A forthcoming piece in Rolling Stone magazine has sent shock waves around the world this morning as General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S.'s top commander in Afghanistan, has been summoned to Washington to answer for quotes he gave to journalist Michael Hastings. In the article, McChrystal is quoted as disparaging Obama administration officials, mocking Vice President Biden, and denouncing retired General Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
In Hastings' profile, as reported by the AFP, McChrystal asks, "Who's that?" at the mention of Biden's name. Another adviser jests, "Biden? Did you say bite me?"
However, McChrystal reserves his most scathing criticism for Eikenberry, saying he felt "betrayed" by a leaked diplomatic cable written by the ambassador in which he questioned McChrystal's strategy of bringing more troops to Afghanistan. McChrystal accuses Eikenberry of trying to insulate himself from history's scornful eye. "Here's one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, 'I told you so,'" McChrystal told Hastings.
McChrystal issued an apology from Afghanistan, saying, "It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never happened." Adm. Mike Mullen has told McChrystal about his "deep disappointment" over the profile, according to a spokesman.
Michael Hastings joins The Takeaway to talk about his article that's making the headlines this morning. He says that his article is proof that "President Obama has lost control of the Afghan war policy."
CORRECTION: an earlier version of this segment said that Gen. McChrystal referred to the White House as "wimps." The word in fact appears unattributed in Rolling Stone's sub-headline for the published piece. -Eds
Celeste Headlee: You called your article “Runaway General,” why is that?
Michael Hastings: Well, I don't write the headlines for rolling stone magazine. I think what can be clear is that President Obama has lost control of the afghan war policy and I believe he lost control of it almost a year ago and the story that we put out in Rolling Stone, demonstrates that, I think, in telling detail.
CH: Tell me some of these comments that have reportedly incensed the white house? What were the comments McChrystal made?
MH: I can't speak to what has incensed the White House, as I've been in Kandahar all day today, but what I assume has annoyed the white house is that the comments that were made to me by members of Gen. McChrystal’s staff were very unflattering toward a number of civilian players within the administration’s policy-making machine.
CH: Can you give any examples of the unflattering language he described?
MH: Sure. I mean, there was a moment I was with Gen. McChrystal when he checked his blackberry and he said "oh no, not another email from Holbrooke" meaning Richard Holbrooke, who is the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and then he said "I don't even want to read it." Now, that might not seem like that big of a deal, but in fact when the commanding general is saying that in front of a reporter about another major player within the Obama administration, I think that's a very telling sign about how he feels toward the civilian counterparts and also about how well the cooperation they claim is really working, is actually not working.
John Hockenberry: Well, Michael Hastings, outside of the atmospherics, you said right at the top of this interview that President Obama a year ago, lost control of the afghan policy and presumably matters on the battlefield. What exactly do you mean by that, and how do you see that on the field?
MH: I mean, specifically, that when Obama came into the white house, he had a talking point that he said on his campaign, that he wanted to fulfill, which is to focus the war in Afghanistan. He did that by firing General David McKiernan and hiring General Stanley McChrystal. He also decided to send 21,000 troops thinking that would have been enough. Now anyone who spent anytime who's spent anytime with the military in Afghanistan knows that the military has been asking for months and months and months for over 100,000 troops. So I believe he did not know what he was getting into when he announced the hiring of McChrystal and then also the sending of 21,000 troops because immediately months later, he was asked to send 40,000 more, bringing the number of US and NATO troops here to 140,000. and that obviously was shocking to president Obama because last year it took his, you know, there was that 3-month review period. I think what's telling is that if you look at president Obama’s public statements he said explicitly, “we are there in Afghanistan, we’re trying to narrow our aim, to disrupt al-Qaida.” He basically said we’re not there to nation build, a year later we’re there nation building. The sort of narrow aims that he had set out to fulfill have not actually been fulfilled by the general he put in charge.
CH: It appears that the debate over how many troops should go into Afghanistan caused a lot of friction between Stanley McChrystal and his staff and the White House. It appears he had comments to make about Karl Eikenberry and about Obama’s special envoy to the region, Holbrooke. An aide to the general is quoted as saying, the boss says Holbrooke is like a wounded animal, Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors he’s going to be fired so that makes him dangerous. Did you sense that this animosity has continued since the decision to send more troops?
