Friday, June 25, 2010

Interesting Interview With Michael Hastings, Writer Of The McChrystal Piece

It's been some week for you. Were you surprised to see the impact your story would have? Did you anticipate that kind of reaction?

Yeah, it seems to have gotten some attention. No, I didn't expect it. It's unusual for Afghanistan to get any attention. What I thought was that it will probably cause a headache for [General] McChrystal for a couple of days but that it would only be watched by those who follow Afghanistan closely.

Where were you when you first started to hear about the story's ripple effects?

I was in Kandahar. It was Monday and I'd been on an embed all day. I was sun-burned as hell. I was on the Kandahar air base, interviewing pilots, who were basically fighting every day IN THEIR helicopters. I went to bed, plugged my phone in to charge and all of a sudden I got this text message saying the AP picked up the story. I thought that was interesting.

I went out the next day with these helicopter pilots and while that was happening, by the end of that day - Tuesday - [the story] appeared to take on some momentum. I spent a lot of time on the phone. Later that night, I went out on a helicopter mission. At 3 a.m., I had to go out and meet these helicopter guys again. That morning, it was a mission where I followed these helicopters called Kiowa Warriors -- and they get called down for this gun battle between insurgents and Americans. The fighting was intense, two insurgents were killed... Then we went back to base. I had no Internet. I knew that I was getting a lot of phone calls, I was running out of batteries and had horrible reception.

McChrystal had issued his apology earlier in the day and then I learned he had been called back to Washington. It was understood that it was due to my reporting in the story, and I figured it would be good to get back to Kabul because of the fact that it looked like Gen McChrystal would resign. On Wednesday evening, I went back to Kabul... Sometimes, it's hard to get flights out of military bases, but it was pretty easy this time. They were like, "This ride's for you, man!" I was late to the flight but they got me on the flight anyway. And there were soldiers reading the story around me, reading printouts, and they didn't know who I was. That was a strange experience...

Some of the soldiers must have made the connection, hearing your name and knowing that it was you?

It was funny -- one of the soldiers I was talking to said, 'Hey, did you hear this story about McChrystal. And I said, 'Yeah, I have. I wrote it. He just said, 'That's fucking crazy, man."...

What story are you working on now - the Kandahar offensive?

That's the story I've been working on.

How is that offensive going?

I think it's in trouble, in serious trouble. The fighting is really, really heavy and they've postponed the heaviest fighting till the fall. But it's going to be nasty. This June has been the deadliest month of the war. You have this problem where we told our Afghan partners, if you don't want it , then we don't have to do it, and they said no and we said, well, we're doing it anyway. Now we're in situation where we are eventually going to do it and we don't have the popular support of the locals.

What was your reaction to McChrystal's resignation? And Obama accepting it? Were you surprised?

I was very surprised. I thought Gen. McChrystal was unfireable, that his position was secure. What is telling is that our story demonstrates this tense relationship between Pres. Obama and Gen. McChrystal and the way the WH responded confirms this. They could have swept it under the rug but they drove it... obviously McChrystal's political opponents took advantage of this opportunity to relieve him of his command, though that's just my speculation.

I didn't think Obama would do it. Essentially the story calls him out for being weak and not having control of his Afghan policy. If he had let him stay, it would have confirmed this idea in the story. He had to prove that he was in control. I wasn't sure that he was willing to do that. I was shocked that he was -- not because I don't think Obama is courageous, but because it involved some political drama... It was so fast, both right and left seemed to get together to call for his resignation. There was no one defending McChrystal.

Do you think it was the right decision?

Obviously, I have significant doubts about the [military] campaign anyway. The most important decision is not whether I think Obama made the right decision but whether his firing will satisfy the soldiers. Over here, soldiers were happy that he got fired. I've had a number of people come up to me, I got an email from Marine this morning [Thursday]: 'Hey man, you did great work. All the guys in my company think it's good McChrystal is not there because he was putting our lives at risk...

Petraeus is sort of a genius. He managed to turn what could have been catastrophic defeat in Iraq into a face-saving withdrawal. That's his mission in Afghanistan, to make it look like we didn't get run out. {emphasis mine - RM) He's a master at playing the game... the soldiers look up to him and respect him.

Will Petraeus continue this counterinsurgency offensive?

Yes. And Petraeus has the ability to communicate this strategy in a way that is more effective... I have a scene in the story [in which McChrystal goes to meet some soldiers in a unit who were angry with the general for putting them in harm's way by limited their range of responses, which led to the killing of one of their own]. The reason those guys are so angry [with McChrystal] is that Corporal Michael Ingram was killed because they weren't allowed to tear down this house [an abandoned home long considered a security risk in the area they were patrolling]. It was a total failure to communicate his vision.

The trash talking has gotten a lot of attention but the more damaging part [of the story] for McChrystal was how the soldiers would be portrayed. He pulled me aside after the meeting [at which McChrystal went to meet with Ingram's unit to hear their concerns and to explain his strategy] and said that for them the wound is still raw. They [McChrystal's staff] were under the impression that I would make the soldiers look like they did not understand counterinsurgency but what was clear to me instead is that McChrystal's command had an issue. They thought he won them over but he didn't. He knew they were angry and upset. I had a quote from a soldier saying, 'We don't even want McChrystal to come here' which I didn't include in the story.

Read the rest here. As my regular readers know, I agree with most of what Hastings has to say here.

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