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Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone on the Story that Brought Down Gen. McChrystal and Exposed Widening Disputes Behind the US Debacle in Afghanistan

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In a rare extended interview, we speak to Michael Hastings, whose article in Rolling Stone magazine led to the firing of General Stanley McChrystal. Hastings’ piece quoted McChrystal and his aides making disparaging remarks about top administration officials and exposed longstanding disagreements between civilian and military officials over the conduct of the war. The Senate confirmed General David Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement on Wednesday, one day after McChrystal announced his retirement from the military on Tuesday after a thirty-four-year career. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Senate has confirmed General David Petraeus as the new commander of the Afghanistan war in a unanimous vote of 99 to zero. Petraeus was tapped as Afghan war commander after his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, was fired over disparaging remarks he made about the Obama administration that were published in a Rolling Stone article. In addition to the widely publicized comments McChrystal and his team made about top officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry, the article exposed longstanding disagreements between civilian and military officials over the conduct of the war.

President Obama announced he was stripping McChrystal of his command last week.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe that it is the right decision for our national security. The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: General McChrystal announced his retirement from the military Tuesday, after a thirty-four-year career. He called his comments published in Rolling Stone a mistake reflecting poor judgment. Michael Hastings is the reporter who broke the story in the Rolling Stone. The article is called “The Runaway General.” Michael Hastings joins us now in our studio. He is just back from Afghanistan.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised at the effect of your article, Michael?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Very surprised. When I — I had been reporting this article for a number of months, and I knew I had very strong material, but I did not know what the impact was going to be. I figured it would be — you know, maybe give General McChrystal and his team a headache for a couple days, and then it would be swept under the rug. And I’d lose my access, and we’d go on, and I’d write another story. They would kind of think I’m a jerk, and we’d go on from there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The article, interestingly, I think, most of the coverage was of the few remarks of the General or his staff, but you laid out a pretty convincing argument that General McChrystal had been in conflict with the Obama administration almost from the very beginning.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure, and I think — I wanted to actually write a somewhat sympathetic and different portrait of General McChrystal, and I was surprised at, you know, the sort of comments that people have talked about so much. But, yeah, I mean, the story was about using — it was using General McChrystal as a way to look at the larger problems with our Afghanistan strategy. Obviously, there were tensions with the White House. That was confirmed right after the piece came out by when President Obama decided to fire General McChrystal. Obviously there were problems between General McChrystal and the civilian side of things, and now there’s a lot of rumors about kind of a shake-up on the civilian side of the folks involved in the Afghanistan policy. Obviously there’s problems among the troops, who were not happy with the rules of engagement that General McChrystal has sort of pushed down on them. So, there were very serious issues. There’s problems with the withdrawal timeline. I had a senior military official in Kabul tell me that if things were going well, they’re going to ask for another surge of troops next summer. So these were all issues that — they had been out there.

And, you know, I think the reporters covering the stories are doing a great job — for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times — I mean, they do a great job of — McClatchy — they do a great job of covering this stuff. I think it just happened to be this moment where, in Rolling Stone, we were able to take all these sorts of feelings and sentiments that were out there and just, you know, concentrate it in 8,000 words or 6,000 words, or whatever it was, and that’s why it created such an impact.

AMY GOODMAN: A lot was made, just at the beginning of the article, for example, you going with them to a bar in Paris —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- General McChrystal and the top — the senior staff —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- the images of the senior staff dancing to the words “Afghanistan.” Can you describe that scene, by the way?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure. I had got off the plane in Paris, I believe, on Thursday. That was a Friday night, I believe, if my memory serves. It was General McChrystal’s thirty-third wedding anniversary. And I just happened to have stumbled onto this thing at the right time. And, you know, we went to this bar. It’s around the corner from one of the hotels in Paris. It’s sort of your cheesy Irish pub. And these guys were infantry guys letting loose. And I wasn’t surprised necessarily about that. I spent a lot of time with the military. My younger brother is a decorated combat veteran and was a platoon leader in Iraq. You know, so I have been around military guys when they, you know, tie one on, so to speak. I had never seen folks at this high level do so. And I was sympathetic to them in the fact that, you know, they have very difficult jobs. And the past nine years, they have been living and fighting these wars. The wars are their reason of existence, in many ways. So, yeah, there was, you know, songs, a lot of booze. There was only two quotes that I used from that night. You know, some people have said, oh, you know, all these quotes I have were from a boozy dinner — no, that’s not actually true. Most of the quotes — there’s only two quotes that were taken while these guys were drunk. The “Afghanistan, Afghanistan” song, which, if you count as a quote —-

