Michael Hastings, freelance reporter, author of the book I Lost My Love in Baghdad and the article “The Runaway General” in Rolling Stone magazine – which brought down General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the Afghan War – discusses the rules of engagement for American forces in Afghanistan, public support for a timeline for withdrawal, the failure of the operation in the small town of Marja and the reluctance of Kandahar leaders to go along with repeat of the same in their city, the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Hamid Karzai regime, the current move to change from the ridiculous CNAS COIN doctrine of nation building to the less ambitious Joe Biden plan for endless targeted raids.
MP3 here. (17:49) Transcript below.
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 Washington Post, LA Times, and other publications. His blog The Hastings Report focuses on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other foreign policy topics.
Transcript – Scott Horton interviews Michael Hastings July 14, 2010
Alan Minsky: And this is Alan Minsky, and I’m sitting in here for Suzi Weissman on Beneath the Surface, and I’m joined live in the studio by Scott Horton of Antiwar.com. We just heard an interview about Iran and Iranian issues with Gareth Porter, and now Scott is going to take us on a dialog with Michael Hastings about the situation in Afghanistan.
Scott Horton: Michael Hastings is a freelance journalist. He has written investigative pieces for GQ and most recently and most famously for Rolling Stone magazine. He’s the author of I Lost My Love in Baghdad. Welcome to the show, Michael, how are you doing?
Michael Hastings: Hey, Scott, man, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
Horton: Well I appreciate you joining us today. Now, you know, your article made all these waves and of course cost Gen. McChrystal his job as commanding general of the Afghan war, but it seems like the only real lesson that was learned by the political class in DC was that the rules of engagement on our soldiers is far too restrictive, and reminiscent, really, of the myth of Vietnam that we could have won that war except that our guys had their arms tied behind their back by the politicians who wouldn’t let them fight.
Hastings: Well I think certainly the rules of engagement is an issue that Petraeus is saying he’s going to directly address, just to give the soldiers there a better ability to defend themselves. But I would say, actually, you know, the story did also spark this debate about the time-line. I think that’s really the key issue. I don’t see rules of engagement changing too much really, but I think this idea of the time-line of when we’re going to get out of there, people also started talking about that as well.
Horton: Well in fact I just saw a poll today that said that the majority of the American people are behind a time-line and even when the question is phrased, “no matter how bad it is there?” and they say, “Yes, no matter how bad it is there.”
Hastings: And I think that’s clear. I mean, even when Obama took office, the war had been sinking in popularity, and the fact of the matter is, the more attention that people focus on the war, the less popular it becomes. That was actually a comment that one of McChrystal’s senior advisers told me, so it’s no secret. And I think this is the sort of strategy going forward, if you can call it that, and what Petraeus has sort of proved he could do in Iraq, is that, you know, getting the war off the front page. That’s the goal, is to get the war off the front page, especially going into the 2012 election.
Horton: Well, and that was really the same thing that Petraeus said about Iraq, that it was all about adding time to the “Washington clock.”
Hastings: Exactly. And I think that’s what’s very interesting about the dynamics here. The war in Afghanistan has been going badly for a while but what we only start paying attention to when there’s some event in Washington that sort of focuses the policymakers’ attention on it there. It happened last summer when Gen. McChrystal’s strategic review was leaked, and it happened again just recently with the Rolling Stone story where it becomes this sort of Washington story and that’s what drives the news cycle and drives the attention. So what’s going on in Kabul that should be very relevant actually isn’t, in terms of how these decisions get made.
Horton: Yeah, well, it should be relevant also for the listeners though to make up their mind about how they feel about this, so why don’t you tell me whether you think that the Karzai government and the parliament that America has created in Kabul could last in a million years?
Hastings: I think, seriously, there’s questions about how credible and how stable the Karzai government is. I don’t think they’re in any danger of being overthrown. I think even if we had only 50,000 or 30,000 Western troops there, they would never be overthrown, because they have a lot of weight behind them. They have a fairly significant army and police force, even though it’s corrupt and not the greatest in the world by any stretch of the imagination. But they certainly are going to take all the support we’re going to give them. You know, if someone’s writing you a check for a billion dollars every week, there’s not much incentive for you to say, “Hey, you know, I like the billions, you know I’m buying new departments in Dubai, you know I spent last weekend at Wimbledon, so you know you guys should just cut out giving me all this money.” And that’s not going to happen.
