"My favorite French teacher growing up said there are only three things you need to know in any language: Where’s the bathroom, thank you, and can I have a beer,” I said.
“Yeah, can’t survive without that,” McChrystal said, then looked at his wife. “Did you bring my jacket?”
“You don’t need a jacket,” Annie answered.
“Paris in the springtime,” McChrystal said.
The waiter came back to the table.
“Neun Bier,” Jake said, in German.
“He’s coming back to Kabul with us,” said Charlie Flynn, pointing to the waiter, imagining putting a dude who’ll serve beer on demand on the staff.
“Only if he gets this round right,” said Mike Flynn.
“He’s only got to get one right,” said Major General Bill Mayville, meaning McChrystal’s drink. “He’s got my vote.”
We started talking about the volcano.
“What happens if you have hotel reservations, and all that?” McChrystal said.
“If it’s a natural disaster, and you don’t have travel insurance—”
“Vous êtes screwed,” said Jake. “That’s French.”
A few minutes later, McChrystal and I started talking again. Jake interrupted.
“Sorry about threatening to kill you,” Jake said.
It was the first time anyone in the group had acknowledged the blowout on Friday night.
“Yeah, geez, the guy is just trying to do his job,” McChrystal said.
“No worries. Like I said, it happens all the time, but yeah, you’re probably the highest rank to do so,” I said. I laughed, and they didn’t.
I wanted to ask McChrystal about the other incidents that his staff had told me about over the past few days. We started with his career and time at the Council on Foreign Relations and moved on to Karzai and the past year of the war.
I asked him about the memos Ambassador Karl Eikenberry had written, criticizing his strategy. They had been leaked to The New York Times, and published in full on its website. The ambassador had offered a brutal critique of McChrystal’s plan, dismissing President Hamid Karzai as “not an adequate strategic partner” and casting doubt on whether the counterinsurgency plan would be “sufficient” to deal with Al-Qaeda. “We will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves,” Eikenberry warned, “short of allowing the country to descend again into lawlessness and chaos.”
“I like Karl, I’ve known him for years, but they’d never said anything like that to us before,” McChrystal said, adding that he felt “betrayed” by the leak. “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ ” McChrystal speculated that it wasn’t even Eikenberry who wrote the memo, but two members of his staff.
I asked him about Petraeus. He said his relationship with Petraeus was “complex.” He’d replaced Dave three times in five years in jobs. “You know, I’ve been one step behind him.”
Petraeus had uncharacteristically kept a low profile over the past year. He didn’t seem to want to get publicly attached to the war in Afghanistan. He’d had his triumph in Iraq, and military officials speculated that he knew there was no way the Afghanistan war was going to turn out well. That it was a loser, and he was happy enough to let McChrystal be left holding the bag.
“He couldn’t command this,” McChrystal said. “Plus, he’s one and ‘oh.’ This one is very questionable.”
Petraeus had been “wonderfully supportive,” though, despite the competition between the two. Within military circles, there was a long-standing debate over who should get more credit for what was considered the success in Iraq—McChrystal running JSOC in the shadows, or Petraeus for instituting the overall counterinsurgency strategy. After Obama took office, the White House had told Petraeus to stay out of the spot-light—they were worried about the general’s presidential ambitions and they were afraid he would overshadow the young president, McChrystal explained.
The White House told McChrystal, "'We don’t want a man on horseback.' I said I don’t even have a horse. They are very worried about Petraeus. They certainly don’t have to be worried about me," McChrystal said. "But Petraeus, if he wanted to run, he’s had a lot of offers. He says he doesn’t want to, and I believe him."
“I think he seems like a smart enough guy that in 2012, as a journalist, as someone who covered the campaign—” I started to say.
“Do you think he could win?” McChrystal asked me.
“Not in 2012,” I said. “I think in 2016 it would be a no-brainer. But I’ve seen it happen to these guys who get built up, built up, built up . . . If he steps into it in 2012, the narrative is ‘Oh, he shouldn’t have done that. Is that a dishonorable thing to do for an honorable general?’ And that is the narrative. That’s the first cover of Time.”
The narrative, I thought: General Betray-Us, a slur he’d been tagged with years earlier.
I brought up a recent profile of Petraeus in another magazine.
“I thought that, well—excuse my language—that it was a blow job,” I said.
“But the data backs it up,” McChrystal said.
“It’s hard to get at the truth,” I said.
“Hardcore,” Jake interjected. “You guys talking about porn?”
“Hell, I want to be part of that conversation,” McChrystal said.
We started talking about larger issues within the media, which I felt he was in a unique position to discuss. McChrystal was a spokesperson at the Pentagon during the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, his first national exposure to the public.
