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McChrystal’s War

The amoral architect of the futile U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, didn’t know what he was walking into when he visited Combat Outpost JFM, a few kilometers from Forward Operating Base Wilson in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Less than two weeks before, during a patrol on April 17, 2010, Cpl. Michael Ingram made a misstep—meaning he took a step. Underneath was a victim-operated improvised explosive device (VOIED), a crude landmine, which separated Ingram’s tether to this world. His comrades in arms were still seething and mourning. They didn’t understand the counterinsurgency strategy—known by its acronym, COIN—that McChrystal was implementing, a strategy that urged restraint when patrolling for insurgents within the civilian population. They believed this approach turned them into aluminum cans at a backwoods shooting range. They had no idea what it was they were fighting and dying for in Afghanistan, almost a decade after 9-11.

McChrystal had a message to deliver, and he was going to pound home his COIN talking points regardless of the audience’s temperature. “I ask you what’s going on in your world, and I think it’s important for you all to understand the big picture as well,” he said. “How’s the company doing? You guys feeling sorry for yourselves? Anybody? Anybody feel like you’re losing?”

The soldiers answered. It wasn’t the answer McChrystal wanted to hear. “Sir, some of the guys here, sir, think we’re losing, sir,” a soldier replied. A cavalcade of criticism followed. The grunts of Combat Outpost JFM had just told one of the most celebrated military men of his generation exactly what they thought of his strategy, to his face. It was a near mutinous situation. Welcome to the futile fighting in Afghanistan as recorded by Rolling Stone war correspondent Michael Hastings in his uneven book, The Operators.

It’s a frustrating book: sometimes excruciatingly inane, other times brilliant and skeptically humane. From its campy cover, with a four-star general holding up a glass of whisky in one hand while holding a gun by his side in the other, to Hastings’s descriptions of himself as a recovering alcoholic but full-blown war junkie, the early parts of the book beg you to put it down. That would be a mistake, no matter how hard Hastings, his editor, and his publisher mangle the first 100-odd pages.

The first third of the book recounts and expands upon the inappropriate yet revelatory things McChrystal and his staff said about Obama and administration officials in front of Hastings, remarks that got the general fired after Hastings published his career-making story “The Runaway General” in Rolling Stone, where he’s a contributing editor. Hastings’s stroke of luck came when an Icelandic volcano no one can pronounce vomited its ash into the atmosphere, grounding air traffic for weeks, turning a short reporting trip in Paris into an extended invitation to hang out with McChrystal and his staff as they make their way to Afghanistan.

Sometimes lubricated by booze, McChrystal and his staff open up around Hastings. One of McChrystal’s aides makes gay jokes. McChrystal, drunk, almost face-plants into a Paris street after he and his staff leave a bar. He admits that the military “co-opted” the press during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, when he was a Pentagon spokeman. He laughs when an aide calls Vice President Joe Biden “Bite Me.” His aides openly criticize National Security Advisor James Jones, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, and President Obama himself— “He’s not a leader. … He’s an orator.” It’s clear McChrystal and his staff loathe the civilian leadership and don’t have the discretion to keep it to themselves.

During this, the weakest portion of the narrative, the reader has to endure some incredible howlers from Hastings masquerading as similes. Describing the stress of being McChrystal’s wife, Hastings writes, “She carried her responsibilities well, though her demanding partnership of stress and solitude had left its visible scars, like an attractive middle-aged woman from Florida who’d spent too much time in the sun.” He compares his experience to “Almost Famous” and then gives an IMDB-like overview of it the film. He notes McChrystal’s favorite beer is Bud Light Lime (yes, really). If you’ve read the Rolling Stone article, you can really skip anything in the first third of the book that’s written in the first person.

One bright spot is Hastings’s write-up of McChrystal briefing German military and foreign-policy experts in Berlin, where the general hopes to convince them that the war is not a lost cause. “Afghanistan is so confusing that even the Afghans don’t understand Afghanistan,” McChrystal says near the beginning of his talk, which goes on to lay out his counterinsurgency strategy. Over 45 minutes, the general explains that ISAF service members must refrain from killing insurgents because insurgents are the Afghan people and therefore the people they’re trying to protect. This was “insurgent math”—kill one insurgent, and he will be replaced by two or more fighters. Yet McChrystal also tells those assembled that ISAF must kill insurgents. (When an argument like that doesn’t leave the speaker with doubts, you know you’re dealing with someone indifferent to whether the mission is winnable.)

