I had the ironic fortune to meet Michael Hastings, the author, on the military side of Kabul International Airport last week on my way to Helmand. We were both cooling our heels waiting for MilAir flights to other parts of the country, and had a couple of hours to chat. Nice guy, and interestingly, he told me about a story he’d just researched on McChrystal and his staff, mentioning that he was “surprised at some of the things they said” to him. He soon caught his flight to Kandahar, and I hopped on mine hours later. After a few days of travel during which I had almost no Internet access, I discovered the story had been published and blown up, and in retrospect I marveled at his understatement.
Regarding the recent dispute over whether Hastings and Rolling Stone violated the ground rules of any interviews: Hastings’ expression of surprise about some of the quotes offered to him seemed quite genuine, and therefore I tend to believe he did not consciously violate any established ground rules. I of course can’t speak to the details of what those rules were, but it’s my impression that he was nonchalantly confident he came by them openly.
On a different note, I noticed this Huffington Post interview with Hastings, headlined “Troops Are Happy That General Was Ousted,” in which he says: “Over here, soldiers were happy that [McChrystal] got fired.” While I’m sure that some troops are indeed glad McChrystal is gone, given that the famously restrictive counterinsurgency rules of engagement were unpopular in significant quarters, a blanket characterization like that is not accurate.
I’ve casually spoken to a number of civilians and Marines in Helmand and Nimruz provinces, and reactions range from apathy to confusion, with none expressing outright satisfaction that McChrystal is out. If I had to characterize the dominant sentiment, I’d say it’s split between suspicion that it may have been the general’s way to publicly tender his resignation, and bewilderment that any military officer would say such things to the press. And it’s pretty low on the list of things anyone below field grade is spending a lot of time thinking about out here.
In fact, the only reaction I’ve heard approximating joy came from a senior civilian adviser who works with a gamut of military personnel. His short take when the article first broke: “Everyone thinks it’s funny. Most folks out here like McChrystal, and can’t stand Obama.”
Would I say that this reaction is the way the military in Afghanistan views the scandal and subsequent firing? No, not at all. There are certainly those who have a different take, and that’s the point. Opinion is far too diverse in a diverse military for Manichean categorizations about what the ‘troops think,’ Huffington Post headline writers to the contrary.