Investigative journalist Michael Hastings

The award-winning Rolling Stone writer and author of The Operators explains why he feels he received so much access from former ISAF commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Michael Hastings set off a political firestorm with his award-winning 2010 profile of U.S. Army general Stanley McChrystal—one that led to the general being relieved of his command. He picks up where that piece ended with a behind-the-scenes portrait of U.S. military commanders in the new text The Operators. As contributing editor at Rolling Stone, Hastings covers politics and international affairs, including the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. He started his career at Newsweek, where he became the mag's youngest-ever war correspondent, and is also the author of I Lost My Love in Baghdad.


Tavis: Michael Hastings is a noted journalist who serves as a contributing editor at “Rolling Stone.” It was his interview with General Stanley McChrystal and his staff that led to the firing of America’s top man in Afghanistan back in 2010.

The new book, already a “New York Times” best seller, is based on that experience and more in-depth reporting about America’s now-longest war.

It’s called “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.” Michael joins us tonight from New York. Michael, good to have you on this program.

Michael Hastings: Thanks for having me on the show. It’s a real honor to be here, and I’m a huge fan of your work. It’s great to be a guest.

Tavis: Glad to have you on. Let me start with the cover of the book, if I can ask Jonathan to put this cover up. There’s been some controversy about this photo. I want to leave this picture up just for a second here so you see some general with all kinds of bars and colors and brass with a gun in his left hand, a drink apparently in his right hand.

I know you’re not in charge of doing covers for the book, but what do you make of the cover that the book company came up with and the controversy that the cover itself has already created?

Hastings: Well, I think it’s a great cover, and I think in publishing these days, when you’re already controversial when you haven’t even opened to the first page of the book, you’re doing okay for yourselves.

But on a serious matter, the issue with the cover was that there were some people who said that it was based on a picture from General David Petraeus, and that offended a number of people, I’m told, around General Petraeus. So that was where the sort of controversy came from.

That being said, I think there is something metaphorical about a cover where you have after, as you said a number of times in the introduction, these people, a lot of the people in the Pentagon have been intoxicated by this forever war, intoxicated by 10 years plus of fighting, and they want 10 years more. So I think there is something metaphorical and powerful about that cover.

Tavis: What is it about the article, what was it, rather, about the article that didn’t get to what you thought needed to be addressed that caused you to want to write the text, “The Operators?”

Hastings: Well, I knew almost immediately, I think on the second day I was with General McChrystal and his staff, that these were people who I wanted to write a book about, so that was clear from the beginning.

The original article was 5,000 words and this is a 120,000-word book, and I think the article in many ways was called “The Runaway General.” This is about the runaway military.

What I was able to do was to flesh out all the characters around General McChrystal’s staff, characters also in the White House, President Obama and his close advisers, and by doing that give a sense of who are the people 10 years into this war who actually ended up running this thing?

I think it was this very unique moment in history when you have very unique people in charge of the war in Afghanistan. General McChrystal and his crew had come from a Special Forces background. This is almost unprecedented, to have someone with such an extensive Special Forces background in charge of such a large battlefield command, and what did that mean?

What does that tell us about our country when we have, to put it bluntly, are the nation’s most successful assassin and manhunter, as they call it, in charge of the war?

Tavis: Were you at all surprised, Michael, at the response to the article? I’m not going to ask you, I think it’s a silly question to ask whether or not you thought the president should have fired him; that’s not your job. You’re a reporter and you tell the facts. But were you surprised at the response to the article?

Hastings: Yeah, I was totally blown away, and I detail this in the book, my reaction to it and experience. I first learned about this – I was actually in Kandahar on another embed with the military as the article started to break, so I was in completely this very strange world over in Afghanistan.

But no, I never expected General McChrystal to be fired. In fact, one of the theses of the article was that he was untouchable. Was that he had, in fact, too much power, and that President Obama would never really confront him or was unable to stand up to him.

Also, as someone who’s covered Iraq and Afghanistan for years now, so often you write very powerful things, or at least in your journalist’s mind you tell yourself it’s very powerful, and it’s a drop in the bucket.

