The man in charge of the war in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, landed himself in hot water with the White House (and has now resigned) after a profile in Rolling Stone depicted the general and his staff criticizing the President and other top civilian officials.
We spoke with Michael Hastings — the reporter who wrote the article — on Wednesday morning from Kandahar to talk about the controversy. Here’s what he told us:
Q (Tom Ashbrook): You’re still in Afghanistan, you’re in Kandahar, and we understand you’ve been under rocket fire today. What’s happening?
A (Michael Hastings): Yes, there was just a rocket fire attack here and we all ducked under our desks and went into the bunker, and then the electricity went out but everything is fine now.
Q: Michael, how long were you with General McChrystal and his crew and in what kind of circumstances to get this sort of dope?
A: It was a month from April to, from mid-April to mid-May.
Q: And in what kind of, I mean were you at the bars with him?
A: I met him in Paris
Q: Sorry Michael we’ve got a delay here, just trying to get a sense of what kind of environments you met with them in. Where they were talking so glibly, loosely, even offensively, about their colleagues in the civilian wing, in the administration.
A: Well it was very unusual to see a general in that environment. He had come over to Europe on a NATO tour and so I saw him in Paris as well as in Berlin and spent some time with him. I happened to also spend his wedding anniversary with him and his senior-level staff. Where they proceeded to get fairly inebriated, which one would expect from some infantry guys, you know out on the town in Paris. So a number of these experiences were just much different from the normal profile you get of a general when you fly around a battlefield with him, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. So it’s a sort of unique opportunity and I was lucky to have it.
Q: What was General McChrystal’s response when his top aides were more or less trash-talking the administration? For example, when an aide called Vice President Biden, “bite me” right next to McChrystal, did the general laugh? Was he in on the game?
A: Oh yeah, no, he laughed, certainly. You know, this is their humor and I think the humor reflects something more. I think reflects a disdain for the civilian leadership in a way. And that’s how it comes out. I mean, I think, you know, obviously Vice President Biden is a subject of a number of jokes but I think — a — if you’re a general it’s probably not wise to criticize him too openly and b, not when a reporter who you just met walks into the room and has his notepad out.
Q: Did they know that you were there? Did they notice you scribbling notes, Michael?
A: Oh yeah I had my tape recorder and notepad out most of the time. So it was always sort of unclear to me, you know, what was their motivation of allowing me in and all of this access. I think there’s a number of factors that were involved, but I think an important one is that they had had a number of very flattering profiles done on them over the past year and so they were accustomed to sort of allowing access and having reporters play ball so they could give them more access later. Well, that’s not really a game I’m interested in playing.
Q: Did you have any sense that General McChrystal and his staff were trying to send a message to the White House through you?
A: I thought that because, again, as I was sort of walking through the different rationales of why the staff and he would be telling me the things they told me I think there was obviously some very serious frustration they have about the direction of the policy, especially on the diplomatic side. I think also they have a history (and when I say “they” I mean General McChrystal and the people around him) of what I call sort of throwing hand grenades into the pond. They like to shake things up. They like to shock the system. What better way than to do a profile in Rolling Stone? It’s cool, you’re going to reach a younger audience perhaps, it’s going to be a little edgy and maybe you can even get some sort of policy points out there along the way, or sort of sentiments. Perhaps it was just a miscalculation. It’s really…you’d have to ask them and I’m sure they have an interesting explanation but it should be pointed out their response to the story has been to just apologize, which essentially is not even disputing it.
Q: Michael, the general is in the hot seat, in the White House today. But reading your piece, he did not make the most incendiary remarks. There were some critical remarks from General McChrystal but they were rather measured. Has this piece sort-of unfairly bound him up in the more trash-talky comments of his subordinates?
A: I don’t think so. I mean, I think leadership comes from the top, especially in an organization that General McChrystal runs. I think a lot of the sentiments that his people reflect also reflects his own views. And I’m fairly confident of that. You know, whether or not it’s fair for him to have been tied up in all of this, you know, my goal is to write a story that’s as accurate, truthful about what I see and what I hear and what’s really going on. The sort of consequences of that are out of my control, so I just try to focus on sort of telling people what I think is actually happening, not the sort of normal spin that we seem to get.
Q: Michael, what’s the fundamental conflict here? Is this just a personality conflict, though that could be big in itself. Are you reporting really about a conflict in war strategy, war execution?
A: Well I think there are serious conflicts in terms of what the vision that President Obama has for his Afghan strategy versus what the strategy became. I mean, if you go back to President Obama’s comments in March of 2009, he sets out to sort of narrow the aims of our goal in Afghanistan. And then all of a sudden the general he chooses goes and does the exact opposite and essentially expands our aims exponentially. So we went from the beginning of the Obama administration about 150 Western troops in Afghanistan to now almost 150,000. Which is not a narrowing of aims in any sense of the word.
So I think that is the fundamental conflict, and the fact that policy that Obama tried to launch just got out of his control. He had no control over it.
Q: Michael, you’re still in Kandahar, I was a little surprised after dropping a bombshell like this in Rolling Stone that you would still be in Afghanistan. What’s the reception you’re getting today from troops, from commanders there? You just essentially put the top commander in the hot seat in the White House, maybe his career at-risk. What’s the reaction you’re getting on the ground?
A: Troops have been very positive about, a lot have come up to me and said “hey man, cool story.” A lot agree on the rules of engagement piece of the story. I think I probably just saw a dirty look from others, so not everybody obviously agrees, but yeah, the reaction has been actually overwhelmingly positive. And people think “hey, you know if your relationship with the White House is like that, that needs to get out there.” I think there’s also been surprise among the soldiers that General McChrystal would talk to Rolling Stone and also among the younger soldiers they think it’s sort of cool and they’ve also let me know that. But otherwise, everybody’s been great.
Q: Michael Hastings, the reporter who put the story in Rolling Stone joined us from Kandahar in Afghanistan. Michael, be safe, thanks for joining us.
A: Thanks for having me, appreciate it.