[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]
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.