I had the first interview with an Iraqi death squad back in 2006, and totally ignored. So I think any time that you can get one headline, much less a week of headlines, from a story, then clearly in our case, “Rolling Stone” and my editors there and myself really hit on something very powerful.

Tavis: Have you figured out why they gave you so much access? After all the time you’ve had now to consider the access that you had, the article that came and now the book, any new thoughts on your part about why they gave you so much access in the first place?

Hastings: General McChrystal wanted to be on the cover of “Rolling Stone.” I think that’s the simplest and most straightforward answer to it. I think if one looks at why would a general want to be on the cover of “Rolling Stone,” you have to take a step back and look at how successful General David Petraeus, one of General McChrystal’s sort of friends and rivals, has co-opted or has built up his own media fan base, let’s call it.

General David Petraeus was so successful at getting on covers of magazines, having journalists fall in love with him, that in fact he was able to use that power to go around the normal chain of command. So he has what – I call it the phenomena of Petraeus envy.

Every other general is trying to be General Petraeus, and so you have that situation with General McChrystal, where General Petraeus has never been on the cover of “Rolling Stone,” he’s never been in “Rolling Stone,” so why not give that a go?

Now, the danger here for General McChrystal, which I didn’t realize and they didn’t realize at the time, was that General McChrystal had been warned by the White House not to do any of this sort of media after he had gotten in trouble for a “60 Minutes” interview as well as speaking publicly, criticizing the vice president publicly a number of months before.

So it was a risk just doing any media at the time they were really pushing the envelope.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not you think that General McChrystal now – I don’t want to ask whether or not you think he regrets what happened to him; I suspect he probably does. To your mind, is there anything that he said to you that he now regrets?

Hastings: I’m not sure. It’s interesting. Since he left that job, or was asked to leave, or fired from his position, he’s landed – he’s done quite well for himself. He teaches as Yale, he’s on the speaking circuit, where he reportedly gets $60,000 a pop. He’s on a number of boards of very powerful companies.

I would think that – and he’s been asked this question, and he’s given joking answers. Once he joked and he said that, “Well, I would have fired myself several times if I was President Obama.” He’s giving off-the-record interviews still where he says, where he criticizes the White House and says there’s no trust between the White House and the Pentagon.

If you look at the public comment he made a few months ago, he said that we’re only halfway there in Afghanistan, which is a direct slap in the face again to the White House. The White House has said over and over again that we’re making progress and we’re leaving in 2014, and then you have their former general, who they’ve tried to rehabilitate his image, saying that we’re only halfway there.

So what does that say about General McChrystal? It says what I’ve always thought, is that he’s like a General MacArthur or a General Patton in that the qualities that brought him to such great heights also ended up to be his undoing.

Tavis: It could be a slap in the face to the White House taken one way, Michael, but it could also be a slap in the face that’s loaded with truth. So to the point you’ve just made now about the spin the White House is giving versus what General McChrystal is saying, who’s right on Afghanistan in how far along we are or are not in this war?

Hastings: Yeah, oh, that’s a great point, and one of the interesting things that you hit on which was unremarked upon at the time and I think was valid were were General McChrystal’s criticisms valid? I think up to a certain point, they were, and I think one of General McChrystal’s great flaws, which makes him a great interview but very difficult to stay at that level, is that he does have a capacity to tell it like it is.

In a famous example, he called Marjah, which is a small village, town in southern Afghanistan, a “bleeding ulcer,” and he was talking about his own operation. He came out directly and told the vice president that he thought his plan sucked. He said that publicly.

Now, I disagree with him on that, but clearly he’s not someone who minced words, and that’s the kind of guy you’re going to get. Remember, again, he’s Special Forces, he’s a risk-taker, he’s not someone who has necessarily made a career of toeing the line, especially if you look at some of the more troubling episodes in his career. He clearly wasn’t playing by the rules there, either.

