Friday, 18 October 2013

Reading “The Operators” by Michael Hastings (Plume/Phoenix)

Hastings-OperatorsI finally got around to reading Michael Hastings’s gripping, sensational and provocative The Operators, his book on the United States’ troubled, continuing adventures in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon-White House conflicts on the campaign’s execution. It’s a few years old, now, but I thought I’d write something up nevertheless. It is, I believe, one of the best, most accessible books on the subject, and would therefore recommend it to everyone. It is a story of dysfunction, intra-governmental conflict. It is also, a story that “changed history”, as Rolling Stone referred to Hasting’s reporting on General Stanley A. McChrystal and his crew.

The article that this grew out of, published in Rolling Stone, resulted in General Stanley McChrystal’s ousting: “The Runaway General” (June 22nd, 2010). The article certainly didn’t offer a flattering picture of President Obama and his administration. That being said, much of the media furor (and therefore damage done) took place before the article was available to the general public. The whole affair smacked of a media-induced scandal frenzy. Yellow journalism at its worst, perhaps. If the article had just come out, I have no doubt McChrystal would have just received another wrap on the knuckles, as he had before, when he said Vice President Biden’s proposed counterinsurgency plan was “short-sighted” (see below). Instead, after a week or more of frenzied, ecstatic media coverage of a scandal for which the general public didn’t have easy access to the cause, it was far too late for anyone to stick up for McChrystal, or do anything but send him packing.

I will accept that, after reading so much coverage of the as-yet-not-public article, my expectations had been raised extraordinarily – I was expecting some fire-and-brimstone vitriol and diatribes from the General and his staff. What was included was certainly not flattering, but after the media-hype, it felt a little bit underwhelming, ultimately.

Now, if The Operators had been published first, that would have been an entirely different matter. The book is filled-to-bursting with criticism, examples of Administration incompetence, super-sized egos without the intelligence or knowledge to back up their arrogance, and any number of other examples that could have given more legitimate grounds to fire a general (or, at least, ask him to quietly retire). Hastings presents plenty of examples of indelicate and unpolitic utterances from the General and his hero-worshiping staff members. And yet, to my eyes and mind, most of what was said to Hastings (R.I.P.) was... well, entirely expected.


The article contains some more-general remarks that are unacceptable from anyone, let alone from members high up in a military hierarchy – for example, when one of McChrystal’s aides describes a dinner commitment with “Some French minister” as “fucking gay.”

Although McChrystal has been in charge of the war for only a year, in that short time he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict. Last fall, during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave in London, McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaosistan.” The remarks earned him a smackdown from the president himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrystal seemed clear: Shut the fuck up, and keep a lower profile.

“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”

“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?”

Hastings does a good job, in both the article and the book, at explaining the roots of some of McChrystal’s frustrations with the administration. For example, the fact that, “Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect.” Hastings reports that, in a very early meeting with military top brass in the Tank (the high-security conference room in the Pentagon), “McChrystal thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated’ by the roomful of military brass.” Hastings expanded on this in the book:

“The president works the room, speaking to Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and about ten other senior military officials, including a three-star general named Stan McChrystal. Gates follows behind him. Obama doesn’t seem quite right, McChrystal will recall, he isn’t acting like a strong leader. He seems “intimidated by the crowd,” a senior military official who attended the meeting will tell me. He’s acting ‘like a Democrat who thinks he’s walking into a room full of Republicans,’ the senior military official added. ‘You could tell he was tentative.’ ”

“We wanted to be led; we would have been putty in his hands,” McChrystal told Hastings. President Obama “doesn’t get the military culture, military officials will say privately. They don’t think he likes them or supports them. They sense weakness. Obama doesn’t have the feel. There are questions, from the highest to lowest ranks. He’s a wimp…”

Some of the discomfort is no-doubt borne of the long-running issues between the Pentagon and Democratic Party:

“In the upper ranks of the brass: Obama is a Democrat, always a question mark. The Pentagon is filled with Republicans—it’s been a long eight years, and the last three defense secretaries have all been in the GOP. A popular joke: A soldier walks into an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Osama Bin Laden. Third floor, going up. He has two bullets in his pistol. Doors open: Pelosi is shot twice, Reid and Bin Laden are strangled.”

