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The Runaway General

The Runaway General

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Published by Doug Mataconis
Rolling Stone article about General Stanley McChrystal
Rolling Stone article about General Stanley McChrystal

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Published by: Doug Mataconis on Jun 22, 2010
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Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan,has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off thereal enemy: The wimps in the White House
By Michael hastings
Michael Hastings
hasreported rom Iraq and Aghanistan or two years. This is his frst story or RS.
 |Rolling Stone| 
July 8-22, 2010July 8-22, 2010
|Rolling Stone
Germany’s president and sparked bothCanada and the Netherlands to announcethe withdrawal o their 4,500 troops.McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Aghanistan, rom going all wobbly onhim.“The dinner comes with the position,sir,” says his chie o sta, Col. CharlieFlynn.McChrystal turns sharply in his chair.“Hey, Charlie,” he asks, “does this come with the position?”McChrystal gives him the middlenger.The general stands and looks aroundthe suite that his traveling sta o 10 hasconverted into a ull-scale operations cen-ter. The tables are crowded with silverPanasonic Toughbooks, and blue cablescrisscross the hotel’s thick carpet, hookedup to satellite dishes to provide encrypt-ed phone and e-mail communications.Dressed in o-the-rack civilian casual – blue tie, button-down shirt, dress slacks– McChrystal is way out o his comortzone. Paris, as one o his advisers says, isthe “most anti-McChrystal city you canimagine.” The general hates ancy res-taurants, rejecting any place with can-dles on the tables as too “Gucci.” He pre-ers Bud Light Lime (his avorite beer) toBordeaux,
Talladega Nights
(his avor-ite movie) to Jean-Luc Godard. Besides,the public eye has never been a place where McChrystal elt comortable: Be-ore President Obama put him in chargeo the war in Aghanistan, he spent ve years running the Pentagon’s most secre-tive black ops.“What’s the update on the Kandahar bombing?” McChrystal asks Flynn. Thecity has been rocked by two massive car bombs in the past day alone, calling intoquestion the general’s assurances that hecan wrest it rom the Taliban.troops to not only destroy the enemy, butto live among the civilian population andslowly rebuild, or build rom scratch, an-other nation’s government – a processthat even its staunchest advocates admitrequires years, i not decades, to achieve.The theory essentially rebrands the mil-itary, expanding its authority (and itsunding) to encompass the diplomat-ic and political sides o warare: Thinkthe Green Berets as an armed PeaceCorps. In 2006, ater Gen. David Petra-eus beta-tested the theory during his “surge” in Iraq,it quickly gained a hardcoreollowing o think-tankers, journalists, military ocersand civilian ocials. Nick-named “COINdinistas” ortheir cultish zeal, this in-fuential cadre believed thedoctrine would be the per-ect solution or Aghani-stan. All they needed wasa general with enough cha-risma and political savvy toimplement it. As McChrystal leanedon Obama to ramp up the war, he did it with the sameearlessness he used totrack down terrorists in Iraq: Figure outhow your enemy operates, be aster andmore ruthless than everybody else, thentake the uckers out. Ater arriving in Aghanistan last June, the general con-ducted his own policy review, orderedup by Deense Secretary Robert Gates.The now-inamous report was leaked tothe press, and its conclusion was dire: I  we didn’t send another 40,000 troops– swelling the number o U.S. orces in Aghanistan by nearly hal – we were indanger o “mission ailure.” The WhiteHouse was urious. McChrystal, they elt, was trying to bully Obama, opening himup to charges o being weak on nationalsecurity unless he did what the general wanted. It was Obama versus the Penta-gon, and the Pentagon was determined tokick the president’s ass.Last all, with his top general call-ing or more troops, Obama launched athree-month review to re-evaluate thestrategy in Aghanistan. “I ound thattime painul,” McChrystal tells me in oneo several lengthy interviews. “I was sell-ing an unsellable position.” For the gen-eral, it was a crash course in Beltway pol-itics – a battle that pitted him againstexperienced Washington insiders like Vice President Biden, who argued that aprolonged counterinsurgency campaignin Aghanistan would plunge Americainto a military quagmire without weak-ening international terrorist networks.“The entire COIN strategy is a raud per-petuated on the American people,” saysDouglas Macgregor, a retired colonel andoensive that began in February to re-take the southern town o Marja – con-tinues to drag on, prompting McChrystalhimsel to reer to it as a “bleeding ulcer.”In June, Aghanistan ocially outpaced Vietnam as the longest war in Americanhistory – and Obama has quietly begunto back away rom the deadline he set or withdrawing U.S. troops in July o next year. The president nds himsel stuckin something even more insane thana quagmire: a quagmire he knowingly  walked into, even though it’sprecisely the kind o gigan-tic, mind-numbing, multi-generational nation-build-ing project he explicitly saidhe didn’t want.Even those who supportMcChrystal and his strat-egy o counterinsurgen-cy know that whatever thegeneral manages to accom-plish in Aghanistan, it’sgoing to look more like Viet-nam than Desert Storm.“It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or tastelike a win,” says Maj. Gen.Bill Mayville, who servesas chie o operations orMcChrystal. “This is going to end in anargument.”