Tavis: If this book is about anything, Michael, it is, to my mind, a powerful polemic on the failure – my word, not yours – of the U.S. counterinsurgency in Afghanistan to date, so to your earlier point, what the article did was ultimately get McChrystal fired. It’s a conversation about him, but let’s talk now for a few minutes about what’s really happening, or not happening, as it were, inside of Afghanistan, given the U.S. counterinsurgency.

Hastings: Behind the scenes, the public obviously, when the article came out, there was a lot of talk of General McChrystal, but behind the scenes the article and then in my book, it was read as a direct assault on this whole idea of counterinsurgency, and I would agree.

I think it’s a failure. You can’t say what a failure it’s been. Now that has been acknowledged. In the president’s most recent defense budget, counterinsurgency is ranked number nine.

You go down the list, the big think tanks in Washington that made their names and made all sorts of money off promoting these dubious counterinsurgency theories are all backing away from counterinsurgency now.

So I think in the sense, the true impact of what I hope of this book and as well as the story, was to get people really thinking about counterinsurgency and to change the narrative. Because for a while it was the idea of the day. Everybody was – they called in COINdinistas; COIN, short for counterinsurgency, and COINdinista like Sandinistas, just because everyone was so caught up in this war fever.

Tavis: So if you think the narrative ought to be changed, we know what the narrative is now. What do you want us to change it to?

Hastings: The tragedy is we should have started leaving and negotiating a couple of years ago in 2009, and we didn’t do that. But the narrative is now going to change to what Vice President Biden wanted to do originally, which was have a small number of U.S. troops doing training of the Afghan army so they can then do these sort of limited counterterrorism operations rather than have 150,000 troops occupy a country.

Look, as someone who has seen war firsthand over the past six years and has done – if I do one more interview with a mother who’s lost a son or father who’s lost a son or an Afghan or an Iraqi who’s lost a brother in a bombing, I don’t know, it just breaks my heart to even think about it.

The fact that the president is saying the tide of war is receding and that we are moving towards a more limited counterterrorism strategy to me is a victory for common sense.

Tavis: To your point now, Michael, do you think that the average American understands the huge amount of life, Afghan life, that’s been lost in these 10 years, and if they did understand, do you think they’d care?

Hastings: No. I think it’s very difficult to empathize with your neighbor, much less empathize with someone who’s of a different skin color and 8,000 miles away.

The Afghans, it’s this very funny thing where on the one hand they’re supposed to be our allies, but yet they’re demonized very regularly in terms of the Taliban, and fair enough to sort of call the Taliban out for some of their practices and their behaviors and what they’re doing.

But what I’m saying is I think it’s very difficult to make people care about natives in another country. Let’s call it like it is. That’s what counterinsurgency is – it’s making the natives behave in a way we want them to behave.

I think that one of the challenges I’ve faced as a writer is to engage the American public in these topics, and that’s why some of my critics have said, “Oh, there’s not enough Afghanistan in your book,” and ironically, the first half of the book takes place in Europe and the main characters are Americans.

But that’s an intentional choice, because I’m trying to engage people who may otherwise not want to pick up a book about Afghanistan, but hey, if it’s a rock and roll book and there’s booze and wild times and you slip in the tragedy and you slip in the horror, and you hope that it gets through.

Tavis: You think maybe Americans have Afghanistan fatigue right now and, with all due respect to your brilliant work, that it’s just a conversation, given all of our domestic troubles and travails right now, that you can’t get much traction on?

Hastings: Well, what’s amazing has been so far both the critical and commercial reception of the book has been heartening to me, especially during this crazy news cycle. This is the key – it’s very telling that Ron Paul has gotten so much traction on his foreign policy issue, because that’s where it’s tied together, the fact that we’re spending $120 billion a year in Afghanistan.

I went to a meeting of conservatives recently. I can’t go into detail about where it was or who it was with, and I listed the statistics. I said, $120 billion a year for the war, $20 billion a year on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re spending $30 a pop every time a soldier goes into the mess hall every time of day, $600,000 for a kilometer of road to be built.

We’re building mosques with our taxpayer dollars along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and yet we’re closing – it’s the classic John Kerry line from 2004, we’re closing firehouses and bridges and cutting the post office, and we’re spending $120 billion a year in Afghanistan. It’s total lunacy.

