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Writer defends role in demise of Stanley McChrystal

The man who, in effect, ended General Stanley McChrystal’s glittering military career says he thought he was “unfireable”.

In a candid interview yesterday, journalist Michael Hastings said he never imagined he would get so much access to the general and his inner circle. He insisted he was simply doing his job as a reporter and denied that his methods were underhand.

Hastings’s devastating expose of General McChrystal and his aides led US President Barack Obama to dismiss the man credited widely as the mastermind of the US strategy in Afghanistan.

“I realised that it was very strong material for a profile,” Hastings, 30, said. “But I thought McChrystal was unfireable. I thought his position was very well protected.”

The President’s decision, on Wednesday, hit General McChrystal “like a steam train”, a close aide said yesterday. It stunned his headquarters staff and, were it not for the surprise appointment of General David Petraeus in his place, might have derailed the US war effort altogether, analysts have said.

In the Rolling Stone profile, entitled “The Runaway General”, Hastings detailed conversations between General McChrystal and a cadre of loyal aides that took place between mid-April and mid-May in Paris, Berlin, Kabul and Kandahar. In a series of vignettes he showed them mocking, criticising or dismissing almost all of the senior civilians in and around their chain of command.

One of the comments concerned Mr Obama, with General McChrystal’s aides saying he was “disappointed” by a meeting with the President, which he described as “just a 10-minute photo-op”.

Hastings described the general’s staff as “a collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs”. He watched them on a night out in Paris, drinking until they were “completely shitfaced”.

“They are fun guys to hang out with,” Hastings told The Times. “They are impressive people. I just don’t know if their solution for Afghanistan is appropriate.”

The freelance reporter, who grew up in Vermont and upstate New York, denied he set out to have General McChrystal fired. “It was to get people to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on in Afghanistan?’. It’s often as if America doesn’t even realise it’s fighting two wars.”

Nor is he a pacifist. His younger brother, Jeff, 28, was awarded a Bronze Star for his time as a platoon commander in Iraq.

“War is not something abstract to me,” he said. “Many of my friends have suffered immensely. I just want to make sure that the sacrifices are worth it.” When he graduated from New York University in 2002, aged 22, Hastings took an unpaid internship at Newsweek. From 2005 to 2007, he was the magazine’s correspondent in Baghdad, until his girlfriend was killed in an ambush. Soon afterwards, he wrote a memoir, ‘How I Lost My Love In Baghdad’. It received mixed reviews, with The New York Times pointing to a “whiff of exploitation”.

In an article for GQ about campaign journalism, Hastings wrote: “You pretend to be friendly and non-threatening, and over time you ‘build trust’, which everybody involved knows is an illusion. If the time comes, if your editor calls for it, you’re supposed to f . . k them over.” That, and the extraordinary level of access that Hastings enjoyed with General McChrystal, prompted a Fox News commentator to describe him as a “rat in an eagle’s nest”. One rival reporter in Kabul dismissed his McChrystal profile as “people bitching about Washington. What’s new?”

Even senior NATO officials admit, however, that the profile brought together an irrefutable weight of anecdotal evidence about the fractured relationships that surrounded General McChrystal’s command. It also incorporated revelations about the mission’s prospects of success.

“Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counter-insurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it’s going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm,” he wrote.

“It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” Major General Bill Mayville, General McChrystal’s chief of staff, was quoted as saying in the report. “This is going to end in an argument.”

Hastings insists he does not care what the critics say. There were no rules, guidelines or even unspoken understandings broken.

Tellingly, he points out that no one at NATO, the Pentagon or even the White House has questioned the truth of what he wrote - nor have they claimed that the men were quoted out of context.

A senior NATO official said Hastings had captured the “natural venting” and “institutional tensions” that exist everywhere. His worst criticism of the 6000-word profile was that, perhaps, it represented an “incomplete view”.

“We tell it how it is,” Hastings said about the way journalists join soldiers on operations. “We report what the soldiers say. We report them venting. Why should it be any different for the generals? Their opinions matter even more. Why should we protect them?”

He was with a helicopter unit at Kandahar airfield when his story broke this week. The soldiers he said, were incredibly civil. One, he said, even sent him a congratulatory email. “The soldiers respect McChrystal, but there’s no love lost between them,” he said.

His bombshell story started with an email to the executive editor at Rolling Stone magazine, Eric Bates, earlier this year. Hastings wanted to write about General McChrystal to coincide with his first anniversary of command in Kabul, and Bates agreed to publish it.

“He said just send them an email, so I did. They responded almost immediately and said they would love to do it,” Hastings said.

Duncan Boothby was General McChrystal’s civilian media adviser who arranged it. He has since resigned. Hastings said it took about 10 days from first making contact to when he got a phone call telling him to meet General McChrystal and his team in Paris.

“They were pretty candid right from the get-go,” he said. Bates later said: “They knew when we were on the record. They said a lot of stuff to us off the record that’s not in the story. We respected those boundaries. This was all when they knew they were on.”

That has left media analysts questioning what General McChrystal hoped to gain from the profile. One senior NATO source said that despite his special forces background, the general believed “the benefit of openness outweighs the risk”.

The media have been instrumental in building up the myth of General McChrystal as an ascetic warrior-monk.

“He had been protected by other profile writers in the past, who wanted access,” Hastings said. “I am not an access journalist. That’s not my style.”

- (Courtesy: The Times)

Posted on Saturday, June 26, 2010 @ 19:42:05 LKT by

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