key measure is that under McChrystal’s COIN strategy, civilian deaths actually went up.

Question for each of you: How sincere do you believe McChrystal was when he said he wanted to protect civilians?

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Do you think the mainstream press–and in particular the New York Times—has been too deferential and, sometimes fawning, in their coverage of the America’s wartime Generals? Is the mainstream press is too close to the military to give us the real story as to how badly things are going in Afghanistan?

BTW, it is also frigid here in southern Vermont. I was just out skating.

Siun February 12th, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Michael

Welcome to the lake – I’ve been waiting for this discussion since the weekend in which I devoured your book. It is a stunning piece of work.

Mauimom February 12th, 2012 at 2:11 pm

After you respond to Peter’s question @ #4, would you go on to talk about how the generals might react if any of the clown posse currently competing for the Republican nomination actually became Commander in Chief? I’m recalling your remarks that they regarded Obama as weak, easily manipulated, etc., and trying to imagine their reaction to Newt or Santorum.

BevW February 12th, 2012 at 2:11 pm

As a technical note,
there is a “Reply” button in the lower right hand of each comment. Pressing the “Reply” will pre-fill the commenter name and number you are replying to and helps for everyone in following the conversation.

(Note: If you’ve had to refresh your browser, Reply may not work correctly unless you wait for the page to complete loading)

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:11 pm
In response to Kathryn in MA @ 5

Thanks! Yes, I think LTC Davis report, which I obtained on Friday, actually spells out a number of the themes that I write about in the book. Its impact, though, is important because it’s one of the first time an active duty officer has called out this widespread deception against the U.S. population that senior military leadership has been engaged in.

Here’s a link to that story from Friday:
http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/national-affairs/the-afghanistan-report-the-pentagon-doesnt-want-you-to-read-20120210

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:11 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 7

I’d take Maui weather, for sure.

billyc February 12th, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Welcome to FDL, Michael.

Just a point of clarification: did either McChrystal or any of his staff read your article before RS published it?

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Woodward portrays O as a complete dube. For example, it took O (according to Woodward) 9 months to figure out if O went with the Petreaus plan, there will be more troops in Afghanistan when O runs for reelec than when he ran for election. That strikes me as a person better suited for the trash heap of history than for C-I-C of a global empire. Can’t even do simple arithmetic.

Comments?

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Thanks Ambassador Galbraith for the question. I have just observed, from a distance, folks ice-fishing today.

Look, there are great reporters at the Times doing great work. But, yes, I think a few of their star correspondents got way too close to the military. This impacted their coverage because they really pulled punches. In private, they would tell you how bad things were, but you wouldn’t see that in the paper. And, more to the point, there was a real tendency to not fault the U.S. military for the strategy that the military itself devised. Much of the tone of the Times coverage–in the past, at least with a few of the correspondents–was very much: “The war would be going great, if it wasn’t for those pesky Afghans!”

Siun February 12th, 2012 at 2:16 pm
In response to Jim White @ 11

Jim, thanks for raising this right away since I saw no decrease and simply a continuation of sternly worded lectures and apologies while civilians continued to die. Thanks also for raising Camp Nama … Any commander responsible for that has a lot to answer for.

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 2:16 pm
In response to Jim White @ 11

Sincerity is hard to judge. In a successful counter-insurgency, you have to win over the population and civilian casualties set back that goal, especially in a country with an extended family and tribal structure like Afghanistan. This McChrystal understood. For what it is worth, I also felt he was sincere. Unfortunately Petraeus loosened McChrystal’s policy of zero tolerance of civilian casualties.

bystander February 12th, 2012 at 2:18 pm

re: LTC Davis’ report, I’m curious how the Rolling Stone acquired it… although I don’t expect you to share that. It’s quite a coup for the Rolling Stone, regardless.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:18 pm
In response to Jim White @ 11

Jim, thanks. I think from a tactical/strategic perspective, he was sincere in that McChrystal believed that they way to win was to not kill civilians. I don’t think this was rooted in any deep moral sense of responsibility of why it’s bad to kill civilians though. In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, if it became tactically advantageous to kill a few more civilians, I think we would do so. (See drone strikes today.)

More to the point: more civilians were killed under McChrystal than under the previous commander, Gen. McKiernan, and, according to the numbers Petraeus command put out, Petraeus’ strategy also killed fewer civilians.