he night after his
 speech in Paris, McChrystaland his sta head to Kitty O’Shea’s, an Irish pub cater-ing to tourists, around thecorner rom the hotel. His wie, Annie,has joined him or a rare visit: Since theIraq War began in 2003, she has seen herhusband less than 30 days a year. Thoughit is his and Annie’s 33rd wedding anni- versary, McChrystal has invited his innercircle along or dinner and drinks at the“least Gucci” place his sta could nd. His wie isn’t surprised. “He once took me toa Jack in the Box when I was dressed inormalwear,” she says with a laugh.The general’s sta is a handpicked col-lection o killers, spies, geniuses, patriots,political operators and outright mani-acs. There’s a ormer head o British Spe-cial Forces, two Navy Seals, an AghanSpecial Forces commando, a lawyer, twoghter pilots and at least two dozen com- bat veterans and counterinsurgency ex-perts. They jokingly reer to themselvesas Team America, taking the name romthe
 South Park-
esque sendup o military cluelessness, and they pride themselveson their can-do attitude and their disdainor authority. Ater arriving in Kabul lastsummer, Team America set about chang-ing the culture o the International Se-curity Assistance Force, as the NATO-led mission is known. (U.S. soldiers hadtaken to deriding ISAF as short or “II’m up there, that’s the problem,” he says.Then, unable to help themselves, he andhis sta imagine the general dismissingthe vice president with a good one-liner.“Are you asking about Vice PresidentBiden?” McChrystal says with a laugh.“Who’s that?”“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?”
hen barack 
 entered the Oval Oce,he immediately set outto deliver on his mostimportant campaignpromise on oreign policy: to reocusthe war in Aghanistan on what led usto invade in the rst place. “I want the American people to understand,” he an-nounced in March 2009. “We have a clearand ocused goal: to disrupt, dismantleand deeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Aghanistan.” He ordered another 21,000troops to Kabul, the largest increase sincethe war began in 2001. Taking the adviceo both the Pentagon and the Joint Chieso Sta, he also ired Gen. David Mc-Kiernan – then the U.S. and NATO com-mander in Aghanistan – and replacedhim with a man he didn’t know and hadmet only briefy: Gen. Stanley McChrys-tal. It was the rst time a top general had been relieved rom duty during wartimein more than 50 years, since Harry Tru-man red Gen. Douglas MacArthur atthe height o the Korean War.Even though he had voted or Obama,McChrystal and his new commander inchie ailed rom the outset to connect.The general irst encountered Obamaa week ater he took oice, when thepresident met with a dozen senior mili-tary ocials in a room at the Pentagonknown as the Tank. According to sourc-es amiliar with the meeting, McChrys-tal thought Obama looked “uncomort-able and intimidated” by the roomul o military brass. Their irst one-on-onemeeting took place in the Oval Oce ourmonths later, ater McChrystal got the Aghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,”says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obamaclearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s goingto run his ucking war, but he didn’tseem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”From the start, McChrystal was de-termined to place his personal stamp on Aghanistan, to use it as a laboratory ora controversial military strategy knownas counterinsurgency. COIN, as the theo-ry is known, is the new gospel o the Pen-tagon brass, a doctrine that attempts tosquare the military’s preerence or high-tech violence with the demands o ght-ing protracted wars in ailed states. COINcalls or sending huge numbers o groundment would sap American power; AlQaeda has shited its base o operationsto Pakistan. Then, without ever usingthe words “victory” or “win,” Obama an-nounced that he would send an addition-al 30,000 troops to Aghanistan, almostas many as McChrystal had requested.The president had thrown his weight,however hesitantly, behind the counter-insurgency crowd.Today, as McChrystal gears up or anoensive in southern Aghanistan, theprospects or any kind o success look bleak. In June, the death toll or U.S.troops passed 1,000, and the number o IEDs has doubled. Spending hundredso billions o dollars on the th-poorestcountry on earth has ailed to win overthe civilian population, whose attitudetoward U.S. troops ranges rom intense-ly wary to openly hostile. The biggest mil-itary operation o the year – a erocious
the general’steam makesjokes aboutthe VP. “biden?”laughs a toP aide. “did yousay: bite me?”
