In the wake of the “Rolling Stone” magazine article entitled “Runaway General” (by Michael Hastings, p. 91 in July 8-22 issue), I decided to read it for myself to see what kind of “fly on the wall” journalistic report—the first by this reporter for the magazine—could topple an active General 

What I learned is that General Stanley McChrystal was probably doomed from the get-go. For one thing, he was much admired by the Bush regime, who liked the fact that he cut corners to get things done. For another thing, he had been in trouble before. “By some accounts, McChrystal’s career should have been over at least two times by now.” (p. 96) 

McChrystal took part in the Pat Tillman cover-up, trying to pass off the death of the football player in April 2004 as being a death from enemy fire, rather than an accidental death. He signed off on a Silver Star, suggesting Tillman was killed by Taliban fighters. However, later, McChrystal sent a memo specifically warning President Bush to avoid any mention of the cause of Corporal Tillman’s death saying, “If the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public, it could cause public embarrassment” for the president. Mrs. Tillman (Pat Tillman’s mother, Mary) wrote in her book Boots on the Ground by Dusk, “McChrystal got away with it because he was the golden boy of Rumsfeld and Bush, who loved his willingness to get things done, even if it included bending the rules or skipping the chain of command.” (p. 96)

There was also a scandal at Camp Mana in Iraq that echoed the prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib, which occurred two years later, in 2006.

When comparing McChrystal to General Petraeus, who has now replaced him (and is 1 for 1 in having completed Iraq and gotten us through it), “Where General Petraeus is kind of a dweeb, a teacher’s pet with a Ranger’s tab, McChrystal is a snake-eating rebel, a Jedi commander…He speaks his mind with a candor rare for a high-ranking official.” (p. 96) Either McChrystal or Team McChrystal talked s*** about Obama’s top people, including Jim Jones, who was called ‘a clown stuck in 1985, and the U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, as well as Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, the official in charge of reintegrating the Taliban. Quote: “The Boss (McChrystal) says he’s like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous. He’s a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto. But this is COIN, and you can’t just have someone yanking on s***.”

He is also a Jedi commander (a term Newsweek coined) who vigorously supported the COIN counterinsurgency strategy, a doctrine attempting to square the military’s preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting long, drawn-out wars in failed states. With cultish zeal, the “COINdinistas believe that this strategy would be the solution for Afghanistan if they could just get a general with enough charisma and political savvy to implement it. 

It does not appear that McChrystal is going to be that general. He got off to a notoriously weak start with Obama, complaining that Obama didn’t have a clue about what his credentials for the job were, and, as he put it, “I found that time painful. I was selling an unsellable position,” to Beltway Insiders like VP Joe Biden. 

Biden, who does like to talk, is said to have taken the position that “a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan would plunge America into a military quagmire without weakening international terrorist networks.” In other words, Biden, who is demeaned by McChrystal’s men as “Joe Bite Me!” just might be on to something. As, too, might Douglas Macgregor, who attended West Point with McChrystal and said, “The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people.  The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.” This from a man who went to West Point with McChrystal where he graduated 298th out of 855 and was once found passed out in the shower, drunk. Even McChrystal’s own wife of 33 years said, in the story, “Even as a young officer he seemed to know what he wanted to do.  I don’t think his personality has changed in all these years.” And his personality, as described in the magazine, is that of a highly intelligent badass who wanted to transform systems he considered outdated and was “open to new ways of killing.” A former Special Forces operative who disliked McChrystal’s directives about “courageous restraint” in not killing innocent civilians said, “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts.  His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing, bottom line.” (p. 97) A three-tour man named Hicks says, “F***! When I came over here and heard that McChrystal was in charge, I thought we would get our f****** guns on. I get COIN. I Get all that. But we’re losing this thing.”

A senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation who served as a political adviser to U.S. commanders in Iraq in 2006, “They (the administration) are trying to manipulate perceptions because there is no definition of victory—because victory is not even defined or recognizable. That’s the game we’re in right now. What we need, for strategic purposes, is to create the perception that we didn’t get run off.  The facts on the ground are not great, and are not going to become great in the near future.” (p. 121) The article quotes those closest to McChrystal as saying that ‘the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn’t begin to reflect how deeply f***** up things are in Afghanistan If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.” (p. 121) 

Then there is a mention of how, “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here,” from a senior military officer in Kabul. (p. 121). Yet, in its closing paragraphs, the controversial article on General McChrystal that caused Obama to show him the door and send him to Tampa, Florida says, “Whatever the nature of the new plan, the delay underscores the fundamental flaws of counterinsurgency.  After 9 years of war, the Taliban simply remains too strongly entrenched for the U.S. military to openly attack.  The very people that COIN seeks to win over, the Afghan people, do not want us there.  Our supposed ally, President Karzai, used his influence to delay the offensive, and the massive influx of aid championed by McChrystal is likely only to make things worse.” (p. 121) Not encouraging. Not encouraging at all.

And, in one of the article’s final paragraphs on page 121, Andrew Wilder, an expert at Tufts University who has studied the effect of aid in southern Afghanistan says, “Throwing money at the problem exacerbates the problem…So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war.” 

Last line? 

“Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.” 

And, for my final line, not even with General Petraeus (now) in charge.