Jim White February 12th, 2012 at 2:19 pm

One thing that Davis did a really good job of pointing out about the media’s fawning attitude toward the military was in how tightly the military controls access to high level officers, so that those in the press are afraid to write anything that isn’t flattering because that would mean they would lose access for the next story.

That’s what makes the unique conditions of your access so important. Was it primarily the “operator” mentality that really wanted that Rolling Stone cover story that got you in? And was it sloppiness borne of the habits of the other subservient members of the press who made them so careless around you? In other words, have you heard from others that they also were exposed to careless, rowdy behavior but did not report on it?

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:20 pm
In response to billyc @ 18

No. However, we fact checked the story with them, and I went over the what was going to be in the story with his press advisor multiple times. They were expecting a critical story, I’ve learned.

bmaz February 12th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Is that just the reporters getting to close and Stockholmed, or is some of it the editorial framing of management independent of the ground reportage?

frmrirprsn February 12th, 2012 at 2:21 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 19

Hi eCAHN,

a person better suited for the trash heap of history than for C-I-C of a global empire.

The two positions are not mutually exclusive.

Siun February 12th, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Thank you for pointing out the results.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:21 pm
In response to bystander @ 23

Hah, well, that’s my job, right? I actually figured the Davis report would have leaked sooner. When it didn’t, I started poking around.

RevBev February 12th, 2012 at 2:22 pm

How could there have been any support/trust/credibility in judging & selecting McChrystal in view of the Tillman reports?

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 2:23 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 19

Actually, I was struck by something else that emerged from Woodward’s book. Clearly, Obama did not believe the counter-insurgency strategy would work and yet he tripled the number of US troops in Afghanistan. However politically trapped he may have felt by the military and Democratic foreign policy establshment (which always wants to show it is more hawkish than the Republicans),I am troubled by a decision to commit lives and so many resources to a strategy that you don’t think will work.

Siun February 12th, 2012 at 2:25 pm

What I find impressive was how Michael avoided falling into the access buddy trap and actually reported what happened … The book is so open, about McChrystal but also about the author and that’s an honesty of reporting we haven’t seen in a very long time.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:26 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 19

It’s funny–folks have criticized my book for not being tough enough on President Obama. But I think Woodward’s reporting is right–it’s what I had originally reported, as well as Jon Alter in his book the promise.

I will say this: I started to ask myself, as a hypothetical, could President Obama have put the brakes on the war in Afghanistan, assuming he wanted to? And I think the answer might be “no.” Once the president decided to send the first 21,000 extra troops, then when he decided to fire Gen. McKiernan, he set forces in motion that he wasn’t able to stop. Remember–first year of his presidency. Economy collapsing. Healthcare. No military service, and he is, gasp, a Democrat. Who is going to win a face off with the Pentagon? We know the answer–the Pentagon.

emptywheel February 12th, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Michael

Hate to interrupt the fascinating serious conversation, but as someone who TAed a (terrible) literature of war class once, I was fascinated by the narrative of the book–and your obvious nod both to previous war narrative greats but also to some great kickass fiction.

Can you talk about where you see your book in those two traditions?

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Yes, I’m with the ambassador on that one. And it’s worth remembering that Ambassador Galbraith was one of the voices of reason as this policy debate unfolded.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:29 pm
In response to RevBev @ 31

That’s a key question. The mistake wasn’t firing McChrystal, it was hiring him in the first place. With Camp Nama, and the Tillman cover-up, it’s incredible his career was intact. Truly, truly incredible. Shows just how powerful/impressive/ his performance was considered when he ran JSOC, and just how influential his allies (Petraeus, Gates, Mullen, Cheney, Rumsfeld) were.

bystander February 12th, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Well, yes, it is. So, congratulations on getting that report for your publication. But, it does prompt me to wonder if your mo with sources (who might, or might not be vulnerable) is influenced by stories like Liptak’s in the NYT:

eg;

“I was told in a rather cocky manner” by a national security representative, Ms. Dalglish recalled, that “the Risen subpoena is one of the last you’ll see.”

She continued, paraphrasing the official: “We don’t need to ask who you’re talking to. We know.”

billyc February 12th, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Michael, Ray McGovern once commented early on in Obama’s first year as CinC that he was a “hostage of the national security apparatus.” In your view, would that be true then, or even now?