Hastings also offers some more historical context:

Promising to focus on that war makes a good line on the campaign trail. He didn’t serve—so what that Reagan didn’t, so what that Bush didn’t really? They played the part. They are hooah, and the troops love hooah. Bush gave the generals what they wanted, and the generals like to get what they want. Obama’s aware of the vulnerability, writing in his second memoir how ‘Republicans increasingly portrayed Democrats as weak on defense.’ That decades-old problem for Democrats, allegedly soft on national security ever since Truman was accused of ‘losing China.’ Bullshit, naturally, and historically self-destructive, but it has had major consequences, as three generations of Democratic leaders have fallen over themselves to prove that they can play tough. Truman can’t run for reelection because he’s not winning in Korea (Truman had to go into Korea because we couldn’t lose Korea!); Kennedy has to out–Cold Warrior Richard Nixon to get the job. Johnson has to prove he won’t ‘lose Vietnam,’ so he digs an even deeper hole, destroying his presidency… Carter—shit! He gets pushed around by the Iranians, while Reagan cuts a secret deal with them, gives them weapons, no less—but forget that. Clinton proves the military’s worst fears: He wants to let fags in, dodged the draft, smoked dope, and gets mocked when he tries to kill Bin Laden with missile strikes. Obama, his advisors believe, has to prove he isn’t really antiwar. That he’s serious. That he can keep America safe… That he’ll play by the bipartisan conventions of the national security community.”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama stressed that he believed the US “took our eye off the ball” in Afghanistan, and that efforts there had to be refocused. And yet, you get the sense from The Operators that the will may have been present, but conflicting ideas of the appropriate way to achieve it (not to mention domestic political considerations) presented a form of gridlock.

Following this, the general’s first one-on-one meeting with the President “was a 10-minute photo op” and not much else. As an aide described it,

“Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”

The Operators is filled with examples of administration and UN policy getting bogged down, or gummed up by intransigent bureaucracies and also clear lack of planning and understanding of each actor’s capabilities. For example, the structural problems that arise from the disparities between the Defense Department budget (in excess of $600 billion) and the State Department’s budget (only about $50 billion). Beyond the structural, however, there are also personal conflicts that have hindered the Afghanistan mission. Here, in particular, Hastings’s article and book paint the most damaging picture of the General and his staff:

“In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side. One aide calls Jim Jones, a retired four-star general and veteran of the Cold War, a ‘clown’ who remains ‘stuck in 1985.’ Politicians like McCain and Kerry, says another aide, ‘turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.’ ”

Interestingly, according to Hastings, “Only Hillary Clinton receives good reviews from McChrystal’s inner circle. ‘Hillary had Stan’s back during the strategic review,’” according to an adviser. “If Stan wants it, give him what he needs,” the Secretary of State is reported to have said.

McChrystal reserves special skepticism for Holbrooke, however, and there was a long passage in the book that dealt with this clash of personalities.

“The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal,” says a member of the general’s team. “Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous. He’s a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto. But this is COIN, and you can’t just have someone yanking on shit.”

Ultimately, the General and his staff just don’t think the President and White House has its head in the game:

“Obama just gives him a perfunctory handshake and sends him on his way. This isn’t what McChrystal expected. He’s expecting a commander in chief who is more engaged; who is able to express concern; who is willing to give him what he needs to win… Where’s Obama’s heart in this? His head? Sure, there’s health care and the bank bailouts and the recession, but this is his war we’re talking about—and I’m his general.”

One of the interesting things that comes through from reading The Operators is perhaps unintentional. There’s an amusing irony contained within it: the original article for Rolling Stone was met with the aforementioned media freak-out, which helped create a narrative that McChrystal needed to be fired. In The Operators, Hastings has the media squarely in his sights on many occasions, criticising their methods, gullibility, and more. The author also pays attention to the Pentagon’s evolving approach to handling the media:

In recent years, the Pentagon had moved from relying on military public affairs officers toward civilian experts like Duncan who had real-world media experience. (The traditional military style of public relations—a combination of stonewalling, poorly written press releases, and making demonstrably false claims—had become such an embarrassment during the Iraq War that the Pentagon had launched a searching, multibillion-dollar effort to overhaul and reshape its media strategy, which included hiring guys like Duncan, who at one time worked as a producer for CNN. The Pentagon had about twenty-seven thousand people working on public relations, spending $4.7 billion in a single year.) Nowadays, it was normal for each general to have his own personal media handlers—sometimes numbering as many as a half dozen within an entourage—to raise his profile in the press.”