AMY GOODMAN: So they’re dancing and singing.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Dancing and singing and, you know, giving toasts and fairly typical sort of Band of Brothers sort of atmosphere. I mean, these guys are very tight knit. I mean, to General McChrystal, those men on his team are his family. You know, these guys, they would do anything. They would die for each other. And that’s what General McChrystal told me. And that’s actually the only quote I used from that night, besides the Afghanistan song. So, in many ways, it was a very powerful moment just to see the people who are really shaping the policy of this war in a setting that we’d never -— at least I had never seen them in such a setting before.

AMY GOODMAN: Some in the mainstream media have said you violated the so-called ground rules in writing your article. So, let me play a clip from Lara Logan, the chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News. She’s interviewed by Howard Kurtz on CNN.

    HOWARD KURTZ: If you had been travelling with General McChrystal and heard these comments about Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Jim Jones, Richard Holbrooke, would you have reported them?

    LARA LOGAN: Well, it really depends on the circumstances. It’s hard to know here. Michael Hastings, if you believe him, says that there were no ground rules laid out. And, I mean, that just doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me, because if you look at the people around General McChrystal, if you look at his history, he was the Joint Special Operations commander. He has a history of not interacting with the media at all. And his chief of intelligence, Mike Flynn, is the same. I mean, I know these people. They never let their guard down like that. To me, something doesn’t add up here. I just — I don’t believe it.

    HOWARD KURTZ: Washington Post quoted an unnamed senior military official as saying that Michael Hastings broke the off-the-record ground rules. But the person who said this was on background and wouldn’t allow his name to be used. Is that fair?

    LARA LOGAN: Well, it’s Kryptonite right now. I mean, do you blame him? The commanding general in Afghanistan just lost his job. Who else is going to lose his job? Believe me, all the senior leadership in Afghanistan are waiting for the ax to fall. I’ve been speaking to some of them. They don’t know who’s going to stay and who’s going to go. I mean, just the question is, really, is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious that they deserved to — I mean, to end a career like McChrystal’s? I mean, Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.

AMY GOODMAN: Lara Logan. Michael Hastings, your response?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Look, Lara Logan has done fine —-

AMY GOODMAN: She’s chief correspondent for CBS News.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure, and she’s done fine work. I think it’s unfortunate that she’s decided to go down this road. I know she’s been the victim of a lot of journalistic backbiting in her career, and I thought it was unfortunate that she decided to go down this path with me. I have been upfront about this from the beginning. Everything I used was on the record. I mean, and that’s clear. I mean -—

AMY GOODMAN: Was there a lot you used not on — that you did not use, because it was off the record?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: There was a lot of on-the-record material that I didn’t use, that I could have used. So I think, you know, this sort of pushback from anonymous military officials — look, it took them six days to get their story straight, and they’re still lying. I think that’s unfortunate, obviously. Look, the anonymous officials are guys who just lost their job, and the guy they love, General McChrystal, got fired. I totally understand why they’re angry. But, you know, I’ve been in this business now for almost ten years. I’ve done a lot of stories. I have a pretty good track record. I’ve been covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2005. And, you know, so I followed all the rules here, as they were laid out to me, or, in some cases, not laid out.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to get back to some of the substance of the article, beginning with the title itself, “The Runaway General,” because I think, to some degree, that does summarize a main theme of the article, that there were constant problems, not only in terms of the relationships with the White House, but there were also questions of General McChrystal’s role in the Pat Tillman — in the infamous Pat Tillman case, the NFL star who was killed by friendly fire. You mention that.


JUAN GONZALEZ: There were questions about to what degree he knew about torture or abuses at a particular camp in Iraq. Could you talk about the continuing problems that McChrystal had had over many years?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure, well, I think the key — the story here, really, and what sort of got everyone’s attention, is this, the relationship between General McChrystal and the Obama White House. And I think what had happened when President Obama put General McChrystal in, he lost control of his Afghanistan policy. Obama had said that he wanted to narrow the goals, the US goals in Afghanistan, very explicitly, where McChrystal’s strategy was, in fact, exponentially widening our goals. So I think that, to me, was one of the key sort of factors and key tensions in the piece.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And McChrystal played a key role in trying to press for more troops —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- for the second escalation that Obama did, right?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Yeah, exactly. And I know the White House was upset that — you know, look, Obama had already agreed last year — this is all sort of old news now — but agreed last year to send 21,000 more troops. Then, all of a sudden, McChrystal goes over there, says, “Oh, wait, we’re losing. We need x number of more.” And I know people in the White House believe that that had undercut Obama’s sort of authority and the strategic impact of the 21,000 they were already sending over.

