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“The Operators”: Michael Hastings on the Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan

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We speak with reporter Michael Hastings about the “disastrous past year” in Afghanistan and the mentality a decade of war has bred there. The U.S. has “funneled billions of dollars in weapons and training into a chaotic place like Afghanistan, training these young guys to kill people, and then are shocked when they see the results,” Hastings says of the outcry that followed last week’s appearance of a video showing four uniformed U.S. marines urinating on the corpses of three Afghan men, which has been widely condemned by officials in the United States and in Afghanistan. His new book, “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” originated with his 2010 Rolling Stone article, “The Runaway General,” about Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of the war in Afghanistan, and his inner circle. McChrystal was fired after the article was published. [includes rush transcript]

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Afghanistan, where the Taliban have declared victory even as nearly 130,000 coalition troops are still fighting in the country. The statement by the Taliban, posted on their website, is called “Formal Proclamation of Islamic Emirate’s Victory.” It claims that because the U.S. is pressing to open talks, the Taliban are winning.

Meanwhile, the appearance last week of a video showing four uniformed U.S. marines urinating on the corpses of three Afghan men has been widely condemned by officials in the U.S. and in Afghanistan. After the video appeared, local Afghan residents warned it could derail the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban.

AFGHAN RESIDENT: [translated] We condemn this action by U.S. soldiers who have urinated on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters. It will harm the peace talks. It seems the U.S. never want peace talks to happen in Afghanistan, and this action will increase misery in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: As a preliminary step, the Taliban are setting up an office in the Gulf state of Qatar to facilitate peace talks with Washington over the future of Afghanistan. The Obama administration is apparently considering the transfer of five senior Taliban leaders now imprisoned at Guantánamo.

To talk more about the situation in Afghanistan, we go to Washington, D.C., to Michael Hastings. He has just written a new book. It’s called The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. It originated from Hastings’ 2010 Rolling Stone article, “The Runaway General,” about General Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of the war in Afghanistan, and his inner circle. McChrystal was fired after the article was published, over disparaging remarks he made in the piece about the Obama administration. Michael Hastings’ new book provides an inside look at the workings of the U.S. military in Afghanistan over this last decade.

Michael, welcome to Democracy Now! These latest developments—the Taliban declaring victory, the video that has emerged of the U.S. Marine snipers urinating on Afghan corpses—can you talk about the significance of all of this?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, on the Taliban declaring victory, I mean, that’s a propaganda move. You know, the Taliban has a pretty effective PR apparatus, as well, and so we’ll see more of that. I mean, the reality is, despite what I think has been a very disastrous past year for America in Afghanistan, they have actually done severe amount of damage to a lot of the Taliban networks.

As for the Marine video, I mean, this is really—you know, in the book that I just put out, one of the things I really try to get at is the kind of mentality that this 10 years of war has bred. You know, how do we get to a situation where we have American—young American men not only killing these fighters, but then urinating on them, and then thinking it’s a good idea to videotape that? It’s a certain kind of insanity.

On the flip side of that, I find it pretty hard to stomach when top American officials are coming out and saying how outraged they are that this would occur in war. I mean, this is a really nasty business, and the policy makers know that. And they have, you know, funneled billions of dollars in weapons and training into a chaotic place like Afghanistan, with young—you know, giving—training these young guys to kill people, and then are shocked when they see the results. I mean, it’s really outrageous. The infantryman, the rifleman is trained to break one of the biggest taboos in society, right? They’re trained to kill. So, it’s not that far of a line to break another taboo, in this case, urinating on the Taliban.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael Hastings, you also talked in your book about the impressions or the perspectives that American soldiers have of the Afghans. Can you say a little about that?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Yeah, it’s this incredible report that originally the Wall Street Journal had broken, and it didn’t get too much attention. But essentially, there was a report done by the U.S. military and NATO in Afghanistan that showed how American soldiers viewed Afghan soldiers and how Afghan soldiers viewed American soldiers. And what you saw was this extreme, extreme level of distrust, a complete misunderstanding, you know, between cultures. And the reason that report was even done was because there were so many incidents of Afghans, our Afghan allies, killing Americans. They called it “fratricide.”

So, you know, it’s really hard to kind of get the full impact of it. I mean, I have page after page. I sort of did it just to sort of really, really hit it home, you know, people complaining about how—Americans complaining about how the Afghans smell, Afghans complaining that the Americans are, you know, doing disgusting things in front of their women. You know, but it’s one of the things—you know, Americans complain that the Afghans are cowards, and the Afghans complain that the Americans are cowards. So there’s this complete lack of understanding between two sides. And why that’s important is that our entire strategy that they’ve been pushing—by “they” I mean the Pentagon and the generals over there—is based on this idea that each American soldier is going to become this kind of sociologist, diplomat, anthropologist, killer.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has criticized President Obama for seeking to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He spoke Monday night during the South Carolina Republican debate.

MITT ROMNEY: The right course for America is not to negotiate with the Taliban while the Taliban are killing our soldiers. The right course is to recognize they are the enemy of the United States. It’s the Vice President who said they’re not the enemy of the United States. The Vice President is wrong. They are the enemy. They’re killing American soldiers. We don’t negotiate from a position of weakness as we’re pulling our troops out. The right course for us is to strengthen the Afghan military force so they can reject the Taliban.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael, your comments on Mitt Romney?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, the beauty of Governor Romney is that he might say the exact opposite thing tomorrow, so I don’t know what we can really—if we can really take him at his—no, in fact, I know we can’t take him at his word.

But I would like to point out a couple of things about that statement. First, even the top military leaders—and our entire strategy we’re pursuing there is one based on an eventual political negotiation with the Taliban. I mean, that’s the fact of the matter. We are going to negotiate with the Taliban. That’s the strategy. Not only that, I think when we’re talking about, you know, opening diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban, you know, Vice President Biden is right. You know, the Taliban aren’t the ones who are—threaten the U.S. homeland. So I think, you know, Governor Romney’s sort of rhetoric is definitely just to get some sort of political advantage and has no real basis in reality.

Oh, and the last point I’d like to make about his point about negotiating from a position of strength—that was the plan, right? We were going to escalate in Afghanistan so we could become in a position of strength to negotiate. And it failed. You know, I mean, we could stay there for two more years at 150,000 troops and kill a bunch more people, but eventually we’re going to have to negotiate. And, you know, what’s really—are we going to be that much stronger two years from now? I don’t know. I think it’s very dubious and clearly just for political advantage from the formerly pro-choice Governor Romney.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael, you said that Vice President Biden said that the Taliban didn’t in fact threaten the U.S., but in your book, don’t you talk about how it seems as though the Taliban became more the focus of the U.S. military campaign than al-Qaeda?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Yeah, and that’s the great—you know, if WMDs were the big lie of the Iraq War, the safe haven myth is the big lie of the Afghan war. And what I mean by that—and this was true in Iraq, as well—but 99 percent of the people, maybe even higher, honestly, the people we’re fighting, whether it was Sunni insurgents in Iraq or Shiite militias in Iraq or in Afghanistan, the Taliban never actually posed a threat to the United States homeland. So the question one has to ask oneself is that if everything we’re doing and everyone we’re fighting is not actually a threat to the United States—certainly not a direct threat, by any means, by any means—then why are we expending so many resources, $120 billion a year, you know, with all the lives lost, to do it? And that’s—and again, this is the big lie of counterinsurgency, which I know we’ve discussed on your show. To justify this tremendous outlay of resources, they have to say, “Oh, no, we’re killing terrorists.” But everybody knows that that’s not true.

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