“We have two KIAs, but that hasn’t been conrmed,” Flynn says.McChrystal takes a nal look aroundthe suite. At 55, he is gaunt and lean, notunlike an older version o Christian Balein
 Rescue Dawn.
His slate-blue eyes havethe unsettling ability to
drill down
whenthey lock on you. I you’ve ucked up ordisappointed him, they can destroy yoursoul without the need or him to raisehis voice.“I’d rather have my ass kicked by aroomul o people than go out to this din-ner,” McChrystal says.He pauses a beat.“Unortunately,” he adds, “no one inthis room could do it.” With that, he’s out the door.“Who’s he going to dinner with?” I askone o his aides.“Some French minister,” the aide tellsme. “It’s ucking gay.”The next morning, McChrystal and histeam gather to prepare or a speech he isgiving at the École Militaire, a Frenchmilitary academy. The general prideshimsel on being sharper and ballsi-er than anyone else, but his brashnesscomes with a price: Although McChrys-tal has been in charge o the war or only a year, in that short time he has man-aged to piss o almost everyone with astake in the confict. Last all, during thequestion-and-answer session ollowing aspeech he gave in London, McChrystaldismissed the counterterrorism strate-gy being advocated by Vice President JoeBiden as “shortsighted,” saying it wouldlead to a state o “Chaos-istan.” The re-marks earned him a smackdown romthe president himsel, who summoned thegeneral to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrys-tal seemed clear:
 Shut the uck up, and keep a lower profle.
 Now, fipping through printout cardso his speech in Paris, McChrystal won-ders aloud what Biden question he mightget today, and how he should respond. “Inever know what’s going to pop out until
ow’d i get screwed into going
this dinner?” demands Gen. Stan-ley McChrystal. It’s a Thursday nightin mid-April, and the commander o all U.S. and NATO orces in Aghani-stan is sitting in a our-star suite at the Hôtel Westmin-ster in Paris. He’s in France to sell his new war strategy toour NATO allies – to keep up the ction, in essence, that we actually 
allies. Since McChrystal took over a yearago, the Aghan war has become the exclusive property o the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, orced the resignation o 
leading critic o counterinsurgency whoattended West Point with McChrystal.“The idea that we are going to spend atrillion dollars to reshape the culture o the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”In the end, however, McChrystal gotalmost exactly what he wanted. OnDecember 1st, in a speech at West Point,the president laid out all the reasons why ghting the war in Aghanistan isa bad idea: It’s expensive; we’re in aneconomic crisis; a decade-long commit-
   p   r   e   v   i   o   u   s   s   p   r   e   a   d  :   u .   s .   N   a   v   y   p   e   t   t   y   o   f   f   i   c   e   r   1   s   t   c   l   a   s   s   M   a   r   k   o    ’   d   o   N   a   l   d    /   N   a   t   o .   t   h   i   s   p   a   g   e  :   p   e   t   e   s   o   u   z   a    /   t   h   e   w   h   i   t   e   h   o   u   s   e
 |Rolling Stone| 
July 8-22, 2010July 8-22, 2010
|Rolling Stone
Suck at Fighting” or “In Sandals and Flip-Flops.”) McChrystal banned alcohol on base, kicked out Burger King and othersymbols o American excess, expand-ed the morning brieng to include thou-sands o ocers and reashioned the com-mand center into a Situational AwarenessRoom, a ree-fowing inormation hubmodeled ater Mayor Mike Bloomberg’soces in New York. He also set a manicpace or his sta, becoming legendary or sleeping our hours a night, runningseven miles each morning, and eatingone meal a day. (In the month I spendaround the general, I witness him eat-ing only once.) It’s a kind o superhumannarrative that has built up around him,a staple in almost every media prole, asi the ability to go without sleep and oodtranslates into the possibility o a mansingle-handedly winning the war.By midnight at Kitty O’Shea’s, mucho Team America is completely shitaced.Two ocers do an Irish jig mixed withsteps rom a traditional Aghan wed-ding dance, while McChrystal’s top ad- visers lock arms and sing a slurred song o their own invention. “