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:32 pm
In response to Siun @ 33

Thanks, appreciate that. For one, I had a platform at Rolling Stone that allowed me to actually write what happened, and then had that platform again with Blue Rider Press when we published The Operators. But I figured–and I’m going to probably sound like a self righteous asshole here, so apologies in advance–that with all the lives and money at stake…All of the real consequences of the war vastly outweighed any future concerns about my own career. More or less, I was like, fuck it, this is not a time for more bullshit reporting.

Siun February 12th, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Doesn’t this point out some of the danger of the shift to all Special Ops all the time?

Siun February 12th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

That decision shows throughout the book annd is why it succeeds so well … I’m actually curious where Marcy (Emptywhel) herself would place it?

Mauimom February 12th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Realted to what billyc asked @ #39, do you think Obama has learned ANYTHING in the last 3-1/2 years, or is everyone who criticizes him still a “retard” who needs “drug testing” ?

RaggMopp February 12th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

Peter W. Galbraith,the author of The End of Iraq? Jesus, I am speechless!
Don’t worry Michael, I will buy your book as soon as I catch my breath.

Jim White February 12th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

Another document leaked recently was the one that BBC and The Times obtained recently where we learned, not so surprisingly, that the Taliban are convinced that they will take over very soon after we are gone. Do both of you agree with that assessment, and do you believe that this particular leak will have any additional role in moving the Afghanistan discussion more toward reality, since it comes into an environment with Michael’s book and the Davis document?

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:38 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 35

Hey thanks so much–I very much enjoy your writing as well.

Yes, I’ve read tons and tons of war books–both fiction and non-fiction. I was going for a kind of Bright Shining Lie, hardcore, third person reportage blended with a Robert Capa style first persona narrative–really intense, absurd, dark, comic.Those two books, in my opinion, are some of the best, if not the best books on war. Or at least my favorites.

As for fiction: you can’t beat James Jones (From Here to Eternity; Whistle; Thin Red Line) and of course, Tim O’Brien’s first book(If I Die in a Combat Zone) and The Things they Carried.

More recent work that influenced me: Generation Kill is the big one. I think Generation Kill is the book of the Iraq War, as told from an American perspective.

Siun February 12th, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Is the issue really Obama, as bad as he has been, or the larger MIC that he and the whole apparatus serves? When we focus too closely on Obama, we risk thinking that simply replacing him solves the problem instead of challenging the militarization of our relationship to rest of the world and our willingness to ignore all previous sense of boundaries.

emptywheel February 12th, 2012 at 2:43 pm
In response to Jim White @ 25

I also wondered if one of the key facts is that Michael remained sober while the “Operators” all got drunk. Yeah, booze tends to lubricate these relationships but it makes it a lot easier to join in the game.

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Michael,

Petraeus wrote the manual on counter-insurgency that was the basis for the McChrystal and later his own Afghanistan strategy. Central to successful counter-insurgency is having an Afghan partner who can win over the population. Did McChristal or Petraeus actually think Karzai was a partner who somehow in 2009 and 2010 could do what he hadn’t done in the previous decade—i.e. win over Afghans.

And if there is no partner, how do they think their counter-insurgency strategy will work?

When I pose this question to Petraeus collaborators, they almost invariably change the subject. In a BBC debate with Gen Graeme Lamb (who as you write was central in developing the strategy) responded to my question by observing that it took the US nearly a century to move from the Declaration of Independence to freeing the slaves.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:44 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 35

And Marcy has got me going on this–two other key books.

Born on the Fourth of July. This is perhaps the only book that succeeds as a true anti-war book. Almost all other books about war, despite their best efforts, end up glorifying it in some way. Or at least, when I would finish reading them, I’d think: Gee, I’d like to try that! See war for myself! I’m an idiot, perhaps. But that’s how seductive war is. Born of the Fourth of July does not have that problem. (Anti-war films have this same problem–Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, all make war look very cool, regardless of the films underlying messages.)

Which leads me to Chris Hedges book, War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning. This was a huge, huge, influence on me. I read it when I was 22, an intern at Newsweek, months before the invasion of Iraq. But, per what I said above, I read it, and thought, man, I should become a war correspondent. I don’t know if that’s the response Hedges intended. It’s an incredible book, though.

