ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- He still sleeps just five hours a night - up at
3:30 a.m. and out for a morning run or workout - and eats a single meal a
Stanley McChrystal lives in a comfortable brick townhouse in
this Washington suburb these days, not in spartan personal quarters
above the military command center in Kabul. But the habits of a lifetime
It has been 2 1/2 years since his three-decade career
in the Army, which included leading a transformation of the nation's
most secret counterterrorism operations, came to an abrupt end with the
publication of a Rolling Stone article headlined "The Runaway
General" that quoted his team denigrating the country's civilian
leaders. An aide had awakened him at 2 a.m. when the story was published
and warned, "It's really bad." An hour later, the commander of the war
in Afghanistan knew he would have to resign.
Little surprise that since then McChrystal, 58, has avoided reporters. Now, with publication Monday of his memoir, My Share of the Task,
he spent a morning last week with USA TODAY to talk about the black-ops
operation he ran, the controversies he's caused and what's ahead as
America's longest war finally nears a close.
"I don't miss the
bureaucracy of the government, and I don't miss the politics," he says
as he walks from home to the offices of the consulting firm he
co-founded, three blocks away. What does he miss? "I miss the soldiers,
and I miss the Afghanistan mission."
He won't be at the table this
week as key decisions on the future of Afghanistan are being made.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with McChrystal was
probably closer than with any other top U.S. official, is scheduled to
meet with Obama in Washington on Friday. Meanwhile, Obama is weighing
Pentagon recommendations on troop levels in Afghanistan after most
combat forces are withdrawn by the end of next year.
McChrystal was the architect of a counterinsurgency strategy designed to
turn around a war that was faltering. The approach relied on U.S. and
allied ground troops not only to kill the enemy but also to build trust
with ordinary Afghans, and to help forge a credible Afghan government
and security force. In a memo soon after he took over - and leaked to The Washington Post - he warned that the United States risked "mission failure" without 40,000 additional troops.
who had just been elected on a promise to wind down the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan, agreed to send 30,000 more even as Vice President
Biden and others argued for fewer troops and a more limited U.S. role
that targeted terrorists.
That disagreement is at the heart of the
friction that eventually cost McChrystal his job. In an October 2009
speech in London, McChrystal called the counterterrorism strategy Biden
backed "shortsighted" and a recipe for chaos. That prompted an
early-morning phone call from his boss, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike
Mullen, over the apparent criticism of the vice president.
"It wasn't intended as such," McChrystal says, "but I could have said it better."
says Obama didn't mention the speech when they met aboard Air Force One
in Copenhagen the next day, contrary to published reports. But he says
his relationship with the president never really recovered after the
furors over the leaked memo and the London remarks.
Most damaging of all, the Rolling Stone
article out in June 2010 described the scene as McChrystal and
wise-cracking aides prepared possible responses to questions at a speech
in Paris. "Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal is
quoted as saying with a laugh. "Who's that?" His staff was quoted
referring in derogatory terms to the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, a
State Department special envoy and the White House national security
Braced for impact
McChrystal says he was
taken totally by surprise when he read the story, although he still
declines to confirm or deny the accuracy of the quotes. (In an
interview, Annie McChrystal, who was in Paris at the time to celebrate
their 33rd wedding anniversary, does dispute the article, saying the
insubordinate tone it reports "wasn't what I heard.") McChrystal refuses
to assess the leadership of the presidents he most closely served,
George W. Bush and Obama. And while he confirms that he voted for Obama
in 2008, he won't say whether he did so again in 2012.
"I'm not a
media expert, but I knew that the impact of the story would be very,
very significant," he says wryly. He called Mullen and Gen. David
Petraeus, then head of the U.S. Central Command, and Annie. Summoned
back to Washington, he offered his resignation to Obama the next
"I knew that as a commander, regardless of what I might
think about the origin of the controversy, that I'm responsible," he
says. "The hard part of command is that you're responsible for
everything. But the marvelous simplicity of command is that you're
responsible for everything."