McChrystal mentions al-Qaeda once. A member of the audience challenges him on it. “He’d nailed the gaping flaw in the entire premise of the war,” writes Hastings, “if it was supposed to be about terrorism, how was it that the vast majority of our resources and energy were directed at insurgent networks that posed no threat to Western Europe or the United States?” Hastings begins to see clearly that the United States isn’t doing counterterrorism in Afghanistan, but picking sides in a three-decades-long civil war.

The narrative picks up its pace as Hastings embeds with McChrystal’s staff in Afghanistan and begins to confront how absurd the war really is. In a brief interlude, Hasting traces the theory of counterinsurgency back to its progenitor, David Galula, a French officer who fought a losing battle against Algerian rebels more than half a century ago in a brutal colonial war marked by atrocity and torture. Despite Galula’s theories being discredited in France for over 40 years, they find their way into Gen. David Petraeus’s brand-new counterinsurgency doctrine in 2006. “Galula’s experience—a French captain who commanded only 120 men in a lightly populated rural area in a North African country sixty years ago—becomes the model for America’s new war planners,” observes Hastings.

In this light, counterinsurgency is just a euphemism for imperialism, and a particularly absurd form of it in which the U.S. military doesn’t just rule over a population but expects to do so with its consent. The premise of COIN is that occupying forces must win the hearts and minds of the people they are ostensibly protecting from malevolent actors, in this case the Taliban—or more accurately Talibans—and the rarely referenced al-Qaeda. But it’s clear that the service members Hastings is around hate COIN and hate the Afghan people. The feeling is reciprocal. “Ninety percent of the people are not friendly,” a soldier tells McChrystal at Combat Outpost JFM.

One thing should never be forgotten: service members are trained killing machines, not aid workers armed with M-9s and M-16s. They don’t build nations up; they knock them down, hopefully after all peaceful options have been exhausted.

McChrystal, however, believes COIN can succeed—or, more accurately, that he can succeed. With media and congressional support, McChrystal persuades Obama, who believes he was “boxed in” by the Pentagon, to surge 40,000 more troops into Afghanistan, despite estimates that there are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda fighters left in country, despite the certainty that increasing troop strength will only increase the violence. During a conversation with a friend of McChrystal’s, a British Special Forces commando, Hastings realizes that men like McChrystal worship violence and the bonds forged during bloodletting. That’s all that mattered, and any action, however horrific, undertaken to protect one’s brothers was honorable, Hastings observes.

Re-reading his descriptions of McChrystal, including his brief but very good biographical chapters on the general, reminded me of Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, only with four stars on his shoulder rather than a thousand-dollar blazer. As the serial killer Bateman thinks to himself:

I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that my normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

Despite playing roles in tremendous acts of criminality and dishonor in the past—covering up Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death, involvement with torture in Iraq, blaming a Special Forces massacre in Afghanistan on the Taliban—McChrystal prospered in the military. It was only when he didn’t have the sense to keep his opinions of Obama to himself that the general lost his job. While money and lives are deemed cheap as U.S. elites pursue imperial insanity, their authority and reputations are not. The lesson won’t be lost on the next generation of sycophants marching for the top.

McChrystal has landed on his feet. He teaches at Yale. He gets $60,000 a pop for speaking engagements. And like many “public servants” who made their careers in the Global War on Terror, he founded his own consultancy to profit off of his Rolodex and peddle his philosophy of leadership.

Afghanistan and the American service members unfortunate enough to get deployed there haven’t been so lucky in their forced and tumultuous marriage. The resentment and hate will only fester until ISAF leaves the country. All the while, Afghan warlords plunder their own people and the American taxpayer, who is supposed to believe U.S. national security is somehow tied to this open wound of a country. Many service members know it’s not. One 21-year-old private tells Hastings, “We should just drop a f–king bomb on this place. … You sit and ask yourself, ‘What are we doing here?’”

Matthew Harwood’s work has appeared in Freedom Daily, the Guardian, Reason, and elsewhere.