Last summer, General Stanley McChrystal described US operations in Afghanistan as a ‘retail war’. Now, thanks to Michael Hastings’s notorious profile of the general in Rolling Stone, it’s clearer what McChrystal meant: the conflict isn’t only about winning over Afghans to the US cause, but also about selling a war that can’t be won to increasingly sceptical Americans.
The US commanders in Afghanistan know there can be no victory. Hastings quotes a colleague of McChrystal’s, Major-General Bill Mayville: ‘It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win. This is going to end in an argument.’ Mayville, as Hastings explains, is one of McChrystal inner circle,
a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs. There’s a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts.
One of the lesser points to be drawn from Hastings’s piece is that the word ally is a term of derision for McChrystal’s team and refers to French and German troops, but not to British forces.
Hasting’s piece has become instantly famous for what McChrystal says about US civilian officials, such as Richard Holbrooke and Joe Biden, and McChrystal today goes to the White House to explain himself to Obama. Maybe he’ll be fired, maybe he won’t. Hastings implies, intriguingly, that if Obama does sack McChrystal, then the president will not just be getting rid of an outspoken and revered commander: Obama may risk bringing down the entire US strategy in Afghanistan that he agreed to last year. Whatever happens, today’s meeting at the White House may well be the beginning of Mayville’s ‘argument’.
When he was a cadet at West Point, McChrystal wrote a short story about an assassination attempt on an American president. Hastings writes:
As managing editor of The Pointer, the West Point literary magazine, McChrystal wrote seven short stories that eerily foreshadow many of the issues he would confront in his career. In one tale, a fictional officer complains about the difficulty of training foreign troops to fight; in another, a 19-year-old soldier kills a boy he mistakes for a terrorist. In ‘Brinkman’s Note’, a piece of suspense fiction, the unnamed narrator appears to be trying to stop a plot to assassinate the president. It turns out, however, that the narrator himself is the assassin, and he’s able to infiltrate the White House: ‘The president strode in smiling. From the right coat pocket of the raincoat I carried, I slowly drew forth my 32-caliber pistol. In Brinkman’s failure, I had succeeded.’
McChrystal presumably won’t be taking a 32-calibre pistol with him to the White House today. But if he is fired, his failure could be construed as a kind of limited personal success – to have extricated himself from the war in Afghanistan, even if the rest of the US army is still embroiled in it.