Horton: Well, now, if for some reason they were so public spirited that they spent all the American tax money they were receiving on attempting to build this counterinsurgency-Western Europea-nation state that supposedly is the end goal here, is it possible, with all the ethnic divisions and the geography and everything else?
Hastings: I certainly think there is no precedent for it. I think when you talk to people, you know, the sort of policymakers, they’ll tell you this, they’ll say, “Look, Afghanistan was great in the ’70s, we’re going to try to turn the clock back to 1979.” I mean this is really the argument. But you look closer at the ’70s, you say, “Well, okay, there were, what, two coups and an invasion from a neighboring foreign power.” So if that’s your model, then I think you’re in a tough situation already. And certainly there’s no precedent for that sort of government getting established. As I said recently, “You know, look, it took 40 years for Americans to get into the World Cup. It’s going to take more than 40 years for Afghans to embrace democracy.”
Horton: Well, and also they’re in a situation where our guys are the redcoats and fighting colonials who are hiding behind rocks and then running away. And so there’s no set-piece battle where the Americans get to take out the Taliban. This is why McChrystal, I guess, had focused his strategy down to I guess basically taking the Delta Force and the Navy SEALs and using them to do these targeted night raids while then the rest of the Army is supposed to basically stand around like a bunch of traffic cops making friends with people or something.
Hastings: Well exactly. And that really rubs a lot of people on the ground there, the soldiers on the ground, the wrong way. And I think that’s fair enough. They didn’t sign up – you don’t sign up to the Marines because you want to be a cultural anthropologist. You know, I mean this is sort of stating the obvious, but I don’t think it can be said enough. And I remember last time we spoke about a month ago when all this stuff was going down with McChrystal, I was at the Kandahar air base, which is being attacked fairly regularly. So obviously there’s quite a bit of resistance, and the soldiers there feel like they’re not able to sort of fight back in the way they feel appropriate. Now the thing is, soldiers have always complained about rules of engagement, at least over the last five years or so, but I’d never seen it so widespread and so targeted at a particular individual.
Horton: Their distaste for McChrystal, you mean.
Hastings: Yeah. I mean, they liked him as a man, they just didn’t like this policy that he became so closely associated with. It’s not an accident that Petraeus’s first move was to very publicly say he’s going to review the rules of engagement.
Hastings: That was a move to build morale among American troops. How much are the rules of engagement really going to change, I don’t think that’s clear at this point. But certainly, you know, it got to a point where you’re literally telling the soldiers, “Look, we want you to go out on patrol and we don’t want you to get attacked, so we just want you to sort of be targets.” And I think that’s tough for the soldiers entirely. Obviously it should be a good policy – hey we’re not killing civilians, right? I mean that should obviously be the policy we want to pursue. But the reality is, if we’re there, civilians are going to be killed. And if we don’t want to kill civilians, we shouldn’t have 150,000 American troops there – I mean, Western European and American troops.
Horton: I’m Scott Horton and I’m talking with Michael Hastings, freelance reporter, who recently made big headlines with his article “The Runaway General” in Rolling Stone magazine, and now something that features pretty prominently in that article is the story of Marja, which started out as this, you know, I guess teaming metropolis of 80,000 people, and then it turned out that, no, maybe only 10,000 people lived there and they’re all just a few farmers and whatever, but this is still going to be kind of a showpiece of the new clear-hold-build-counterinsurgency-Center for a New American Security strategy. And yet the headline yesterday was they’ve sacked the new district commander, or whatever they called him, the guy that they had placed in charge there in Marja, and they’re going to try to start all over again, “government in a box” notwithstanding.
