Lessons of the Afghan War


In June 2010 Rolling Stone published "The Runaway General," which portrayed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, as reckless and contemptuous of White House authority. Before the issue even hit newsstands, President Barack Obama relieved McChrystal of command. The author of the piece, journalist Michael Hastings, turned additional reporting surrounding his scoop into The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan (Blue Rider). Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Hastings by phone in February.

Q: Some journalists thought you violated unwritten rules by portraying the general and his men in such an unflattering, if true, light. Did you suffer any career backlash?

A: One of the things I hope I accomplished is proving that you can do this, and if the reporting is accurate and honest you can maintain a career doing it; you can do it again and again. I can reach a wide audience without the approval of The New York Times' Pentagon correspondent. I've opened more doors than have [been] shut in my face. In reporting people come to you if they know you are taking them seriously if they have a story to tell, and they want to have an impact.

Q: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced in February that we might be leaving Afghanistan a year ahead of schedule, in 2013. If so, do you think the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) pushed by the Afghan commanders will be seen as a success?

A: With some sort of Western proxy nominally in charge and an Afghan Army and police that look good on paper, they will say it was worth it. In terms of how the American public views it, in my understanding they view the war on terror and in Afghanistan as won when we killed Osama [bin Laden]. The other stuff is tangential, though expensive and borderline criminal.

COIN was a bad idea when we first did it in the 1960s in Vietnam and has remained a bad idea, fighting someone else's counterinsurgency for them. But the guys preaching the COIN gospel are enabled by their allies in media to convince us all that COIN worked in Iraq. The tactics that [Gen. David] Petraeus and McChrystal [used] in Iraq did lower violence for a period of time. But it had nothing to do with "winning hearts and minds." It was the application of extreme violence and paying people off.

Q: What will be the lessons of Afghanistan for the U.S. military?

A: The captains and lieutenant colonels and sergeants who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, once they are in senior leadership positions, my sense is they will be less inclined to get involved in nation building. The current crop of senior military leaders almost all just missed Vietnam, all those COIN guys. McChrystal and Petraeus wanted to prove they could do better than their fathers. [It's] almost a Freudian thing with Iraq and Afghanistan, showing them this is how you do these unpopular wars for 10 years! 

But you sit down with McChrystal or any of the top guys who supported nation building and ask them: There's not popular support and there's not political support, and we don't speak the language, and Afghans don't want our culture for the most part, and the terrorists we are after are not there, and yet you propose we spend more billions and years? I will never understand that. 

I think the answer is more inertia-based thinking than rigorous intellectual analysis, because any such analysis involving Afghanistan would tell you to get the fuck out and not have anything to do with that country.