Jim White February 12th, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Michael, how differently do you think your interactions with the McChrystal team would have gone if the volcano hadn’t blown, trapping you guys together for an extended time and disrupting the previous schedule? Do you think that situation had something to do with them letting down their guard just a bit?

emptywheel February 12th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Thanks–for the kind words and the answer. It worked, in any case. And for that reason I’ve enjoyed the book even more than the article.

Though I’m curious how much of your voice depends on getting to write for RS, and how much of ending up at RS is about your voice. Which of course is so important to why this works and will be read by those outside the normal political debates.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Oh man! I’ve had those kinds of conversations! At least they haven’t compared Karzai to George Washington (actually, they probably have somewhere.)

Yes, I never quite understood this. Eikenberry points this out explicitly, as you have as well. Petraeus/McChrystal and the COINDINISTAS talk about how we need a “reliable civilian partner” for the strategy to work, yet they all say we don’t have one(at least privately they say that.) When the central tenet of your plan is clearly faulty…

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 2:51 pm

I was thinking more about the process of what to do in Afghanistan than the outcome. Suppose you & Galbraith are right and O couldn’t stand up to the U.S. military. (That sez a lot already.) So why did O dither for so long? And not, again according to Woodward, not seem to comprehend simple arithmetic. If O figured he couldn’t stand up to the military, give them their head, gather evidence ASAP that military is wrong, then change tactics.

Those of us in the real world knew that Afghanistan war is a lost cause long before O was inaugurated.

Then it becomes only a matter of figuring how to outmaneuver military.

Bringing me back to my first Q. How hollowed out is U.S. military. Both McCrystal’s ugly American and Davis’s emperor has no clothes suggests incompetence in the extreme.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:53 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 52

It’s hard to say. The reason I wanted to write for RS was because they were publishing works by Matt Taibbi and Tim Dickinson. I thought, man, those guys are doing great work. I’d like to be doing work like that. And of course the legendary RS writer–who I shall not name–has had such a huge influence over all writers/journalists, it’s hard to know where the influence begins/ends/etc. But I think, if folks go back and read my first book (I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story) or the writings I published at GQ (one called Hack, another called Obama’s War) you’ll see that my voice was developing over time. Depending on the magazine, there are differences in tone.

But the purest unfiltered expression of my writing, all its faults included, is in these two books–the Baghdad book and The Operators.

Jim White February 12th, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Speaking of COIN, another point that Davis made pretty convincingly was that what reduced violence in Iraq wasn’t COIN nearly so much as it was the spread of the Anbar Awakening. What drove that, Davis said, was the fact that AQI became so disgustingly violent that the Sunnis were driven into alliance with us to rid themselves of AQI. I found Davis’ pointing to that as the reason COIN is not working in Afghanistan (since there is no equivalent force driving Afghans to cooperate with us) to be very convincing. What do you think of that argument?

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 2:57 pm
In response to Jim White @ 51

Interestingly enough, most of the key moments–those moments that ended up to be controversial–occurred before the volcano, and before I got to know them. The volcano allowed me to just get more time with them, which I hope allowed me to paint a more accurate/human/indepth picture of who these guys are/were.

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 2:58 pm
In response to Jim White @ 45

Jim,

I agree that the Taliban may think they will win soon after we go but I don’t think that will happen. The Taliban is an almost entirely Pashtun movement and Pashtuns are only 45% of Afghanistan’s population. The Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks are better armed and organized and I think they can keep the Taliban out of the North and out of Kabul, especially if we provide some minimal support.

Afghanistan after we leave is likely to look pretty much like Afghanistan right now: the Taliban in control of the countryside in the South and East, in control of most of Kandahar most of the time but unable to conquer Kabul or the North. Which begs the question as to what difference our 100,000 troops and $117 billion a year is actually making.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:02 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 54

I heard a general officer make this comment recently: The U.S. military is risk averse and legacy obsessed. What does that mean in the case of Afghanistan? The risk, from the Pentagon’s perspective, was leaving. They pretty much know what happens when they pour all those troops and weapons and money into that kind of environment. It gets even crazier for a couple of years, lots of people kill each other, and, fingers crossed, violence eventually drops enough so we can say we won. (What happened in Iraq, more or less.) Leaving however, tarnishes your legacy; leaving is a greater unknown. And drawing down, from a legacy perspective, is the greater risk.

