In April 2010, Rolling Stone contributing editor Michael Hastings spent a month with Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Europe and Afghanistan, reporting on a profile of the supreme commander of all NATO forces in what had become America’s longest-running war. To Hastings’ astonishment, McChrystal and staff had plenty to say about the White House and its handling of the war – none of it complimentary, much of it contemptuous, and almost all of it on the record. Hastings reported their unvarnished comments in "The Runaway General," an explosive and award-winning Rolling Stone article that unleashed a global media storm and led President Obama to order McChrystal back to Washington, where he fired the general on the spot.
Now, in a new book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan, Hastings recounts the behind-the-scenes tale of the McChyrstal affair, set against the larger backdrop of America’s doomed war. Frank Rich calls the book “an impressive feat of journalism by a Washington outsider who seemed to know more about what was going on in Washington than most insiders did.”
In this exclusive excerpt, Hastings, two days into his European embed with McChrystal, gets a brief taste of the kind of reckless candor that will ultimately do the general in. He also reveals, for the first time, which of McChrystal’s aides made the notorious "Bite Me" comment about Vice President Joe Biden.
Chapter 9. "Bite Me"
April 16, 2010, Paris
The next morning, Duncan [Boothby, McChrystal's top civilian press advisor] invited me to sit in on a briefing as McChrystal prepared for a speech he was scheduled to give at the École Militaire, a French military academy. I was trying to get as much reporting done as possible. I planned to leave France on Sunday to head back to Washington, where I had a number of other interviews already scheduled.
In the hotel suite, I picked a spot across from McChrystal to lean against the wall, doing what is called fly-on-the-wall reporting. It is a technique originally pioneered and made popular by Theodore White, an American journalists who wrote the 1960 best seller, The Making of the President. In the book, White had traveled and re-created scenes from President John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign – it put the reader, as it were, inside the room, like a fly on the wall. A bug.
Usually when reporting on powerful public figures, the press advisor and I would have had a conversation that established what journalists call "ground rules," placing restrictions on what can and cannot be reported. But, as I'd already seen, McChrystal and his team followed their own freewheeling playbook. When I arrived in Paris, Duncan repeatedly dismissed the idea of ground rules, telling me it wasn’t the way the team did things. McChrystal would also tell me he wasn’t "going to tell me how to write my story." In fact, McChrystal and his staff requested to go off the record only twice during my entire time with them – requests that I honored when it came time to write my story and that I continue to honor to this day. This was great for me, an incredible opportunity for a journalist, as it gave me the freedom to report what I saw and heard.
The staff gathered in room 314. The wives were out seeing the sights – they were supposed to go check out the palace at Versailles.
"There will be no simultaneous translation of the speech," Duncan said.
"Take care of talking in Coalition English," a French general, also in the room, mentioned, referring to the acronym-laden military-speak.
Casey Welch [a McChrystal staffer] handed McChrystal a set of index cards with his speech typed on them.
"Let’s bring it up to 32 font. I’ll need my glasses for this."
Casey started to print out a new set of speech cards on the portable laser printer.
"We’ve made many mistakes in the past eight years," McChrystal said, trying out an opening line.
He went through the talking points: From 1919 to 1929, the Afghan king tried to modernize the country and failed after his wife was photographed in Europe in a sleeveless dress. The more conservative elements of Afghan society pushed back. ("Do we know if that photo was taken in Paris? Would be good to add that detail if so.") The life expectancy of an Afghan is forty-four years. The country has been at war for thirty years. Most Afghans don’t even remember a time before war. Even well-intentioned efforts have met with resistance in Afghanistan. The Soviets "did a lot of things right," McChrystal said, but they also killed a million Afghans and lost. The traditional tribal order had been destroyed. Afghanistan, he said, is so confusing "that even Afghans don’t understand it."
McChrystal flipped through the remaining cards.
"Okay. New COIN effort, minimize civilian casualties. Then I’ll talk about how it’s going," he said. "We’re at, what, twenty to twenty-five minutes? Is that too long?"
"We don’t want to cut the history,” said Jake, his longtime friend and top civilian advisor. "That lays the groundwork for the complexity argument." The complexity argument was a way for McChrystal to explain that the clusterfuck called Afghanistan defied satisfying analysis. Framing the argument by its unfathomable complexity offered McChrystal protection from those in the audience who wanted to judge whether his plan was failing or succeeding. It was a way to talk about Afghanistan like it was the Bermuda Triangle of geopolitics, an inexplicable spot on Earth where countries simply vanished.
"Casey, cut all of it until 'This is what makes this hard.’ I’ll start there."
Casey, working on the Toughbook, put the changes into the speech. He started to print out new cards with the correct-size font.
McChrystal didn’t want to screw up the talk. Six months earlier, during a speech in London, he’d made public comments that were critical of Vice President Joe Biden. Biden hadn’t wanted to put more ground troops into the country, preferring to draw down to a much smaller number of U.S. forces who would focus exclusively on a counterterrorism mission. In shorthand, the strategy was called CT Plus, an alternative to the general’s counter-insurgency plan. McChrystal had called the strategy Biden was promoting "shortsighted" and had said that it would lead to "Chaosistan." The comments earned him his first public smackdown from the White House. It was also the first reported instance of the mutual distrust between McChrystal and the White House that would persist throughout the next year.
To prepare for the question-and-answer session, McChrystal’s staff started to throw out the possible questions he might be asked.
"I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem," McChrystal said, flipping through the printouts.
"Neither do we, chief," said Jake [McFerren, a retired Army colonel and longtime McChrystal friend and confidant].
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