In other words, Generals are starting to operate more and more like Congressmen and Senators… In some ways, though, the mentality of the military meant a certain informality could develop – one that is better for transparency and honesty, while not for… well, public relations and perception. The Operators is, effectively, the starkest case in point.

“Usually when reporting on powerful public figures, the press advisor and I would have had a conversation that established what journalists call “ground rules,” placing restrictions on what can and cannot be reported. But, as I’d already seen, McChrystal and his team followed their own freewheeling playbook. When I arrived in Paris, Duncan repeatedly dismissed the idea of ground rules, telling me it wasn’t the way the team did things. McChrystal would also tell me he wasn’t ‘going to tell me how to write my story.’ In fact, McChrystal and his staff requested to go off the record only twice during my entire time with them—requests that I honored when it came time to write my story and that I continue to honor to this day. This was great for me, an incredible opportunity for a journalist, as it gave me the freedom to report what I saw and heard.”

One did, jokingly, threaten to kill him if he didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the story, though. (He later apologized.)

The media, Hastings writes are prone to “mistak[e] style for substance”. In the time of confusion and consolidation following the 2008 election, “McChrystal makes for a good story; he feeds the desire among the public to have a hero arrive to save the day in a war that looks increasingly hero-less.” The United States has,

“… grown accustomed to seeing the general as a superman—and the press rarely challenged this narrative in their coverage. We’d been bombarded with hagiographic profiles and heroic narratives of almost all our military leaders. When there were criticisms of generals, it usually came too late: after they’d left command, in score-settling books, sanitized magazine stories, and agenda-driven tell-alls.”

Hastings rightly saw his situation as unique, privileged. He quickly came to realize that he had been given the “chance to tell a different story, to capture what the men running the war actually said and did.” What he ended up reporting “was distinctly human: frustration, arrogance, getting smashed, letting off stress. The wars had been going on for nearly ten years, and it had clearly taken its toll.” This, to me, is where the book’s greatest strength lies. This is not even close to being a hagiography – although, there’s no doubt that there was respect between General and reporter, strained as it may have been. This is not the now-infamous and discredited ??, the hagiography of General David Petraeus written by his lover, ??. Instead, it is an honest, warts-and-all account of how these men actually are. How they live and relax in their high-stress, rarefied roles.

Hastings continued on the media (a policy actor whose role I find fascinating, as well as very difficult to pin down – hence my greater attention on it in this piece):

“We started talking about larger issues within the media, which I felt he was in a unique position to discuss. McChrystal was a spokesperson at the Pentagon during the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, his first national exposure to the public. ‘We co-opted the media on that one,’ he said. ‘You could see it coming. There were a lot of us who didn’t think Iraq was a good idea.’ Co-opted the media. I almost laughed. Even the military’s former Pentagon spokesperson realized—at the time, no less—how massively they were manipulating the press. The ex–White House spokesperson, Scott McClellan, had said the same thing: The press had been ‘complicit enablers’ before the Iraq invasion, failing in their ‘watchdog role, focusing less on truth and accuracy and more on whether the campaign [to sell the war] was succeeding.’ ”

Given the importance of the Afghanistan elections to the new administration’s policy and roadmap for the war-torn country, it is no surprise that Hastings’s reporting caused quite the stir. Rather than being a reported fault of McChrystal’s (the book is, actually, about far more than McChrystal and his team), The Operators includes a litany of near-universal negligence and agenda-driven decision-making – consequences and values be damned. Bottom of Form

Across Afghanistan, when election returns were being filed, reports of fraud followed in a flood. Here’s just a sample of the… eccentric results that were uncovered and spotted:

“Rumors abound about entire ballot boxes filled out in Pakistan and shipped in across the border. Some voters are using disappearing ink, voting ten or twenty times… Thousands of votes are counted where only hundreds of Afghans cast ballots. Turnout in the south of the country is an estimated 8 or 9 percent, yet the vote tally indicates that at least 40 percent of the population voted… an estimated 1.5 million fraudulent votes. That’s probably a low estimate. In Kandahar, Karzai’s power base, three hundred fifty thousand votes come in, though only twenty-five thousand people went to the polls… One province, Paktika, was reporting a 200 percent turnout… The election center collects more than eighty pages of complaints about fraud and voting irregularities…”

It would be easy to reel off dozens more examples of how The Operators probably riled the White House and administration officials. Hastings’s reporting on Iraq, too, is highly damaging and unvarnished – the country at the time was, “unraveling—terrorist attacks and civilian casualties continue, and the Iraqi government is repressive and authoritarian—but there’s no political advantage for either Democrats or Republicans to point that out.” The same dynamic, we can see through Hastings’s reporting (and also articulated explicitly) is at play in Afghanistan: “The country is just slightly more fucked-up in the fall of 2009 than in the fall of 2008.”

The Operators is a superb book, in many ways. It’s very Rolling Stone in style, which will probably lead some with more-academic interests to dismiss it unfairly. This is an excellent, unvarnished look into the upper echelons of the United States military operations in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, during the time period Hastings was able to report. Very highly recommended.

RS-RunawayGeneral-IssueCoverInterestingly, Hastings wrote another short piece on this topic for Rolling Stone’s website, which was actually published at basically the same time as the original article went live. This should give you some indication of the timescales that were at work, and how far ahead the media was freaking out about the story. In the article – “Hastings on McChrystal: To Fire, or Not to Fire?” (Rolling Stone, June 22nd 2010) – the author wrote how, until that week, he thought President “never would” fire the General, because it would then “prove one of the issues raised in our story: That Obama can, in fact, be pushed around by the generals, and that they can more or less get away with whatever they want.” Certainly, the prevailing wisdom was that “McChrystal can’t be fired,” and that “[t]he domestic political dynamics meant the president was stuck with McChrystal, regardless of behavior.” Instead of being fired, it did seem like McChrystal would receive little more than a dressing-down at an upcoming meeting about Afghanistan/Pakistan policy.

“If Obama does fire him, this would be a moment for the president to try to assert control over a policy that has been totally out of his control this past year. But with all the buildup and the hype over the new strategy in Afghanistan — a strategy devised and promoted by McChrystal, in large part — I would be quite astounded if Obama does fire him. It would likely cause all sorts of headaches on the ground, delay the already delayed operation in Kandahar even further, and bring plenty of unwanted attention (from the White House’s perspective) to the president's Afghan policy.”

As it turned out, this prediction was accurate. Interestingly, in yet another follow-up article by Hastings, after “The Runaway General” came out, and was consumed (and analysed, picked over, etc.) more widely, there was an observable “Revolt of the Troops” (Rolling Stone, June 23rd, 2010):

“When a private contractor found out that I was the guy who wrote the McChrystal story, he immediately said, ‘Good.’ Then he directed me to check out a wooden wall covered in graffiti, where the soldiers had apparently vented their frustrations about the new directives, rather graphically. Another soldier told me that the point of view shared by many soldiers was finally being heard — that the rules being handed down from on high aren’t working, and that America is not winning the war.”

Overall, a fascinating moment to study for any student of policy-making, domestic pluralism, foreign policy, and the American way of making war. Hastings had a easy, accessible style, and his provocative articles filled a void left by the mainstream news media’s capture by the administration and Pentagon.


The Operators is published by Phoenix in the UK, and Plume in the US.


  1. "["the Operators"] I believe, one of the best, most accessible books on the subject..."

    I agree. I also found the book to be both informative and entertaining (and a bit irreverent).

    For more about McChrystal & Hastings, perhaps you might be interested in taking a look at my Feral Firefighter blog,. I would suggest the April 2012 post "Something to Die For", the Dec 2012 post "Never Shall I Fail My Comrades," and my June 2013 post "More Lies Borne Out By Facts, If Not the Truth."

    1. Thank you for reading - and also the recommendation. I'll be sure to take a look.