When you lay it out like that, people say, “Oh, yeah, that is total lunacy.”

Tavis: What does that say – let me ask you two questions in that regard. One, what does that say about our priorities? I hear your point loud and clear and I agree.

Hastings: Sure.

Tavis: But what’s it say about U.S. priorities, number one, and number two, if that issue makes so much sense to you and to me and others who hear it, why is Ron Paul not getting any traction when he makes that case?

Hastings: Well, I think compared to the traction he got in 2008 versus now, there’s been sort of a significant bump, and remember, if you look at the antiwar sentiment, President Obama was the antiwar candidate, and though he said he would focus on Afghanistan, I think if President Obama would have said, “I’m going to triple the number of troops to Afghanistan and there will be 150,000 troops in Afghanistan,” if he would have ran on that, people would have been very, very unhappy.

I think that would have raised a lot of questions. In the alternate universe scenario, where John McCain gets into office and then triples the size of the war, liberals would have been on the streets protesting this war. But because it was Obama, they didn’t do that.

So I think it’s a challenge to get people to focus. I think when you can make the economic argument, I think that economic argument is getting traction. But on the flip side of that, the Pentagon – and this came out of my reporting – is an extremely powerful institution.

Fifty-three percent of our federal tax dollars go to the Pentagon. It’s the largest employer in the United States, 3.3 million people, the Pentagon employs. There’s so much momentum to these wars it’s just hard to dial it back. The national security status is so expansive now, getting it under control is a real, real challenge.

Tavis: But there have been conversations of late; indeed, conversations that have the support of the current Defense secretary, Mr. Panetta, that the Defense Department needs to be cut and that it in fact will be cut. Do you believe those statements?

Hastings: I believe (laughter) – do I believe those statements? I always find with the Pentagon that – the famous book named after the Pentagon is “The Pentagon Papers,” which is a book of lies, a book about lying. So I’m always very suspicious, and one of the Pentagon spokespeople, I would always say about him you know he’s telling the truth because that’s when he starts to sweat.

So do I – I believe that they’re trying to get Pentagon spending under control, and I believe if what the right says, if they truly believe in fiscal responsibility, then the Pentagon is the golden example of fiscal irresponsibility. It’s also one of the largest corporate welfare states, too.

So I think that the cuts that have been called for now are not actually cuts. They’re cuts against future spending. So they’re just trying to stop the increase of spending and they’ve said they’re going to try to get about half a billion more off. The question is is the president – I think President Obama, is he going to spend the political capital that it takes to do that? I don’t know. I think it’s really up in the air.

If he’s forced to cut the budget, I think that his base certainly will want to see more cuts in the Pentagon than out of, say, Social Security or Medicare, and that will be key, to keep the pressure on for him to do that.

Tavis: Since you’ve raised President Obama now a couple times, Michael, to my mind, at least, there are at least two different Barack Obamas in this campaign. I’m not sure which one’s going to show up; I’m not sure how the Republican nominee is going to play him and position him, or back him into a corner.

But on the one hand, it seems to me you have the Barack Obama, to your earlier point, who has sent more troops into Afghanistan. I think you’re right – if he had run on that, he might not have won, if he’d been that honest.

But he sent more troops to Afghanistan, and since you raised the Pakistan border, he has dropped more drones in Pakistan than George Bush did. He’s increased the use of these Predator drones significantly in Pakistan, oftentimes resulting in the innocent killing of women and children. That’s the one Barack Obama, foreign policy-wise.

On the other hand, it’s the same Barack Obama who did, in fact, take out Bin Laden, whose strategy for Qaddafi in Libya was successful, if you define success as getting rid of Moamar Qaddafi; al-Malaki is gone.

So help me understand, where these military issues are concerned, which Obama shows up? Does one get more credit? How do the Republicans play this, given his successes? It’s a mixed bag, it seems to me.

