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].
“The French might ask if you’re here for more troops, and how the French are doing,” said Duncan.
“Hey, that’s too easy. I was just down in Kandahar and I saw the colonel from Task Force Lafayette – didn’t expect to see him there. I was like, ‘Hello, Pierre,'” McChrystal said, grinning.
“If you’re asked about women’s rights,” Duncan said.
“Women don’t have rights,” McChrystal answered. The joke fell flat.
“It’s true, though,” said Jake. “We shouldn’t be in there pushing our culture. It’s just going to anger the fundamentally conservative culture, like we say –”
McChrystal interrupted before Jake could go on.
“What was the Biden question we got yesterday?” McChrystal asked.
He couldn’t resist opening up the room for a few jokes at the vice president’s expense.
“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal said with a laugh. “Who’s that?”
“Biden?” Jake said. “Did you say: Bite Me??”
Everyone started laughing. Jake finished off the back-and-forth with another jab at the vice president.
“Are you talking about the guy who swears on television?” Jake said.
After the meeting, I waited outside the hotel for Duncan. I noticed an Arab guy, around five-feet-five, walking by in shorts and sneakers. I continued to smoke my cigarette. Duncan and I walked to the Métro to catch a train to the École Militaire. At the top of the Métro steps, I saw the same Arab guy again.
“Hey, man, do people really spy on you guys?”
“Yes, they try,” Duncan said.
“I think I just saw a guy I’d seen earlier walking by the hotel.”
“He’s not doing a very good job then, is he?”
Duncan and I arrived at the military academy, a regally styled, sand-colored complex built by Louis XV. I took a seat at the back of the auditorium. The audience was made up of French academics, military students, and active-duty military officers. I settled in to listen to the speech McChrystal had just rehearsed.
“Afghanistan is hard,” he began.
Two days later, Hastings finds himself stranded in Paris with McChrystal and his staff, courtesy of a volcanic eruption in Iceland that grounded more than 100,000 flights. Temporarily unable to return to the U.S., Hastings accepts an offer to join McChrystal and his team in Berlin, the next stop on their European tour. Over dinner the night before they leave, the general talks candidly about Gen. David Petraeus, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and how he had consciously manipulated the media as the Pentagon’s spokesman during the Iraq War. “I couldn’t quite believe how the story was playing out,” Hastings writes. “I was getting the perfect material for a profile, beyond my expectations.”
Chapter 15. Petraeus Can’t Do Afghanistan, and We Aren’t Going to Get Bin Laden
April 18, 2010, Paris
Ocean 11 wasn’t allowed to leave France. Neither was Ocean 12.
Those were the call signs for the planes the Air Force supplied McChrystal. Ocean 11—named after the George Clooney heist movie with a star-studded cast about a high-speed team of supercool thieves who pull off the biggest caper in Las Vegas history—was a Learjet. Ocean 12 was the plane for the staff.
McChrystal’s plan to fly to Berlin on Monday was in jeopardy.
Dave worked the contingencies. Helicopters? It would be a twelve-hour ride. They’d have to stop and refuel multiple times. It sounded brutal. Did they want to put their wives on a twelve-hour Blackhawk ride? Nope, bad idea. Commercial flights? Not moving yet. Train? That would take too long and they wouldn’t have communication capabilities.
Check back again with Ocean 11: Come on, Air Force, have some balls, take off.
McChrystal wasn’t the only one stranded. The German defense minister was trapped in Uzbekistan. The German chancellor was stuck in Italy. McChrystal might have to cancel the entire trip to Berlin.
I was stuck, too. Even if McChrystal could get Ocean 11 to take off, I wouldn’t be able to get on the military flight. I could spend another night in Paris, but then I’d risk getting left behind if they finally got clearance. I decided to gamble: Take a train to Berlin to get ahead of them.
I was at the Gare de l’Est at five thirty a.m. There was travel chaos across the continent. Riotous lines of stranded tourists at the Air France office stretched down the block. Rental car agencies ran out of stock. Taxi drivers were price-gouging, charging thousands of euros for cross-country trips. Trains were somewhat fucked as well, their websites overloaded as everyone scrambled to snag the few remaining tickets.
With no way to book a ticket online, I waited for three hours at the station. The only ticket available was an overnight train in coach. I bought it, checked out of my shitty hotel, then went back to the Westminster.
I spent the day hanging out in the Westminster lobby, doing interviews with other members of the staff. At around three p.m., McChrystal came downstairs. He took a seat across from me at The Duke’s Bar. He checked his BlackBerry.
“Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,” he said.
“Did you read it?” Charlie asked.
“I don’t even want to open it,” McChrystal said.
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“Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg,” Charlie said, pretending to wipe his pants as if the mail had popped open and splattered him.
I jotted down notes—Holbrooke, the legendary statesman. Another civilian they couldn’t stand.
The team was going out to grab an early dinner at a Mexican restaurant, about a ten-minute walk from the hotel. They asked me if I wanted to go with them. I said okay. I could only stay for an hour or so. My train was leaving that evening. The entire crew fell out of the hotel, and we started to walk.
We went down the street and stopped in front of the Paris Opera House.
“Hey, we should get a picture of this,” McChrystal said.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
McChrystal, Flynn, Dave, Duncan, the other officers and staff posed with their wives. I took a few steps back, clicked lightly on the button to focus it, then snapped a photo of them. Just another group of tourists in Paris.
We started walking again, and Duncan told me that it would be a good time for another interview with McChrystal and Mike Flynn.
“Once we’re back in Kabul there won’t be much time,” he said.
We sat outside at the Mexican restaurant. The waiter pushed two plastic tables together, and the half-dozen members of Team McChrystal and their wives grabbed seats. I sat between McChrystal and Mike Flynn. Jake sat next to McChrystal, at the end of the first table.
I started to interview McChrystal. The rest of the table started talking about an incident on Saturday night: a naked man in a window at a restaurant.
“There was a guy with no clothes on, and everyone was looking up at him,” said General Flynn’s wife, Lori.
“He was really naked, leaning against the window,” Jake said, shaking his head.
The waiter came over to take our order.
“Start with Jake,” Lori said.
“Beer,” Jake said. “Grande.”
“Grande beer,” Annie said, laughing.
“You can’t have two until you have one,” Jake said.
Annie and Jackie ordered sauvignon blanc.
“I’ll take a large beer,” said Mike Flynn.
“That’s Mike’s French,” McChrystal said. “Large beer.”
“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.