” they  bellow. “
” They call it their Aghanistan song.McChrystal steps away rom the cir-cle, observing his team. “All these men,”he tells me. “I’d die or them. And they’ddie or me.”The assembled men may look andsound like a bunch o combat veteransletting o steam, but in act this tight-knitgroup represents the most powerul orceshaping U.S. policy in Aghanistan. WhileMcChrystal and his men are in indisput-able command o all military aspects o the war, there is no equivalent position onthe diplomatic or political side. Instead,an assortment o administration play-ers compete over the Aghan portolio:U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Spe-cial Representative to Aghanistan Rich-ard Holbrooke, National Security AdvisorJim Jones and Secretary o State Hillary Clinton, not to mention 40 or so other co-alition ambassadors and a host o talkingheads who try to insert themselves intothe mess, rom John Kerry to John Mc-Cain. This diplomatic incoherence haseectively allowed McChrystal’s team tocall the shots and hampered eorts to build a stable and credible government in Aghanistan. “It jeopardizes the mission,”says Stephen Biddle, a senior ellow at theCouncil on Foreign Relations who sup-ports McChrystal. “The military cannot by itsel create governance reorm.”Part o the problem is structural: TheDeense Department budget exceeds$600 billion a year, while the State De-partment receives only $50 billion. Butpart o the problem is personal: In pri- vate, Team McChrystal likes to talk shitabout many o Obama’s top people on thediplomatic side. One aide calls Jim Jones,a retired our-star general and veterano the Cold War, a “clown” who remains“stuck in 1985.” Politicians like McCainand Kerry, says another aide, “turn up,have a meeting with Karzai, criticize himat the airport press conerence, then get back or the Sunday talk shows. Frankly,it’s not very helpul.” Only Hillary Clintonreceives good reviews rom McChrystal’sinner circle. “Hillary had Stan’s back dur-ing the strategic review,” says an adviser.“She said, ‘I Stan wants it, give him whathe needs.’ ”McChrystal reserves special skepti-cism or Holbrooke, the ocial in chargeo reintegrating the Taliban. “The Bosssays he’s like a wounded animal,” says amember o the general’s team. “Holbrookekeeps hearing rumors that he’s going toget red, so that makes him dangerous.He’s a brilliant guy, but he just comes in,pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasponto. But this is COIN, and you can’t justhave someone yanking on shit.” At one point on his trip to Paris, Mc-Chrystal checks his BlackBerry. “Oh,not another e-mail rom Holbrooke,” hegroans. “I don’t even want to open it.” Heclicks on the message and reads the salu-tation out loud, then stus the BlackBerry  back in his pocket, not bothering to con-ceal his annoyance.“Make sure you don’t get any o thaton your leg,” an aide jokes, reerring tothe e-mail.
 y far the most crucial
– and strained – relationshipis between McChrystal andEikenberry, the U.S. ambas-sador. According to those closeto the two men, Eikenberry – a retiredthree-star general who served in Aghan-istan in 2002 and 2005 – can’t stand thathis ormer subordinate is now calling theshots. He’s also urious that McChrystal, backed by NATO’s allies, reused to putEikenberry in the pivotal role o vice-roy in Aghanistan, which would havemade him the diplomatic equivalent o the general. The job instead went to Brit-ish Ambassador Mark Sedwill – a movethat eectively increased McChrystal’sinfuence over diplomacy by shutting outa powerul rival. “In reality, that positionneeds to be lled by an American or it tohave weight,” says a U.S. ocial amiliar with the negotiations.The relationship was urther strainedin January, when a classied cable thatEikenberry wrote was leaked to
The NewYork Times.