Hastings: Yeah, government in a box doesn’t work. And that should have been obvious to begin with. I think, you know, when we look at Marja, yeah Marja was supposed to be the set piece, it was supposed to be what they called “the proof of concept” for the Kandahar operation. It was clear to people on the ground, who were saying, “You know, things are not going well here. The Taliban are still coming back at night. The government in a box is not taking hold.” So that played very largely into the fact that the Kandahar operation, which was scheduled for the summer, has been delayed. And we often look at it through sort of this U.S. viewpoint, obviously. But the question is, well, why was Kandahar delayed? Okay, one, yeah, Marja was sort of a disaster and sort of was perceived as a disaster. And secondly, we went to Kandahar and we said to the people of Kandahar and the tribal leaders, “Hey, do you guys want a U.S. operation here?” They all said, “Hell, no,” which makes sense, especially if you’re a tribal leader who’s going to be running for office in September. You know, there are parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in September. So why would they do anything that’s going to upset the population, that would lose them votes? So we, as Americans, regularly, yet again, fail to understand the most basic of dynamics in Afghanistan. And I’m not some, you know, some expert, it’s just sort of like very kind of obvious things.
Horton: Yeah, well, it sounds like they have the strategy set up around the idea that the average resident of Kandahar wants to be invaded so that the Americans will come and get rid of all the bad guys, clear and hold the place. But you’re saying, “No, that’s not what they want, and the proof is right there in the tribal leaders who have to stand for election. They’re not going to take that gamble.”
Hastings: Certainly not when they’re up for – maybe they will agree to it, I think they’re going to have to agree to something, but that’s going to happen probably later in September. I spoke to one U.S. military official who described the Kandahar operation as “putting a noose around the city.” Those were his words, and meant in a way that I think was supposed to be positive. Where I think if you remember, if you live in Kandahar, when you hear the Americans saying they’re going to put a noose around the city, that does not necessarily inspire confidence. Not that there aren’t really bad people in Kandahar. That’s not the issue. But obviously it’s a minority, and you ask the average guy in wherever, they’re not going to want fighting in the streets.
Horton: Now there was a report that Gen. McChrystal’s last order before he went back to DC to be fired was to cease the night raids. Is that true?
Hastings: He had put out restrictions on night raids, I think it was earlier than that time, but there had been serious sort of restrictions that they were trying to place on the Special Forces community in particular. Again, that was also very controversial and there were certainly questions about whether Gen. McChrystal had not really had his heart in that order. But yeah, I think obviously if you are listening to Karzai, Karzai’s going to say, “Hey, people don’t like it.” I mean the fact that it took us nine years to figure out that people don’t like it when foreign troops come into your bedroom in the middle of the night and search through everything you’ve got, I mean that it took us nine years to realize that creates resentment, is a little astounding to me as well.
Horton: Well, you know, McChrystal actually says in there that he has this, I don’t know, the “McChrystal ratio” or something. For every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. And I was just wondering, somebody ought to ask these people whether they think that counts going back in history or whether we should check.
Hastings: Well, exactly. And I think that’s an interesting, I think that’s probably true to a large extent. I think at the end of the day – look, you know, they kill – a lot of a innocent civilians were killed in Iraq during the surge, which was kind of considered sort of the, you know, the playbook for counterinsurgency enthusiasts to look at. And did that really have any impact in terms of what the final resolution was? Not really. I think what’s more important than limiting – I mean, obviously on a moral level, we should limit civilian casualities, but at the end of the day, counterinsurgency is a cold-blooded thing. Hearts and minds is sort of a PR phrase. And what matters is basically showing that you have power and coercing the native population to behave in a way you want them to behave. If tactically it’s advantageous not to kill civilians, then that’s what they’re going to do. If they think there are advantages to killing civilians, that’s what they’re going to do. I mean it’s all about showing that you have legitimate authority or that the acting government that you’re propping up has legitimate authority.
Horton: I think it was Kelley Vlahos who said it’s like trying to stick a round peg in a brick wall. Their counterinsurgency doctrine has failed, and Andrew Exum and the guys over at the Democrats’ PNAC, the Center for a New American Security, are already saying, “Well, you know, maybe we could do the Biden Plan where we just kind of do hunt-and-kill operations and never mind counterinsurgency.” It sounds like they’ve already admitted defeat, they just don’t want to call it that.
Hastings: Well I think that that’s what we’re fighting towards – the Biden Plan. Because eventually –
Horton: Well tell us what that is, the Biden Plan, please.