Hastings: Right, and with Afghanistan, I think one of the key and underreported narratives was that you had this young, inexperienced commander-in-chief come into office, he gave the Pentagon 20,000 troops – this is in 2009 – and then a few months later they rolled it.

They came back and asked for three times that amount, and he didn’t see it coming, and his advisers didn’t see it coming. He was totally taken off guard, and then the Pentagon waged its vicious and very dedicated media campaign to box him in a corner and force him to escalate.

It’s comparable to what happened to John F. Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs, being kind of sold this horrible idea that everyone knew is a horrible idea, but it already had kind of this momentum from the previous administration, kind of took him into this.

I think the president – now, this is – I don’t mean to sound condescending – I think he has learned from those experiences with the Pentagon, and I think if you look at his decisions, once he stopped listening to the Pentagon, really, he’s gotten out of Iraq – the Pentagon didn’t want to leave.

He also went into Libya, as you said, a successful op. As these things go, look, I have different feelings about Libya, but as these things go, success. Also the bin Laden raid, which he overruled Gates on; he overruled also Secretary Gates on Libya.

So I think when the president, if we’re talking kind of our conventional foreign policy wisdom here, when the president follows his gut he’s been quite successful. Are they going to try to box him in a corner on – I think Afghanistan is going to be more difficult to box him in a corner on.

I think Iran is where the right is going to try to push the president into war or try to make it look bad because he’s not starting a war, and I think that’s the issue to watch in terms of foreign policy. It’s Iran. I just don’t see any support among anyone to try to re-escalate the war in Afghanistan, but you could see something unraveling in Iran fairly quickly.

Tavis: Let me read a quote from your book, “The Operators,” page 79, to be exact. “Helmend,” and this, of course, is a place in Afghanistan, “Helmend represents the warped logic of the war. We’re there because we’re there, and because we’re there, we’re there some more. It’s the momentum.

“The military has a fetish for completion. It is against every martial instinct to withdraw, to retreat, to leave land where blood has been spilled. Even when that land has very little strategic significance, leaving is traumatic,” close quote.

What does completion mean at this point, and is this war winnable?

Hastings: No. Winning isn’t even something anyone really discusses. What the game is, and sadly, I think it’s a game, is to create the conditions where the generals, like General Petraeus, who’s now at the CIA, and General John Allen, can come back to the American policymakers and say, “Oh, look, we won.”

The game is a spin campaign, because it’s never – Afghanistan, if we leave or stay in Afghanistan, Afghanistan is still going to be a fairly violent place for years to come. I think there has to be a significant diplomatic push. I think finally we’re getting there. Again, the tragedy is it took hundreds of more American lives to get to this point.

But yet for me, winning is pretending that we – winning is convincing everyone that we won, and that, to me, is fairly a sad state of affairs.

Tavis: In 30 seconds here, Michael, before I close by reminding people about your new book, let me ask what it means that this story has gotten this kind of traction in a place like “Rolling Stone.”

I note that the new issue is out and your piece with Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame is on the cover of the new issue of “Rolling Stone,” but what does it mean that “Rolling Stone” is the place where these kinds of stories are being broken and written?

Hastings: Matt Taibbi and my colleague at “Rolling Stone,” his work on the financial world, Goldman Sachs, was incredibly groundbreaking, Tim Dickinson on the environment, our Occupy Wall Street coverage has also been incredible. Look, I could not have got this story published almost anywhere else but “Rolling Stone.” That’s the truth.

If I would have published it somewhere else, they would have buried the good stuff. They would have buried the material that people really needed to read. So it’s a testament to Jann Wenner, the publisher there, and my editors, Eric Bates and Will Dana, for allowing me to take these risks and for when the flak comes, because invariably it does when you’re writing about powerful people and institutions, for backing me up 100 percent and not throwing me in front of the bus.

Tavis: Well, they didn’t cover this up, “Rolling Stone” did not, and thankfully, now there’s even more in his new book called “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” written by Michael Hastings. Michael, good to have you on the program. Congrats on the book and thanks for your time, sir.

Hastings: Honor to be here. Thanks, sir.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith

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Last modified: February 2, 2012 at 1:21 pm