AMY GOODMAN: That he leaked a report from the Pentagon saying they want 40,000 troops.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Right, well, we know the report — we know the report was leaked. We don’t know who leaked it. But I do know from my reporting that General McChrystal’s staff, after initially like a thirty-minute period where they were sort of unhappy by the leak, that they sort of embraced it. And so, this was not an isolated incident. Like, Rolling Stone did not fire General McChrystal. The White House fired General McChrystal. And it was this moment where President Obama — this last week, was a moment where President Obama was reasserting his control over the Afghanistan policy, or trying to reassert his control over the Afghanistan policy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this very important discussion of what were the key issues raised in the Rolling Stone piece, “The Runaway General,” that led to the firing of General McChrystal. This is Democracy Now! We’re joined by the reporter who did this story — he’s just back from Afghanistan — Michael Hastings. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: In a rare extended interview, we’re joined by Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter who wrote that piece, “The Runaway General,” that led to the firing of General Stanley McChrystal. Now General Petraeus has been unanimously confirmed to replace him as the head of the Afghan war.

Continuing on the question that Juan asked you, the key points in your piece and this division between the military, which you point out has a how many hundred billion-dollar budget in Afghanistan, an overall $600 billion, $500 billion?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Right. The joke is that you could fit every Foreign Service officer on one aircraft carrier. There are more people in the Army band than there are in the entire Foreign Service. That’s the State Department.

AMY GOODMAN: So, $50 billion budget for the State Department.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: $50 billion, $600 billion-plus.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the power that this general, whether it’s Petraeus or McChrystal, has versus the civilians who are supposed to be in charge in this country.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure. There’s the structural problem, in terms of just like the basic weight that the DOD has, so much so that even Secretary Gates has said like, “Look, DOD has too much power. We need to give more power to the State Department.” And if you go back and read, you know, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, you know, the State Department was where the action was at, you know, in the '50s and ’60s. And that sort of shifted to — I forget who I'm quoting here, but someone said, you know, our defense policy is our foreign policy. So I think those are very serious sort of structural issues. Plus, in Afghanistan, you have the sort of supreme allied commander — that’s not the official title — which Petraeus is now, and then on the diplomatic side you have a number of, like, very — you know, often, in some cases, talented diplomats, you know, sort of fighting over who is the strongest diplomatic voice. You know, four or five people. And I think there’s now a sense that that has to be clarified. And I think that, you know, if there’s a positive impact to the article, at least if they’re going to do this crazy strategy, at least they might try to get it right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I wanted to ask you, in all of the references, the disparaging references, to Obama administration officials, you noted that there was one official that they were laudatory of, Hillary Clinton —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- and that for some reason, the McChrystal camp considered her a friend. Could you talk about that?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure, sure. I mean, Secretary Clinton has been — has had a very good relationship with Secretary Gates. Gates is a big McChrystal backer. I think Clinton’s run-in with Petraeus in '07 made her a little hesitant to appear in any way sort of anti-military, sort of anti-general. But also her policies have been pretty center-right. And so, you konw, when the debate was going down, she disagreed with her ambassador, Eikenberry — she disagreed with Eikenberry and basically said, you know, “Give Stan what he wants.” I think that's to build up her own defense credentials, but I think it’s also what she — I think that’s what she believes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about Eikenberry, because this is a very significant split between McChrystal and the ambassador, also a general —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- a former retired general, Ambassador Eikenberry, and the cables that he sent that Dan Ellsberg has called the new Pentagon Papers, that he sent to Hillary Clinton, but were leaked.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Right. Well, I think this is the most fascinating development. And the guy whose job is sort of most in the balance right now is Ambassador Eikenberry, because it wasn’t just General — it wasn’t — it’s known as General McChrystal’s strategy, but guess who was also writing that strategy? General Petraeus. So, yeah, I mean, it was a devastating critique. It was devastating. And if you go back — I recommend anyone to go back and read those cables to see probably what was the most prescient and scathing critique of the strategy we’re pursuing. And the leak angered McChrystal’s team beyond belief.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what he said.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, I mean, General McChrystal said that he felt betrayed and that this was a cable that was leaked to cover their flanks for the history books.

