Inside this target house, McChrystal spotted a boy about 4 years old, watching silently as the Rangers ordered the suspected insurgents to lie down. The boy, scared and confused, mimicked his father by pressing his cheek on the pavement and clasping his hands behind his head.
“As I watched, I felt sick,” McChrystal writes in his new memoir, “My Share of the Task.” “I could feel in my own limbs and chest the shame and fury that must have been coursing through the father. . . . I thought, not for the first time: It would be easy for us to lose.”
Thousands of miles away at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Gen. David H. Petraeus was putting the finishing touches on the Army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine, which preached that brute force alone could never defeat an insurgency. To prevail, soldiers had to resolve the grievances that were driving rank-and-file insurgents to fight. In other words, they had to win over the father that McChrystal’s Rangers had humiliated in Ramadi.
In the latter years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Petraeus’s counterinsurgency revolution swept through the Army. Dog-eared copies of his counterinsurgency manual could be found in the most remote outposts. The rise of his doctrine is the subject of Fred Kaplan’s engaging new book, “The Insurgents.” The title playfully refers to the Petraeus-led band of dissidents who viewed their new doctrine as an urgent assault on the Army’s culture and the American way of war. When McChrystal took command in Afghanistan in 2009, he embraced counterinsurgency with the “zeal of a convert,” Kaplan notes.
Both generals have since been relegated to the sidelines. A sex scandal forced Petraeus to step down as CIA director last fall. McChrystal was dismissed in 2010 after his aides made derogatory remarks about senior Obama administration officials to a Rolling Stone reporter. The counterinsurgency revolution that Petraeus and McChrystal championed also has largely run its course, killed off by budget cuts and America’s exhaustion with the two wars.
Yet the men remain the most influential generals of their generation, mythologized in the media as the soldier-scholar able to outrun troops half his age (Petraeus) and the ascetic warrior (McChrystal). Both set out to remake their Army and change the American way of war. And both succeeded, though not always in the way they intended.
McChrystal’s story opens with his almost preordained arrival at West Point as the son of a Vietnam-era general and traces his rise through an Army rebuilding itself to fight the Soviets on the plains of Europe. His first two decades in uniform added up to a series of near-misses. He missed the invasion of Panama, was relegated to a staff job for the Persian Gulf War and was about to jump into Haiti with his battalion when a last-minute peace deal canceled the raid.
McChrystal fills the early chapters of his memoir with leadership lessons. Some offer insights into his command style. Others come off as a bit hackneyed. “But, sir, what about the boys?” one of his soldiers pleads when McChrystal wavers on accepting a coveted spot leading a Ranger battalion. (Spoiler alert: He took the job.)
The book soars when McChrystal describes his largely secret efforts to remake the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who marshaled a seemingly unending supply of suicide bombers to fuel Iraq’s civil war. The elite commandos, trained to seize airfields and rescue hostages, were mostly inept at tracking terrorists in the war’s early years. Computer drives and cellphones seized during raids were stuffed into trash bags bearing yellow sticky notes explaining their origin. The notes typically fell off in flight.
McChrystal’s genius was to build a cavernous, one-room headquarters at a base north of Baghdad where commandos, intelligence analysts and interrogators lived and worked together.
“It was extraordinarily powerful for analysts to share information,” he writes, “to brief operators on their assessments, to hear the rotors of an assault force launching on their information, and then to debrief together after the operation.”
Much of his memoir, built around the mission to kill Zarqawi, reads like a spy novel. Savvy interrogators developed rapport with their captives. A brilliant analyst spent so many hours staring at Predator footage of Zarqawi’s spiritual adviser that he could pick him out in a crowd by his distinctive strut.
As his commandos racked up kills, McChrystal became a reluctant assassin.When his aide lamented that a military working dog was killed on a night raid, McChrystal upbraided him. “Seven enemy were killed on that target last night. Seven humans,” he fumed. “Are you telling me you’re more concerned about the dog than the people that died?”
McChrystal wants to be remembered for the nation-building effort he led in Afghanistan rather than the killing he oversaw in Iraq. But the Afghanistan section of his memoir lacks the drama, intelligence and honesty of the Iraq chapters. McChrystal sidesteps substantive disagreements with senior Obama administration officials over the wisdom of his Afghan counterinsurgency strategy. He devotes only a few sentences to the Rolling Stone article that forced his resignation from the military.
