Michael Hastings, author of the article “The Runaway General” in Rolling Stone magazine, discusses the controversy surrounding his profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal (who has now been relieved of command in Afghanistan).
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Michael Hastings is the author of I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story. In 2008, he covered the U.S. presidential elections for Newsweek, and before that he was the magazine’s Baghdad correspondent. His articles have appeared in GQ, Slate, Salon, Foreign Policy, the LA Times, and other publications. His blog The Hastings Report focuses on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other foreign policy topics.
Scott Horton: All right, everybody, we’re joined on the phone by Michael Hastings, freelance reporter, friend of the show, and he is the author of the article that’s turned Washington D.C. upside down this week, “The Runaway General” in Rolling Stone magazine. Welcome back to the show, Michael, how are you doing?
Michael Hastings: I’m good man. How are things on your end?
Horton: Everything’s great, I really appreciate you joining us here on the phone from, where, Kandahar this morning?
Hastings: Yeah, I’m in Kandahar right now.
Horton: And how’s things there?
Hastings: Well, we, just a few, it was a half hour, 40 minutes ago, we were hit by a number of rockets, which is a pretty regular occurrence here, and there’s pretty regular fighting all around this area right now. We spent a couple moments on the floor and in a bunker.
Horton: Jeez. Well. And I hope you’re bugging out of there this morning and going back to Kabul or somewhere safer?
Hastings: Yeah, I’m heading out of here.
Horton: Okay, right on. Well in the few minutes before you get in your armored vehicle or whatever it is and get out of there, man, let’s talk about – well, first of all, I guess, the reaction to your piece. You have Gen. McChrystal and his team, “Team America,” his closest buddies surrounding him, really opening up about how much they cannot stand the administration, and that seems to have been the thing that got Washington all upset.
Hastings: Yeah, apparently to criticize and make fun of the vice president in front of reporters, that’s generally probably not a good career move. But I think, I think what the comments point to from Gen. McChrystal’s view is a real frustration that his team has with the White House as well as a frustration he has with other civilian policy makers who are involved in the Afghanistan strategy.
Horton: Yeah, I mean, that’s really what comes across in the article is that it’s not a personal account really of McChrystal, it’s about his inability to succeed in Afghanistan, and then it seems like all the frustration, all the finger pointing goes up from there, instead of them taking responsibility, him and his “Team America.”
Hastings: Yeah, and I think certainly if we look at, you know, President Obama’s role in selecting Gen. McChrystal, why he selected Gen. McChrystal, and what President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan originally was – remember, in March 2009, you know, President Obama said he wanted to narrow the goals in Afghanistan, narrow them to just fighting al Qaeda. Then he selected a Gen. who proceeded to do just the opposite and expand the goals almost exponentially. We went from 50,000 troops to 150,000 troops. We went from fighting al Qaeda to building a nation on an almost unprecedented scale. So, really, I think, you know part of this hostility is the relationship between the president and the general and the fact that the president has just sort of lost control of the policy.
Horton: Yeah, well, and it doesn’t sound like the troops in Afghanistan seem to be so gung ho about this anymore either.
Hastings: No, I think, I mean I’m sure you’ve discussed counterinsurgency many times on your program, and we’ve discussed this before as well. You know, the US military is made to fight. That’s what they’re really good at, and they’re really efficient at it. And it’s very difficult to put them in situations and then tell them, you know, don’t fight. And that rubs a lot of them the wrong way and a lot of them feel that they may have to make sacrifices and they might be putting their own lives more at risk rather than, say, killing who they view are insurgents.
Horton: Yeah, well, and that’s an interesting thing too, the whole, you know, sent out there to fight with one hand tied behind their back. They’re up against people who have rifles and are willing to shoot back at them and yet then because they’re supposed to be trying to avoid civilian casualties, even though all their enemies are civilians, they’re put in a position where they have to get shot rather than shoot.
Hastings: Really, and I think, I mean I think you know this is a sort of fundamental flaw with counterinsurgency is that, you know, we spend $600 billion a year on our military but then we get involved in these wars where we can’t even use our technological edge. I mean, in a way it doesn’t make much sense. So, yeah, I mean, you know, once you take away the US and the ground troops’ air support, you’re putting a US solider on, you know, a somewhat level playing field with a Taliban fighter. And so these guys who signed up to fight are like, “What the hell, you know, like, why are we here?”
Horton: Yeah, they imagined they were going to be a set piece battle against a different state’s military instead of patrolling around like a, you know, a SWAT cop or something. Well, now, you talk about how they changed the mission from fighting al Qaeda to building a nation and how McChrystal’s gotten his stamp on it, and I guess they had to change the mission because, he says in here, there are no al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Hastings: Exactly. I mean, the sort of connection between nation building and fighting terrorism and fighting al Qaeda is I think, you know, a very tenuous connection at best, and so you get stuck with this momentum of the campaign you’re fighting, and it’s worse than a quagmire. They’re saying that really it’s worse than a quagmire because it’s a quagmire we knowingly walked into. Because if say al Qaeda’s in Pakistan, then what are we doing in Afghanistan?
Horton: Yeah. Well now, the centerpiece of the COIN strategy supposedly was this, or the showpiece for it I guess, was the invasion of Marjah. They were going to give the people of Marjah a “government in a box.” Did you have a chance to talk with Gen. McChrystal much about that operation?
Hastings: Well, I did talk to him about that, and he, you know, was sort of optimistically cautious as that’s the position they take. But then, you know, much later he said that Marjah was a “bleeding ulcer.” So what does that say? And I think one of the funny things about this story is that people have been saying, “Wow, how could he have said these things in private to you?” Well look at what he says in public. He’s calling one of his operations a bleeding ulcer. So what do we expect him to say in private?
Horton: Right, yeah, his centerpiece operation. At least he’s bluntly honest, this guy. Well, and look, this is not nothing here: It seems like there is, you know, a challenge to the civilian supremacy in a sense here, you have a very powerful general mocking and ridiculing the president, the vice president, the special envoy, the ambassador, everybody but the secretary of state, apparently, he thinks he’s better than them, and that’s really not how it’s supposed to be in America. Did you take that as a real challenge to civilian supremacy or as just some drunk old general is letting off some steam here?
Hastings: I think there’s a larger kind of structural issue here about – you just compare the DOD budget to the State Department budget, $600 billion to $50 billion. You know, you look at every foreign service officer – you know, there’s more people in the Army band than there are foreign service officers. You know, you could fit every foreign service officer on an aircraft carrier. You know, so you look like at just the sort of decay of the State Department and basically our foreign policy has become our defense policy. You know, the two are one. And I think that translates into the fact that a lot of the time just the leaders get the blame for all the wars, and they should take their fair share of blame, but I think we also have to start looking at the military leaders in a much more critical way than they’re accustomed to be looked at. We’re packing up here and so I’ve got to take off, but I appreciate your time and we’ll talk again soon.
Horton: Likewise. Be safe, and we’ll follow up hopefully either tomorrow or Friday or next week.
Horton: Take care, Michael. All right, everybody, that’s Michael Hastings with the story of the week, so far, in Rolling Stone magazine, “The Runaway General.”