The cable was as scathing asit was prescient. The ambassador oereda brutal critique o McChrystal’s strate-gy, dismissed President Hamid Karzai as“not an adequate strategic partner,” andcast doubt on whether the counterinsur-gency plan would be “sucient” to deal with Al Qaeda. “We will become moredeeply engaged here with no way to ex-tricate ourselves,” Eikenberry warned,“short o allowing the country to descendagain into lawlessness and chaos.”McChrystal and his team were blind-sided by the cable. “I like Karl, I’veknown him or years, but they’d neversaid anything like that to us beore,” saysMcChrystal, who adds that he elt “be-trayed” by the leak. “Here’s one that cov-ers his fank or the history books. Now i  we ail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ ”The most striking example o McChrys-tal’s usurpation o diplomatic policy is hishandling o Karzai. It is McChrystal, notdiplomats like Eikenberry or Holbrooke, who enjoys the best relationship with theman America is relying on to lead A-ghanistan. The doctrine o counterinsur-gency requires a credible government,and since Karzai is not considered cred-ible by his own people, McChrystal has worked hard to make him so. Over thepast ew months, he has accompanied thepresident on more than 10 trips aroundthe country, standing beside him at polit-ical meetings, or
in Kandahar. InFebruary, the day beore the doomed o-ensive in Marja, McChrystal even droveover to the president’s palace to get him tosign o on what would be the largest mil-itary operation o the year. Karzai’s sta,however, insisted that the president wassleeping o a cold and could not be dis-turbed. Ater several hours o haggling,McChrystal inally enlisted the aid o  Aghanistan’s deense minister, who per-suaded Karzai’s people to wake the pres-ident rom his nap.This is one o the central faws withMcChrystal’s counterinsurgency strat- beore whipping a astball down themiddle.McChrystal entered West Point in1972, when the U.S. military was closeto its all-time low in popularity. His class was the last to graduate beore the acad-emy started to admit women. The “Prisonon the Hudson,” as it was known then, was a potent mix o testosterone, hooli-ganism and reactionary patriotism. Ca-dets repeatedly trashed the mess hall inood ghts, and birthdays were celebrat-ed with a tradition called “rat ucking,” which oten let the birthday boy outsidein the snow or mud, covered in shavingcream. “It was pretty out o control,” saysLt. Gen. David Barno, a classmate who went on to serve as the top commanderin Aghanistan rom 2003 to 2005. Theclass, lled with what Barno calls “hugetalent” and “wild-eyed teenagers with astrong sense o idealism,” also producedGen. Ray Odierno, the current command-er o U.S. orces in Iraq.The son o a general, McChrystal wasalso a ringleader o the campus dissi-dents – a dual role that taught him howto thrive in a rigid, top-down environ-ment while thumbing his nose at author-ity every chance he got. He accumulat-ed more than 100 hours o demerits ordrinking, partying and insubordination– a record that his classmates boastedmade him a “century man.” One class-mate, who asked not to be named, recallsinding McChrystal passed out in theshower ater downing a case o beer hehad hidden under the sink. The trouble-making almost got him kicked out, andhe spent hours subjected to orced march-es in the Area, a paved courtyard whereunruly cadets were disciplined. “I’d come visit, and I’d end up spending most o my time in the library, while Stan was in the Area,” recalls Annie, who began datingMcChrystal in 1973.McChrystal wound up ranking 298 outo a class o 855, a serious underachieve-ment or a man widely regarded as bril-liant. His most compelling work was ex-tracurricular: As managing editor o 
The Pointer,
the West Point literary magazine,McChrystal wrote seven short stories thateerily oreshadow many o the issues he would conront in his career. In one tale,a ctional ocer complains about the di-culty o training oreign troops to ght;in another, a 19-year-old soldier kills a boy he mistakes or a terrorist. In “Brink-man’s Note,” a piece o suspense ction,the unnamed narrator appears to be try-ing to stop a plot to assassinate the pres-ident. It turns out, however, that the nar-rator himsel is the assassin, and he’s ableto inltrate the White House: “The Pres-ident strode in smiling. From the rightcoat pocket o the raincoat I carried, Islowly drew orth my 32-caliber pistol. InBrinkman’s ailure, I had succeeded.”egy: The need to build a credible gov-ernment puts us at the mercy o whatev-er tin-pot leader we’ve backed – a dangerthat Eikenberry explicitly warned aboutin his cable. Even Team McChrystal pri- vately acknowledges that Karzai is a less-than-ideal partner. “He’s been locked upin his palace the past year,” laments oneo the general’s top advisers. At times,Karzai himsel has actively underminedMcChrystal’s desire to put him in charge.During a recent visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Karzai met threeU.S. soldiers who had been wounded inUruzgan province. “General,” he calledout to McChrystal, “I didn’t even know we were ghting in Uruzgan!”
rowing up as a military 
 brat, McChrystal exhibitedthe mixture o brilliance andcockiness that would ollowhim throughout his career.His ather ought in Korea and Vietnam,retiring as a two-star general, and hisour brothers all joined the armed ser- vices. Moving around to dierent bases,McChrystal took solace in baseball, asport in which he made no pretense o hiding his superiority: In Little League,he would call out strikes to the crowd
chrystalisn’t just incharge on thebattlefield:he also callsthe diPlomaticshots.

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