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 3:03 pm
In response to Jim White @ 56

I totally agree and have been saying that since 2007. The surge made little difference in Iraq. What mattered was the Sunni leaders turning against AQI. A long as AQI was killing Americans and Shiites, the Sunnis didn’t mind. But once AQI tried to seize power from the Sunni Sheiks (and began assassinating them), they flipped. Once the Sunni leaders turned AQI, it was quickly defeated. And this occurred mostly before the surge really got underway.

emptywheel February 12th, 2012 at 3:05 pm

How much does that depend on a general status quo in Pakistan that seems like it may be rickety? I mean, if the Pakistanis stop meddling, to what degree are the Taliban going to retain their staying power?

And where/how does all the opium get out after we leave? Does the opium trade remain the same after we leave?

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 3:06 pm

A military that is risk averse. That’s almost as funny as military intelligence.

If they’re risk averse, why don’t they avoid war to begin with. (Rhetorical Q)

Tammany Tiger February 12th, 2012 at 3:07 pm

We’ve come a long way from Harry Truman, who fired a five-star general in the middle of a war because of his insubordination.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:08 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 61

Adding to Marcy’s question for Ambassador Galbraith: Peter, one of the reasons you were chosen for the UN position was because of your deep contacts and expertise with the Pakistanis. What’s the status of our relationship with them? Can it be salvaged? Where is the blame on this one? Islamabad? DC? Both?

cocktailhag February 12th, 2012 at 3:09 pm

I have a few shelves of war books to recommend to Marcy and Michael, but the one I think is best is Jonathan Schell’s “The Time of Illusion,” (Knopf, 1975).
Through the lens of Vietnam and Watergate, Schell connects the interplay of war abroad and propaganda at home in a chillingly prescient way.

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 3:11 pm
In response to tammanytiger @ 63

A perfect example of what I mean by hollowed out. (Not that I’m any fan of Truman, but that’s a different point.)

Current status of U.S. pols, pundits, military is that no one is responsible for anything, no one can take initiative, no one knows wtf they’re doing and everyone hides behind PR jerks and delaying tactics.

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Michael,

As I said in my introductory post, I was impressed and intrigued with the way you brought your personal issues into the book, including your own misadventures with alcohol. Yet, I slightly wondered whether this made you over sensitive to Team America’s drinking.

I also thought I detected in a slight undertone of bitterness in the book that I connected with your experience in Baghdad. Is this unfair?

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:13 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 48

Re: booze. As Amb. Galbraith pointed out in the intro, I have had an interesting relationship with alcohol. Drank a ton as a teenager, got in big, big, trouble, then stayed sober for a decade. I more or less hadn’t touched a drop of booze until Dubai, in the days after I left Paris and Berlin, waiting to go to Kabul to see McChrystal again. Nowadays, I’ll drink a few times a year, though, generally, I don’t feel I’m living up to “God’s Best” when I do, as Joel Osteen might put it.

On a practical level, though, if I’d been drinking heavily in Paris and Berlin, that certainly would have been used against me as a way to undermine my reporting. (Not that there hasn’t been a lot of great drunk reporting done overseas, as a number of my colleagues can attest to.)

emptywheel February 12th, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Or our overuse of drones? I’ve always thought that the biggest problem with drones is the way they screw with both the target country’s and our own sovereignty. It seems like destabilizing the sovereignty of a state like Pakistan comes with its own inherent risks.

Kevin Gosztola February 12th, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Michael,

The content of The Operators is eye-opening and engrossing, really a non-fiction book that gets across a lot of information and is dense in sections but has a style to it that makes the reader want to keep turning the pages. I was very interested in the sections where there were details about how essential it is to these military generals to be able to “co-opt” the media. And, as someone who has spent the last year writing a lot about WikiLeaks here at FDL, I was wondering—especially since you did the interview with Assange—if you would comment on their impact on trying to spin a narrative on Afghanistan (if you think they even had any).

I notice Gen. McChrystal was under investigation as the Afghanistan War Logs were released. The release probably impacted allies’ involvement in the war more than the US. But, the person seen as being behind the release was Julian Assange. He wasn’t a Lt. Col. Davis or someone of that stature so perhaps it was very easy to ignore the released war reports.

Jim White February 12th, 2012 at 3:14 pm
In response to tammanytiger @ 63

Uhm. Obama did fire McChrystal.

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 3:15 pm
In response to Siun @ 47

Also part & parcel of my point about whole U.S. system being hollowed out.