AMY GOODMAN: And what Eikenberry wrote?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: And what Eikenberry wrote? Eikenberry wrote the strategy wasn’t going to work, basically. I mean — and that Karzai would play the General off the Ambassador, that we’d get stuck in this sort of — he didn’t use the word “quagmire,” I don’t think, but essentially we’d get stuck going further and further and further into a mess.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, in the days before the firing of General McChrystal, you had President Karzai come out and back — and essentially back the General and urge — not directly, but tell President Obama that he thought that General McChrystal was doing a good job.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Right, and I think New York Times columnist, the great Frank Rich, said, you know, having Hamid Karzai and his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, as your character witnesses was like having Rod Blagojevich as your — you know, to come to your defense. So I think that was very telling.

AMY GOODMAN: Your description of McChrystal with Karzai at Walter Reed Hospital?


AMY GOODMAN: And then General McChrystal trying to wake up President Karzai for the largest offensive in a year.


AMY GOODMAN: That was Marjah. Explain both situations.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: I mean, devastating. Yeah, the day of the Marjah operation, General McChrystal wanted to get President Karzai’s sign-off. Essentially, you know, the idea behind counterinsurgency is that you need a credible partner in government. Karzai is not a credible partner. So what do you do? You make him a credible partner. It’s what we did with Primer Minister Maliki in Iraq. You will him by your support, so he eventually becomes a credible partner, and he becomes what they call, you know, a commander-in-chief. So Karzai starts acting like the president. Now, that’s — now, we see that from our perspective, where Karzai is dealing with a number of other political sort of dynamics, where he does not necessarily want to be responsible for Afghan civilians being killed. He does not necessarily want to be responsible. He wants sort of plausible deniability on a lot of these military operations.

So, yeah, the day before this — the day of this big offensive, General McChrystal wanted to get in touch with President Karzai, you know, calls over to his office. He won’t — they won’t let him through. He’s taking a nap. He has a cold. Delay, delay, delay, delay. And this is a huge operation about to launch. So, finally, General McChrystal had to drive over with the Afghan defense minister and basically wake him up and say, “Look, you know, this is your country. This is your — you know, this is your country. Why don’t you take charge of it?” I mean, really incredible.

And then, the Walter Reed scene was just sort of devastating, to have President Karzai in Walter Reed meeting American soldiers and saying, like, “Wow! I didn’t even know we were fighting in that province.” I mean, what does that say? And McChrystal’s people were very aware of Karzai’s limitations, but they felt he was the only game in town.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I had mentioned earlier you also write about General McChrystal in the case of Pat Tillman. He’s the former NFL star who joined the military after 9/11 and was killed while serving in Afghanistan. The military initially said he died while charging up a hill toward the enemy to protect his fellow Army Rangers, but in fact Tillman was killed by his own men in so-called friendly fire. McChrystal was at the center of the military cover-up. This is what Pat Tillman’s mother, Mary, had to say about McChrystal when we spoke with her two years ago. I asked her about a memo that McChrystal wrote regarding her son.

    MARY TILLMAN: This memo was a means of exonerating Stanley McChrystal for having any kind of, you know, culpability in any kind of cover-up, because on April 29th, he sent this P4 memo — it’s a personal memo — to General Abizaid, General Kensinger and General Brown, indicating that Pat was indeed killed by friendly fire, or at least suspected friendly fire, although he’s playing with language there, because they did know that — they suspected it within twenty-four hours, but by April 29th, they knew. But he’s saying that they should tell the President and the Secretary of the Army, because they were going to be making speeches at the correspondents’ dinner that weekend and that they didn’t want him or the Secretary of the Army to make any embarrassing statements about Pat’s actions, if the circumstances of Pat’s death were to become public — not when the circumstances become public, but if, which suggests that they had no intention of telling us the truth unless they had to.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mary Tillman, the mother of Pat Tillman. McChrystal’s role in that, and also in Iraq, when he was in charge of black ops for the five years before he became head of the Afghan war, the issue of torture?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, I think, on the Tillman issue, in fact, an officer called me yesterday, and we were chatting, and he said, you know — he had sort of — what he had heard was that — or there’s this idea that was like, you know, Tillman should have disqualified him for this job. You know, it should have disqualified him for the job. And the fact that it didn’t showed poor judgment along the way. But he was such an impressive character that they gave him a pass on this, and that really should have — basically, that should have ended his career. The torture — you know, the torture allegation, this kind of stuff, you know, he was in a business of killing. I mean, that’s what they do. I mean, he’s a warrior. He’s a killer. He’s hunting people down and hunting America’s enemies down, in many cases, real bad guys.

