By Mick Krever, CNN
When General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was summoned to the White House in June 2010, he knew he was in for something big.
“I suspected in my heart that the president would accept my resignation,” McChrystal told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a wide-ranging interview that aired Friday on CNN International.
President Obama did accept his resignation, days after an embarrassing article was published by Rolling Stone magazine in which the general and his team appeared to be insubordinate to the president.
McChrystal is now retired, and teaches at Yale University. His new memoir, in which he writes about his lifelong military career, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but says almost nothing about his firing three years ago, is called “My Share of the Task.”
The article in Rolling Stone, for which a reporter was embedded with McChrystal, took him by surprise, but he quickly grasped the gravity of its impact.
“I decided from the very beginning, because I was in command, that I'd accept responsibility, even though I didn't feel the article was particularly fair or accurate,” he said. “I thought I might be killed. I thought I might fail as a commander, not be competent enough. I never thought that I would be viewed or even considered potentially disloyal.”
McChrystal does not believe he was disloyal to the president. Some of the most damaging quotes in the Rolling Stone article came from unnamed aides to the general.
“Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was,” one is quoted as saying. “Here's the guy who's going to run his … war, but he didn't seem very engaged.”
Civilian control over the military in the U.S. is considered sacrosanct, and any public appearance of insubordination is taboo. When the article exploded into a media bonanza, there was a widespread view that President Obama needed to fire McChrystal in order to save face.
“I don't feel sorry for myself. I don't think Dave Petraeus,” another general who had a dramatic fall from grace, “feels sorry for himself, either. You move on.”
A deficit of trust
When McChrystal took command of the war in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, just months after Obama took office, the White House, he says, was naturally frustrated to find out just how badly the effort was going.
President Obama campaigned in 2008 against the war in Iraq, but called the Afghan conflict a “war of necessity.”
“I think it was disappointing to a lot of people to find out Afghanistan was not getting better; it was getting worse,” he said. “So now there's a bigger problem than people would like to have placed on their plate.”
Combined with a looming financial crisis and what he calls a “deficit of trust” between the White House and Pentagon, there was a recipe for tension.
“It's very, very hard to prosecute this kind of complex endeavor without building trust,” McChrystal said.
By late summer, 2009, McChrystal said that it was clear to him that the White House was reexamining its Afghanistan policy.
“Some people had different views of exactly what the president meant and what the intention was,” he said. “You don't want all the players coming out of the huddle on a football game interpreting what the quarterback said differently.”
“’What is it that we don’t understand?,’” McChrystal writes that he asked during a testy 2009 meeting with military commanders in Afghanistan. “We're going to lose this f***ing war if we don't stop killing civilians."
When he was stationed in Iraq, while tagging along on one of the countless night raids in civilian houses, McChrystal describes himself as feeling “sick” watching U.S. troops pin a man to the ground, humiliating him in front of his front of his four-year-old son.
“At the end of the day, your security comes from the people,” he said. “You can't wear enough body armor; you can't have enough walls. It's got to come from the people.”
A British NATO commander, General Nick Carter, coined a phrase that McChrystal said he became very fond of: “courageous restraint.”
“Things are necessary in war and things are difficult in war,” McChrystal said. But everything the military does has an impact, he said, and it can “create permanent outrage that you'll never win. You have to convince people that what you do is necessary, you're doing it responsibly, and at the end of the day you're doing it to help them.”
It is often the younger soldiers, McChrystal said, that understand that responsibility best. He recounted to Amanpour an incident involving a young Marine.
“A farmer comes up, and he wants to dig a drainage ditch and put a pipe under a road so that he can move water, but he doesn't want to be looked at as an IED emplacer, so he goes to the Marines. He says, ‘I want to dig this ditch and I want your approval to do that.’ And the young lance corporal gives him approval, waits a little bit then takes his gear off and helps him dig the ditch. And to me, that embodies a young man that understood what we were trying to do.”
Partner in Afghanistan
President Hamid Karzai is considered both America’s best chance for peace and its biggest roadblock.
He is in Washington this week to meet with President Obama – at stake is how many, if any, American troops will remain in Afghanistan past their scheduled 2014 withdrawal.
Karzai was America’s choice to lead Afghanistan when he took office in 2004, but by last March, after U.S. troops massacred 16 civilians, he said he was at the “end of the rope.”
“I’m not Pollyanna's younger brother,” McChrystal said. But when relationships are started on a note of hostility and criticism, he pointed out, they are bound to fail.
McChrystal was widely considered to have a good relationship with Karzai, especially when compared to other U.S. officials. The late diplomat Richard Holbrooke was known to have despised Karzai.
“What I wanted to build with President Karzai was a functional relationship that was built on trust, that was built on a sense of compromise,” McChrystal said.
In the book, he recalls sitting in a helicopter with President Karzai, flying through the night back to Kandahar after a trip to remote Southwestern Afghanistan.
Their seats in the front of a Chinook helicopter had open windows, and as they flew through a torrential downpour both he and Karzai were “battered” by the wind and rain.
“Here's the president and most people we would have freaked if their president was in that situation,” McChrystal said. “He reaches in his pocket and he pulled out a handkerchief. He didn't wipe his face. He handed it to me. And, okay, what does that mean? Some people say that means nothing, because he's still got a lot of shortcomings. It means something. It means he wanted to make a gesture.”
It is those small gestures, McChrystal said, that built a strong working relationship.
“If you don't have those, it's hard to go further,” he said. “He's the elected president of Afghanistan, so we work with President Karzai.”
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