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 3:18 pm
In response to Jim White @ 71

But not for incompetence, i.e. fundamental reason. Rather for being a drunken blathermouth. Big diff.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I don’t know, re: drinking. Certainly, as someone who has a rather nuanced relationship with the bottle, I’m pretty aware of how much other people drink, and the negative impact it can have on lives. But, as is made clear in the book, most of the controversial comments that were made–ie, Biden Bite Me, trashing Holbrooke and Jones, criticizing Obama and the White House–were made when McChrystal and company were stone cold sober!

As for Baghdad. I was extremely angry and devastated over what happened in Baghdad for many years. And I wouldn’t be surprised if bitterness was part of that emotional package. But it’s one of the things I have actively tried to fight against. One of the reasons I left Newsweek to pursue the kind of writing I wanted to pursue was because I felt if I stayed and wrote things I didn’t believe in, I’d become very bitter…I didn’t want that to happen…At the end of the day, I rediscovered a real love for life(or, as Ewan MacGregor puts it in Trainspotting, I chose life.)

But I think there are elements of intoxication/addiction to power and war that cross over into personal behavior for many of The Operators…

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 3:23 pm

The US-Pakistan relationship is very complex. Pakistani officials follow their own narrative of the relationship which is basically that America always lets Pakistan down. American officials are constantly changing so they have little sense of the history of the relationship and therefore do not counter the Pakistani narrative. (In most cases, the US stopped supporting Pakistan because Pakistan’s Generals did not keep their commitments to the US, but our officials don’t know the history and cant counter the Pakistani narrative).

That said, Pakistan is not a failed state and, while the military has lots of influence, the civilian government is not as weak as many perceive. We are best off supporting Pakistan’s civilian government which is the most pro-American force in the country.

RickinSF February 12th, 2012 at 3:26 pm

I recall that McChrystal boxed the president in on the issue of troop requirements in Afghanistan earlier in the year, before the RS story. He did this by “leaking” reports before Obama was to announce the Admin. position on troop numbers.
Seems to me he should’ve been fired then, but the president didn’t do so.
Could this have made McChrystal believe he was bulletproof?

Siun February 12th, 2012 at 3:26 pm

As a reader, “over sensitive” or “bitter” are very far from thecwords I would use for your reporting. Dismay turning to outrage would be my choice and a reaction they earned. The Operatorrs’ behavior you report – in Europe but also in Afghantan is not responsible or honorable.

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 3:29 pm
In response to frmrirprsn @ 28

Point!

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Hey Kevin, thanks for all your insight and continued coverage of these key issues.

Tremendous amounts of resources are spent to shape the Pentagon (and White House) narrative. And yet, the war has grown increasingly unpopular. In fact, whenever the U.S. public decides to pay attention to the war, the more unpopular it becomes. You can literally see how public opinion polls track with significant disclosures on Afghanistan–from things like my story, to Matt Hoh’s resignation, the leak of the McChrystal assessment, Afghan War Logs etc…Each one of the disclosures that have forced the media to cover Afghanistan has resulted in folks becoming more unhappy with the war effort.

From the WH perspective the less attention paid to Afghanistan the better. And if the Pentagon was smart, they’d think the same way. Alas…

I don’t know–does anyone really buy the line the Pentagon is spinning? The White House doesn’t, at least in private…A lot of conservatives don’t, a lot of liberals don’t…In fact, if there was a Republican President McCain right now, I bet the Dem contender would be able to run as an anti-war candidate again, and get significant support.(Look at Ron Paul…)

I think, too, for the time being, the era of the celebrity general is over.

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 3:32 pm
In response to RaggMopp @ 44

Heh. Just so you know, some one caught that one.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:34 pm
In response to Siun @ 77

Thanks–dismay to outrage is pretty accurate, too. Not so much about the specific behavior of individuals–if folks want to get wasted, I don’t have a problem with that–but a real outrage and sadness over the wars…I view our war in Afghanistan in its 2009-2012 incarnation as a fundamentally insane, borderline criminal, activity….

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Good for you to rediscover love for life (and, I gather, love). As you write, being in a war zone entails intense emotions and I appreciate your willingness to tackle that.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:35 pm
In response to RickinSF @ 76

You’re exactly right. The Rolling Stone story was the third strike. McC and company didn’t realize how thin the ice was they were standing on. (Like ice on Lake Champlain in late April thin.)