Hastings: The Biden Plan, essentially the idea is put like a limited number of ground troops, and you’re focused on counter-terrorism operations and training the Afghan army and police. Why can’t you do that and negotiate with the Taliban? You know, why can’t you have Richard Holbrooke in Pakistan negotiating with the Pakistanis to help with the Afghan Taliban while, you know, you’re propping up the government still, you’re giving the Special Forces guys enough to keep them busy, you’re giving the CIA enough to keep them busy? And you just don’t have this huge occupying force there that’s costing billions and billions of dollars. But essentially we are, the idea is we’re fighting to get into a stronger negotiating position, and we eventually will have to negotiate with the Taliban, and putting that off a few more years just to sort of prove some point that we saved face, I think, is rather suspect.
Horton: Well, yeah, I mean the theory is they’ll be weaker by the time a year and a half goes by and we can start the negotiations, but then again, if we take in that McChrystal ratio into account, we look at just the recent history, the more troops they’ve put in, the more resistance they have. I was just reading last week that at least by some estimates the Taliban control 60% of the country in the daytime and 80% at night, Michael.
Hastings: And this is the most violent year of the war so far. Now military planners hope that eventually we’ll hit this, you know, this inflection point where the violence will start to drop down, as we saw in Iraq. You know, there’s this sort of escalation of violence between 2007 and then by the time you get into like the middle or end of 2008, all of a sudden the violence sort of drops off precipitously. So that’s what they’re hoping for in Afghanistan. And that’s what they’re trying to achieve. But there’s no guarantee that that’s going to happen. I mean, I think everybody would hope that, you know, if they’re using this many resources and doing this, that the violence obviously drops and that they can find peace. But it seems like it’s one of these things where, you know, if peace is our goal, then why don’t we really start trying to get peace now rather than waiting a couple of years? That’s not very naive. I think it’s actually something that would be doable. Because the reason we don’t do it is because we don’t want to look weak and Obama doesn’t want to be accused of cutting and running, but I think the way to frame the debate would be, “Hey, we’re just changing our strategy to one that works and makes sense.” You know, it’s not about weakness, it’s not about saving face, it’s about doing something that actually makes sense.
Horton: Well, of course, they’ve already changed tactics and strategy so many times, that’s nothing but euphemism for admitting defeat before, why not admit it again, right?
Hastings: Well, I think it’s funny – I mean, it’s not funny in a ha-ha way, but if you go back to this idea of the Vietnam syndrome, right? We leave Vietnam in 1975 and the North Vietnamese take over the country. You know, and oh, it’s a huge defeat for American prestige. Yet five years later, according to the lore, it’s morning in America again and Reagan is at the height of America’s glory in the ’80s.
Horton: Well it did keep us out of any real overt wars until 1991, at which time they announce, “We beat the Vietnam syndrome! Finally the American people are behind the empire forever again.”
And we’re going to have to leave it there, I’m sorry, Michael. Everybody, that’s Michael Hastings from Rolling Stone magazine, GQ, and he’s a freelance reporter, writes for all kinds of people, and wrote really the biggest news story of the last few months anyway, “The Runaway General” in Rolling Stone magazine, that cost Stanley McChrystal his job as the top general in that war. Thanks very much for your time, appreciate it.
Hastings: Thanks, Scott. Appreciate it. Take care, man.
Alan Minsky: And this is Alan Minsky again, sitting in for Suzi Weissman on Beneath the Surface, and you just heard from Scott Horton and Antiwar.com. Now, folks, go to Antiwar.com, they’ll find a lot of other material, am I correct, interviews you’ve done about the American war machine?
Horton: Yes, we keep all the foreign policy news from all around the world updated all day, every day, all of the best columnists from the left, right, libertarians, and everybody else, and as far as my radio show, yes, there are archives of hundreds of interviews going back to 2007 at Antiwar.com/radio.
Minsky: That’s Scott Horton, and thank you so much for joining us on Issue of the Day, Scott. And we’re going to be right back, where we’re going to hear from political scientist Tom Ferguson and a little scoop that’s been provided to us from Paul the Octopus.