Kaplan’s “The Insurgents” tells the story of a non-battlefield assault, led by Petraeus and a small band of like-minded intellectuals, on an Army bureaucracy that spurned counterinsurgency in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Petraeus had long been fascinated with the subject. And with the Army on the verge of defeat in Iraq, he set out to reintroduce long-forgotten principles of counterinsurgency.
One of Kaplan’s dissident heroes is Lt. Col. John Nagl, a Rhodes scholar who returned from a bloody tour in Iraq convinced that the Army was losing the war. “He roamed the Pentagon’s corridors with a gaunt, hungry look on his face, seeking someone, anyone, who might take the slightest interest in counterinsurgency,” Kaplan writes. In Petraeus, Nagl found a kindred spirit.
Their counterinsurgency doctrine — a product of intensive study and relentless marketing — formed the foundation of Petraeus’s strategy in Iraq in 2007. The Army manual was downloaded more than 1.5 million times in its first month and landed a lengthy review in the New York Times. By 2009 it was being celebrated as the answer to America’s mounting woes in Afghanistan as well.
Kaplan’s and McChrystal’s accounts converge in Afghanistan, where McChrystal, a new four-star commander, faced a war that was deteriorating rapidly. He singled out the corrupt and predatory Afghan government as the driving force behind the Taliban’s rise. He asked for 40,000 more soldiers and Marines, who were to live with Afghan army forces, protect villagers from Taliban attacks and rebuild the Afghan government. His approach was classic counterinsurgency.
The most prominent attack on the strategy came from the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, a retired three-star general who had been the commander of U.S. forces several years earlier. Eikenberry argued that McChrystal’s strategy was sure to fail as long as Hamid Karzai was Afghanistan’s president. “It strains credulity to expect Karzai to change fundamentally this late in his life and in our relationship,” he wrote in a classified cable to Washington.
At the time, McChrystal saw the Eikenberry cable as a betrayal. In his memoir, though, he devotes only a few paragraphs to it. “There was little of Karl’s analysis that I disagreed with,” he writes. “But based on my understanding of the mission the president had given us, I concluded that we had few options, and none of them were easy or enticing.”
The Eikenberry cable, however, points to a fundamental problem with Petraeus’s and McChrystal’s counterinsurgency doctrine, which seeks to bolster the local government’s legitimacy in order to win over the populace and sap the guerillas’ strength. If a country’s ruling elite do not share America’s interests or are unwilling to change their corrupt ways, even the most sophisticated counterinsurgents are doomed to fail, Kaplan concludes. To that end, he derides McChrystal for foolishly “kowtowing” to Karzai in the hope that he might be able to change the Afghan president.
McChrystal, however, never lost faith in the Afghan leader. He searched for small signs that he had won Karzai’s trust and respect. On a harrowing helicopter ride through a driving rainstorm, he recalls, Karzai reached into his pocket and passed him a dry handkerchief to wipe his face. McChrystal cites the gesture as evidence that his approach was working.
“I believed in people, and I still believe in them,” McChrystal writes in his book’s epilogue. “I trusted and I still trust.”
It is an admirable quality in a military leader. But when applied to the Karzai government, it sounds more like a prayer.
When Petraeus assumed command in Afghanistan, he took a tougher approach with Karzai and cast aside McChrystal’s counterinsurgency guidance, which had emphasized restraint over aggression. “Pursue the enemy relentlessly,” Petraeus wrote. “Together with our Afghan partners, get our teeth into the insurgents and don’t let go.”
The brief counterinsurgency renaissance that Petraeus and McChrystal inspired is finished. The Obama administration sealed its demise last year when it ordered the Army to stop using the doctrine in its planning for future conflicts. Meanwhile, the president has ramped up the lethal targeting machine that McChrystal built in Iraq. Today, McChrystal’s commandos are fighting an endless and secret war in far-flung locales such as Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.
This is the new American way of war. And McChrystal will be remembered as the general who reluctantly created it.
is a co-author of “The Fourth Star” and a reporter for The Washington Post.