MH: That’s when it all started, the decision to send more troops was made last December, essentially, but yeah obviously, the whole point of the strategy is to have both a military and diplomatic track. When your top military leader, Gen. McChrystal is clearly not getting along with your ambassador or with your special representative or with your national security advisor, you know, obviously you’re never going to get on the same page. It’s very clear. The whole strategy is based on having a military and diplomats work together and that’s obviously not happening.
CH: Let me read Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s apology. He says, and I quote, “I extend my sincerest apology for the profile it was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.” What duration of time passed while you were preparing this profile?
MH: I spent between April 15th and May 15th with them pretty regularly. There was about a month between when the profile was finished and when it came out, which is totally normal for magazines, and I was also in contact with his people during that time as well.
JH: But he’s saying here in this apology, that it was a mistake to give you access, it was a mistake to have done the article, but he’s not denying that any of the tension you describe is real.
MH: I think it’s undeniable they can’t’ deny that it’s happened. In the past, the general has given pretty good access to a number of journalists and I believe those journalists were interested in painting a flattering profile of the general, which assures you more access in the future. I understand that, but it’s not something I’m interested in doing.
CH: You’re obviously not interested in access in the future; I can’t imagine you’re going to get it. What would you think is the most telling message coming out of your profile?
MH: I would hope -- it’s so hard to get people to focus on Afghanistan and what we’re doing here and the fighting that’s going on everyday. But to me, I’d hope the message would be, look there’s serious problems with our policy and the president can try to paper over the differences and the general can try to paper over the differences and the ambassadors can also try to do that, but that’s just not true. You dig a little beneath the surface and there are serious tensions here which put the entire mission at risk.
CH: And did the general at any time address whether or not he felt that the strategy in Afghanistan was working?
MH: Yes, for sure. You ask him and he says, well it’s very tough and we’re trying to make progress and these kinds of things, but this is what they’ve been saying in Afghanistan for ten years.
JH: I’m less interested in maybe some at Rolling Stone with selling magazines and what as you say; this is at odds with some other profiles and other reporting in Afghanistan that’s come out. Have you been able to confirm with other NATO commanders, their sense of the instability or fragility or even the waywardness of this Afghan mission that’s been going on.
MH: You don’t need to confirm it with the commander, you just need to look at what NATO countries are leaving. The Dutch are leaving, the Canadians are leaving, I talked to some Belgian soldiers the other day who said their mission here, their commander was unsteady. So I think it’s fairly clear that this Afghanistan mission does not have support in Europe, so I think that’s fairly clear.
JH: Would you describe this as a quagmire that the military is trying to get out of? Would you say that the nation building mission is undoable in the view of the commanders that you spoke with or that the Taliban can’t be defeated?
MH: Well, the entire strategy is based on getting into a position of strength so that we can then go negotiate with the Taliban, that’s what we’re doing. Our strategy is to eventually negotiate with the Taliban, the question is, is it worthwhile to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives to try to accomplish something that is not our actual goal, because we’re actually there to allegedly try to defeat al-Qaida.
JH: Okay, let’s put you at the White House briefing today. What is the one question you would ask President Obama and the White House based on your reporting and the apology that’s now come out.
MH: I would just say. You know, I was actually at a White House briefing last month for this story and I’ll tell you what disturbed me the most in that briefing and what gave me a sense of déjà vu was a comment that President Obama made about how he flew over Kabul and he saw the lights shining and therefore he knew there was progress in the city. There was another administration, the Bush administration that made those same kinds of comments. Donald Rumsfeld would make comments similar to what President Obama made in 2006 in Iraq when it was at the height of its sectarian violence. It’s not important what I would ask, it’s important what the president is going to say.
JH: Well I guess the question there, is are they going to negotiate with the Taliban, are they losing the war in Afghanistan? Before we go, do the generals think that this war is being lost?
MH: Here’s the question to ask. What do you mean when you say that we’re withdrawing in July 2011, that’s the question to ask. Because that’s very unclear and the military doesn’t think we’re withdrawing in July 2011, but the white house keeps saying ‘no we are’ That to me is the key question. How much do domestic political considerations play into your decision to withdraw troops.