AMY GOODMAN: But this is prisoners who are being held at a camp in Iraq —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- who Human Rights Watch reported — put out, were being tortured, in the scene of McChrystal being there.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Yeah, and I think — and he did not get dragged into that, either. He sort of skated that, as well. And from my conversations with people on his staff, I think — I don’t think McChrystal was a fan of these sort of enhanced interrogations.

AMY GOODMAN: He didn’t want to be in charge of it in Afghanistan because of, well, how close he came to getting in trouble in Iraq for this.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Exactly. He thought it was a — he viewed, you know, detention policies as a a political swamp. So I don’t think — you know, I think it’s tough. You know, what is General McChrystal’s sort of morality? I mean, he gets the job done. He’s willing to bend the rules to do that. I don’t think, though, he would have tolerated things going too far. But, you know, we know people were punished, and we know he wasn’t punished, so…

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ultimately, though, isn’t the fact that the counterinsurgency strategy is not going well in Afghanistan probably also had an impact on the final decision of the President, that if things were going well, the possibility of him even overlooking some of these remarks might have been there?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Oh, sure. I think that’s absolutely correct. If he had not just called Marjah a “bleeding ulcer,” you know, a couple weeks earlier, he’d probably still have a job. And yeah, I mean, success gets you a lot of support in Washington. And part of the trick with counterinsurgency is that you need to communicate. It’s a battle of perceptions, both in Afghanistan and America, and you need to have sort of a great communicator to tell the story about why you’re having success, to sort of create this narrative of success or this narrative of, like, how we will reach success. And I think that, when all is said and done, General McChrystal’s great failure, in fact, was this inability to communicate his strategy and what they perceived as having success. If you want to communicate a strategy of success, I would avoid using words like “bleeding” and “ulcer.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And avoid interviews with Rolling Stone.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: I welcome all interviews with Rolling Stone magazine, and I’m sure people will talk to me in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: I know that you have to race out of here, because you have an interview scheduled with General Petraeus later this morning, but I did just want to talk for just one moment, before we wrap up and go to Congressman Conyers, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee — I wanted to just ask you — you’ve been reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan for five years now.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re quite experienced in war reporting. You’ve been embedded. You’ve not been embedded. Your fiancée was killed in Iraq.


AMY GOODMAN: And you’ve set up a fund for her.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s called the Andi Foundation. It’s a fund that helps — there’s domestic sort of scholarships we give out, but we’ve also, along with the National Democratic Institute, have an annual fellowship where we bring a young woman from a developing nation over to Washington, DC, to learn about human rights and democracy, and so then they can go back to their own home countries and try to institute these rule-of-law programs. We brought over one woman last year from Iraq. It was really incredible. She was even able to spend Christmas with the Parhamovich family. And this year we have another candidate who came over from, I believe, Burma. So, you know, the war has been pretty tough on a lot of people. But you’ve got to just figure out a way to sort of take what happens and go forward and try to do the best you can.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, quick question on counterinsurgency. You say it’s not working, but they’re bringing in Petraeus, who is keeping the same strategy going. Obama was very clear about this: we’re changing the personnel, not the policy.


AMY GOODMAN: Yet, right now, the end of June, more than a hundred foreign troops dead in Afghanistan, vying with the top deaths in Iraq. We don’t know how many Afghans are dead.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: No, and I think we’re fighting to — I mean, again, Petraeus’s genius in Iraq was sort of engineering this sort of face-saving withdrawal, despite the fact that — I think Baghdad, actually is still more violent than Kabul. I mean, but yet we consider — you know, people on the Beltway have convinced themselves we won in Iraq. Yeah, no, what are we fighting? We’re going to have, you know, two, three more years of bloody fighting, and then we’re going to draw down to maybe 50,000 troops, and we’re going to end up doing sort of counterterrorism-plus, which is what Vice President Biden had been advocating all along. It’s just going to take us three years to get there.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hastings, we want to thank you for being with us, Rolling Stone reporter who wrote the piece “The Runaway General” that led to the firing of General McChrystal.

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