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Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings: I'm a Journalist, "Not a Stenographer"
Michael Hastings, Rolling Stone's McChrystal Profiler, Says Troops Are Happy That General Was Ousted
The Rolling Stone correspondent whose profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal upended America's Afghan war leadership says that soldiers on the ground are happy that the brash and sometimes reckless general was ousted by President Obama.
Michael Hastings tells Huffington Post in a phone interview from Afghanistan, where he is embedded with U.S. troops: "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 a 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."
Hastings adds he was "very surprised" by the resignation, assuming that McChrystal was unfireable. Taking note of the general's "tense relationship" with the president, Hastings says that Obama had to push out McChrystal to "prove that he was in control" and not a weak leader.
Hastings also paints a grim picture of the major U.S. offensive in Kandahar. "I think it's in trouble, in serious trouble," he says. "The fighting is really, really heavy and they've postponed the heaviest fighting till the fall. But it's going to be nasty."
In a wide-ranging interview with HuffPost, Hastings talks about his crazy week, what he thinks about McChrystal's retirement, the challenges facing the U.S. military and he forcefully responds to the media pundits who were shocked that a reporter would dare to risk that most precious commodity: access.
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. 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.
Have you heard from McChrystal or his staffers?
I've had some communications with his folks - not from him. Members of his staff have lost their jobs as well. They're fairly upset and they expressed that to me. Of course they'll be upset, it was quite unexpected.
What did you leave out of the story - any other comments by McChrystal about Obama, Gates, Biden, Petraeus, McKiernan, etc?
I've got over two months' worth of reporting. There was a bunch of stuff that got left out. We'll see if I can use at a later date...
I read that you are working on novel? About the punditry?
I write for fun. I had written a kind of media satire but I doubt it will see the light of day. It was just a personal project.
In the hypercompetitive media world, some of the reaction to your story has been a little negative, that you have "hostile views" and that you're anti-war. Some have wondered how you could jeopardize your future access to sources. How do you respond to that?
Look, I went into journalism to do journalism, not advertising. My views are critical but that shouldn't be mistaken for hostile - I'm just not a stenographer. There is a body of work that shows how I view these issues but that was hard-earned through experience, not something I learned going to a cocktail party on fucking K Street. That's what reporters are supposed to do, report the story.