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Excuse me if I slip into using British accented phrasing for the next half hour. My wife is catching up on Downtown Abbey before season two, episode six tonight.

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 3:37 pm

the era of the celebrity general is over.

Since I started paying attention (ca 2001), I’ve thought the U.S. military leaders seemed like fools, esp Pet with his chest full of ribbons. Every photo is an editorial. Back in the day, Time had Shah on cover looking for all the world like Pet. Complete fools, both of them.

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I wouldn’t use those words but I think it is utterly indefensible to send young men and women into harm’s way to further a strategy you know won’t work.

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Hmmm. Thought this was about U.S. foreign policy, militarism, civilian deaths of Afghans, Iraqis, not about drinking habits.

Siun February 12th, 2012 at 3:41 pm

I’d go with criminal … In fact have a very short post for here going up tonight about that…very short.

I do enjoy the idea of reading Hedges and responding as you did … though I relate.

RickinSF February 12th, 2012 at 3:42 pm

I wondered about that…I decided then that the game was up in Afghanistan when the president of the US could not cashier a officer for sabotaging policy.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:45 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 87

Well, you’re getting at an interesting point in regards to McChrystal, in particular. Participating in a cover up of Tillman’s death? No problem. Running a network of known human rights abusing camps in Iraq? No problem. Leaking classified documents to Woodward? No worries… But getting drunk at a bar in Paris with a Rolling Stone reporter!?! Finished!

I’m being a bit silly here–as I’ve said before, this was about much more than RS, or drinking–this was the straw that broke the camel’s back in the WH relationship to the Pentagon, and about civilian military relations in general…But it does demonstrate the weird moral priorities of the Beltway media/political class.

It’s like Ryan Gosling tells George Clooney in the Ides of March–you can steal hundreds of thousands of dollars, lie your face off, run over someone with car, launch unjust wars, drop drones strikes on American citizens, and do basically anything you want and get away with it–but you can’t sleep with the intern! Then you’rer toast. Call it the Wiener/Spitzer/Clinton Rule.

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 3:45 pm

You take on David Petraeus in a way no other author has. Why has the press given him so much adulation? And what do you see in his future? Is he interested in running for President? I would caution, however, that political Generals do not necessarily make good politicians. Just ask Wes Clark.

bilejones February 12th, 2012 at 3:48 pm

The Line I’ll always remember the murderous clown for is:

“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”

eCAHNomics February 12th, 2012 at 3:49 pm

You take my point.

But not my extreme distress at the way it is.

CTuttle February 12th, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Aloha, Michael and Peter…! It is great to have you here at the Lake…!

Col. Lang at Sic Semper Tyrannis posted the Dereliction of Duty II draft(PDF!), and I was wondering what your thoughts were on Col. Davis’s report…!

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:53 pm

I think there are two solid pieces of reporting that give a more accurate picture of the Petraeus narrative. Mainly, Bob Woodward’s book, Obama Wars. It was almost unremarked upon–and that’s telling in itself–but it paints a pretty nasty/critical picture of Petraeus. And, yes, I’m biased, but I think the Rolling Stone reporting we’ve done on Petraeus is top notch.

I think he’ll run for president. A Jeb Bush or Chris Christie ticket plus Petraeus? Would be a tough one to beat. That being said, the minute P4 steps explicitly into the political arena, the gloves will come off. In a big, big way. What Woodward and I have reported on him is just a taste of what will happen if he jumps into the presidential ring. He’ll get treated like a national politician, and that’s a very different experience from being a hero/general.

Will he make a good president? If he actually truly believes that the Afghanistan strategy was a good idea, then that would give me serious questions about his overall judgement…On the other hand, he’s clearly brilliant and a great leader…

Petraeus 2016!

BevW February 12th, 2012 at 3:54 pm

As we come to the end of this Book Salon,

Michael, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and the Afghanistan War.

Ambassador, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Michael’s website and book

Peter’s website and books

Thanks all, Have a great week.

If you want to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

Mauimom February 12th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Michael, a couple of questions I asked above:

** what’s Obama’s take on “the generals” now [has he learned anything] and theirs on him?

** if they think/thought Obama was a weakling able to be manipulated, what do they think of the Republican candidates? [would they enjoy a C-in-C Newt or Santorum?]

