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The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan

The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings. Blue Rider Press, 2012, 432 pp.

In his book The Operators, Michael Hastings and Blue Rider Press attempt to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the author’s explosive Rolling Stone article that ultimately led to the dismissal of Gen Stanley McChrystal as head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) coalition force in Afghanistan. They do so by taking a broader look at the Afghanistan conflict and McChrystal’s leadership therein. Throughout his book, Hastings conveys obvious disapproval of the US military’s “protect-the-population” counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics used in Iraq by Gen David Petraeus and in Afghanistan by McChrystal. Hastings begins the book by effectively moving back and forth between two time frames: (1) the period in the spring of 2010 leading up to and including his “embedding” with General McChrystal and a handful of senior staff and junior aides who accompanied him on a European trip to several NATO nations, and (2) the transition between Gen David McKiernan’s removal from command and the selection of McChrystal and his assumption of command. Gradually, the earlier time frame accelerates, “catching” the later setting, and the book’s latter stages summarize General Petraeus’s command tenure, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and, finally, President Barack Obama’s decision on 24 June 2011 to begin the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan.

Hastings joins General McChrystal and a small team of advisers and aides in the middle of an official trip to Europe where General McChrystal was visiting the leadership of several NATO nations. In what appears to be a “perfect storm,” the author captures several salacious quotations, primarily from a small handful of aides, over dinner and other conversations that he openly shares with the reader. It’s clear, at least to this reader, that the aides to McChrystal did not expect their comments to appear in an article, despite Hastings’s claims in the book that he occasionally asked questions and took notes during the visit. Several members of McChrystal’s team, including the general himself, had their wives fly out to join them during the visit. In fact, the McChrystals’ 33rd wedding anniversary added to the festive social atmosphere during meals, travel, and evening hours. Unfortunately for these officers, all this time Hastings was meticulously capturing their social banter for later revelation. In the author’s defense, evidently no one in McChrystal’s party had the good sense to characterize these social gatherings specifically as “off the record”; furthermore, some of the questionable remarks occurred during meetings and preparations for briefings.

An unbiased reader is left with several conclusions after perusing Hastings’s time with McChrystal and his party. First, General McChrystal was very close to his personal aides, his executive officer, and a couple of other advisers on the trip to Europe. A commander who handpicks advisers he trusts and with whom he feels comfortable runs the danger of becoming too friendly and casual with these subordinates and allowing unprofessional fraternization to seep into the daily routine. Moreover, in a deployed environment, the commander and his or her close advisers spend long days together, seven days a week. Throw into this mix a trip to Europe, spouses, and a chance to let off a little steam between official functions, and the further danger emerges of letting down one’s guard. Additionally, perhaps fueled by a series of generally favorable profiles published by other writers, McChrystal and his team completely dropped their guard and seemed to assume that this young Rolling Stone writer would jump on board with the team and ignore the occasional “locker-room” trash talking that occurs among the staff, including the occasional disrespectful comments towards officials of the US government and others.

Unfortunately for Hastings, he and his publisher’s “gotcha” approach to journalism distracts the reader from the broader and predominantly unrelated message he attempts to convey in the book—that the current COIN tactics employed by US, coalition, and Afghan security forces are folly and doomed to failure. Furthermore, Hastings believes that any actions beyond hunting terrorists are wrongheaded, and he loosely ties his perception of the United States’ COIN failures in Vietnam and Iraq to its COIN strategy in Afghanistan. However, to get to his thesis, readers have to slog through tabloid-style hyperbole, starting with the book’s covers. Both the front and back covers contain outrageously misleading and disrespectful pictures of a four-star general—presumably McChrystal, with the head portion conveniently cut off at the top of the page—holding a bottle of booze in one hand and a weapon in the other. Furthermore, the inside jacket speaks of “hotel bars where spies and expensive hookers participate in nation building gone awry,” implying some sort of untoward involvement by the McChrystal team with prostitutes and spies—an assertion unsupported by any material in the book. Additionally, The Operators includes a photo of a hand-drawn pornographic sex act from a US combat outpost not mentioned in the text, seemingly serving no purpose other than implicitly shouting, “Wow! Look what these GIs think up in their spare time!” This salacious photo is a cheap shot at deployed Soldiers and their families, adding nothing of value to the narrative’s main point and reinforcing the stereotyped image of the immoral Western occupier soiling the Islamic nation of Afghanistan. Overall, for readers interested in a balanced portrayal of General McChrystal, his team, and the US strategy in Afghanistan, I suggest they find a different book to read—one that presents both sides of the debate in a more mature fashion and without the tabloid-style journalism that accompanies the narrative in The Operators.

Col Matthew C. Brand, USAF

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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