“We co-opted the media on that one,” he said. “You could see it coming. There were a lot of us who didn’t think Iraq was a good idea.”
Co-opted the media. I almost laughed. Even the military’s former Pentagon spokesperson realized—at the time, no less—how massively they were manipulating the press. The ex–White House spokesperson, Scott McClellan, had said the same thing: The press had been “complicit enablers” before the Iraq invasion, failing in their “watchdog role, focusing less on truth and accuracy and more on whether the campaign [to sell the war] was succeeding.”
I rattled off a few names of other journalists. I named the writer who’d just done the profile on him for The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan.
“Totally co-opted by the military,” he said.
I mentioned the journalist Tom Ricks, who’d written two bestselling accounts of the Iraq War.
“Screw Ricks,” McChrystal said. Ricks, he said, was the “kind of guy who’d stick a knife in your back.”
Duncan had also told me Ricks wasn’t to be trusted. One officer who was quoted in Ricks’s 2006 book, Fiasco, had told Ricks not to use his name, and had asked him to clear all the background quotes he would use from him. Ricks used the officer’s name and didn’t clear the quotes, hurting the officer’s career. (A charge Ricks strongly denies, calling the allegations “junk.”) Another officer had inexplicably gone from a hero in Ricks’s first Iraq book to a failure in his second, The Gamble—all from observations that Ricks had garnered from the same reporting trip.
“I’d never talk to Woodward,” McChrystal said. “He came over here with Jones—what was that, last summer? He seems to just be out for the next story.”
“Woodward,” Jake said with disgust. “Whose leg is Woodward humping now? Jones? So Jones can say he won the war?”
I wondered: Shit, if they didn’t like journalists Kaplan, Ricks, and Woodward, they probably weren’t going to be big fans of my work, either.
I apologized for taking up McChrystal’s time while he was in Paris. I turned to speak with Mike Flynn.
I asked him about a report he had authored in January. The report, which he published on a think tank’s website rather than go through the normal chain of command, had declared that your military intelligence was “clueless” about Afghanistan.
“If I would have written that report and been living in Washington, I probably would have been fired,” he said. “But I could do it because I was in Kabul.”
Living up to his scatterbrained reputation, Flynn accidentally left his e-mail address on the report. He received, he said, “thousands of e-mails” commenting on it.
“But that’s good, you know. You just want people out there hammering away, whether it’s good or bad, you just want to shock the system. It’s the same with you in the media—for your stories, you don’t care if people are hating it or loving it; it’s the shock to the system, it’s about getting people to fucking hammer away on it,” he said.
“Whatever the reporting is, think the opposite,” he segued, on advice he gives to intelligence gatherers. “Counterintuitive.”
“It’s interesting, the parallels between the professions,” I said. “Norman Mailer said ‘journalists are like spies.’ We have it even easier in some ways, though, because there’s no bureaucracy—I mean, I want to go somewhere, I ask one person, he says okay, and then I’m on my own. My job is to share that collected information to the public, while the spy’s job is obviously different. I don’t need to get all the permission spies need to get to do shit.”
“I try to let my people out there,” Flynn said.
I asked him a question that had always perplexed me. As the highest-ranking intelligence officer in the Afghanistan and Pakistan theater, Flynn had access to the most sensitive and detailed intelligence reports; I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to get his take.
“Why haven’t we gotten Bin Laden?” I asked.
“I don’t think we’re going to get Bin Laden,” he told me. “I think we’ll get a call one day from the Paks: Bin Laden’s dead, we captured al-Zawahiri. But we need closure on that issue.” We’re not going to get Bin Laden? Of everything I had heard so far, this stunned me the most. One of the top intelligence officers in the military telling me that we’re not going to get Bin Laden? Bin Laden was our whole raison d’être in Afghanistan. He brought us there, he’s what kept us there, and if it’s true that we’re not going to get him . . . What the fuck?
I didn’t want to miss my train. The conversation drifted back to public images and profiles. “Everyone has a dark side,” Flynn said, seemingly referring to McChrystal.
“Mike, don’t tell him that,” said Flynn’s wife, Lori, sitting across the table.
“Like Tiger Woods,” I said. “His whole image was built up and torn down overnight.”
“Exactly, like Tiger Woods.”
I put my notebook and tape recorder away. I finished my Diet Coke and said good-bye.
“See you guys in Berlin,” I said.
“See you there, Mike.”
I went back to the hotel, picked up my checked luggage, and headed to the train station.
Excerpted by permission from The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings. Blue Rider Press (a member of Penguin USA). All rights reserved.
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