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 3:58 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 94

I think he is mostly right. As in Vietnam, I think the top brass in Afghanistan are in dereliction of duty for not honestly appraising the situation. In order to have an effective strategy, we need ground truth and this is what Davis provides. Alas, I doubt he will be heard but Pentagon leaders should remember that the first victim of propaganda is the propagandist.

HelenaHandbasket February 12th, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Obama came in, not as the anti-war president. He supported Afghanistan as the “good war.” He was just against stupid wars (Iraq.)

Do you see that he views Afghanistan in the other column now?

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:58 pm

I’m told we’re about to wrap up. So I just wanted to thank Ambassador Galbraith for this great discussion. It was a real honor to be on this forum with him. And incredible questions–thanks to you all so much for reading the book. Means a hell of lot to me. And if you haven’t yet, and you found this discussion worthwhile, I go into most of these issues in better written, copy-edited, detail in the book.

Siun February 12th, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Thanks as always Bev forvthese great conversations and thank you Michael for a brilliant book. Many more please!

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 3:59 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 97

Yes, I think he’s learned quite a bit. Here’s my take on his current relationship with the Pentagon.

http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2012/01/10/obamas-power-grab-at-the-pentagon/

Peter W Galbraith February 12th, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Michael,

Thanks for writing a great book and also for telling my story in it. Take care in the frigid north although I am sure it is equally cold here in southern Vermont. It cant happen too often that you have two Vermonters doing the salon.

Peter

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 4:02 pm

I think if Obama would have run on a “we’re going to triple the size of the war in Afghanistan platform” there would have been very little enthusiasm for that. I honestly don’t think the White House quite understood what the Pentagon had in mind. But, as the the president has said lately: “The tide of war is receding.” And the WH has been telling Congress privately (those reps who oppose the war) that they should quiet down, not make Afghanistan an issue, because we are getting out by 2014.

CTuttle February 12th, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Mahalo, Ambassador and Michael, for hosting and reporting on our misbegotten Wars…! Keep up the Fight…! *g*

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 4:02 pm
In response to Siun @ 101

Thanks for the questions, and the insight.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 4:03 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 97

Re: the Republican clowns. Yes, I think the Pentagon, writ large, would be happier with them than any Democrat.

Jim White February 12th, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Thank you Michael and Ambassador, both for your discussion here today and for your dedication to truth.

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 4:05 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 94

Hah, here are my thoughts on the report. I think Davis is brave, and we all need to follow his situation closely, in case there is unjust retaliation for his telling the hard truths.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/national-affairs/the-afghanistan-report-the-pentagon-doesnt-want-you-to-read-20120210

Michael Hastings February 12th, 2012 at 4:08 pm
In response to Jim White @ 108

Thanks Jim for spending the evening with us! Now onto Downtown Abbey…

CTuttle February 12th, 2012 at 4:17 pm

“These hearings need to include the very senior generals and former generals whom I refer to in this report so they can be given every chance to publicly give their version of events.” In other words, put the generals under oath, and then see what story they tell…

Ain’t never gonna happen…! 8-(

Mahalo again…!

emptywheel February 12th, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Actually, I thought it was interesting the morning before the Treat Assessment hearing: the CTC folks really had it out for him in the press.

Apparently that’s acceptable, but civilians going after him in 2006 for obviously dodgy reporting is not.

emptywheel February 12th, 2012 at 4:21 pm

I’ve actually long suspected that the America’s Elect had him in mind for their ticket. Which would be particularly scary if he tried it via that Hedgie-funded scheme.

Jim White February 12th, 2012 at 4:26 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 113

And don’t forget that the same guys who put Allen West in Congress have already started working on his behalf.

Mauimom February 12th, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Wow, I wish I’d known your reply earlier. Would love to explore. Because they wouldn’t provide even the feeble push-back that Obama has? Because they’re so stupid, they’re easier to manipulate/fool?

I’m going to send a message via the web site [together with some outstanding links relating to Downton Abbey].

Teddy Partridge February 12th, 2012 at 4:46 pm

If this book doesn’t win a Pulitzer it’s proof that the book award system in America is irrevocably broken. Fine work, excellent Salon. Thanks to all.

Tammany Tiger February 12th, 2012 at 5:06 pm
In response to Jim White @ 71

Moral of the story: Sleep deprivation plays havoc with one’s mental acuity. Sorry.

Phoenix Woman February 12th, 2012 at 8:24 pm

I think this book is what might make that impossible. Bless you for writing it.

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