The Afghanistan command seems to have
been a particularly unlucky post. McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. David
McKiernan, was removed amid concerns about the war's course. Petraeus,
McChrystal's successor, resigned as CIA director last year when an
extramarital affair he had in Afghanistan was revealed. Petraeus'
replacement, Gen. John Allen, faces a Pentagon investigation into
e-mails with a Florida socialite that has delayed plans for him to
become the NATO supreme allied commander in Europe.
won't discuss Petraeus' situation ("That's really his business") and
demurs when asked if the missteps might signal something amiss with
military culture, perhaps a sense among generals that the rules don't
apply to them. "I haven't tried to connect the dots," he says.
critics cite continuing difficulties in Afghanistan - including a
Karzai government accused of rampant corruption and Afghan security
forces that have struggled to step up - as evidence the strategy he
devised has failed. The debate has been revived by Obama's pending
decision on U.S. troop levels after the end of next year, when he has
promised to withdraw most of the 66,000 troops now there.
many topics, McChrystal speaks with emphatic certainty of a soldier on a
mission. On the future of Afghanistan, however, he responds with the
most cautious of words. "I'm not confident that I can predict how things
are going to turn out in Afghanistan," he says during an interview in
the study of his home. "I think it is possible a government of
Is it also possible the country will fall
into a civil war? "There's that possibility, but I'm not convinced that
that's the outcome," he says.
In a decade, what are Americans likely to see in Afghanistan?
10 years, when we look at Afghanistan we're still going to see the
scars of the current period. They're not going to be out from the
challenges that the last 34 years have given them," he says. "I don't
think it'll be particularly pretty. It may not be elegant from Western
eyes. But I think they will work toward a workable solution that works
for the Afghan people."
He defends the decision to redouble the
U.S. commitment, despite the costs. "You could give a kidney to a nun
and you'd be criticized for it," he says. "That approach, to me, was the
only approach. You have to give an opportunity for the nation,
Afghanistan, to be something." What happens next, he says, will be up to
If the assessments of McChrystal's record in Afghanistan
are mixed, he is credited in his previous job with building a more
effective and more lethal counterterrorism operation that eviscerated
al-Qaeda in Iraq and transformed the way the United States tracks
From 2003 to 2008, he was chief of the Joint Special
Operations Command, which oversees the Army Delta Force and units of the
Navy SEALs. (The command was once so secret that the Pentagon wouldn't
confirm it existed.) He convinced the CIA, the FBI and other
sometimes-reluctant agencies to work across agency lines at an
accelerated pace and in an unprecedented way.
A wartime transformation
you had had before was a very, very good commando force, but the
reality was that as completely insufficient for what we needed," he
says. "We knitted together all these organizations, and intelligence
community elements, in a team that I don't think has been done before.
And we did it in real time while we were fighting a war."
this time, he was touched by a scandal after Cpl. Pat Tillman was killed
by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Tillman, a defensive back for the
NFL's Arizona Cardinals, enlisted in the Rangers after the Sept. 11
attacks in 2001, a publicity boon for the Army. Although McChrystal
writes that he knew within 24 hours that Tillman's death probably was
the result of friendly fire, he signed off on a misleading Silver Star
citation that became part of a Pentagon coverup.
The book details a
counterterrorism operation that sounds scripted in Hollywood: an array
of officials seated around a U-shaped hub in a command center north of
Baghdad, officers next to computer geeks. The unit gathered
intelligence, interrogated detainees and analyzed video from high-flying
drones in real time.
"We used to do one (raid) every six months
and we thought we were smoking," he recalls. "Then, in August 2004, we
were doing 18 a month, and we thought, 'This is breakneck speed.'" By
the summer of 2006, they were ordering a dizzying 300 raids a month in
Iraq - 10 a night.
He details for the first time the operation
that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the charismatic leader of al-Qaeda in
Iraq, an extraordinary enterprise that involved combining hard-won
information from an Iraqi detainee and weeks of surveillance tracking a
man the Iraqi had identified as Zarqawi's spiritual adviser.
It is a tale worthy of Zero Dark Thirty, the blockbuster movie detailing the hunt for Osama bin Laden. McChrystal says the movie captured some crucial realities.
of the things that if you watch the movie carefully comes through
really well is that the effort to bring Osama bin Laden to justice was
more than a decade," he says. "It was hundreds and thousands of people, a
lot of them working in the shadows, some of them losing their lives in
this long effort that required so many kinds of expertise."
Sabers and a shiv
an Army Ranger and a Green Beret, McChrystal retains the intense
demeanor and the lean physique of a commando. He has set up his
consulting firm with the same open space and U-shaped hub he used in
Iraq and Afghanistan. And while he has written a memoir, it is hardly a
tell-all. You can take the special-ops general out of the military, but
apparently you can't take the instinct for discretion out of the
Among the memorabilia on the wall of his home study is a simple wooden plaque with no identifying names or emblems.
a classified organization," the citation reads. "For the stories that
should never be told, the books that should never be written, and the
memories and appreciation that will never be forgotten." Mounted on it
is a lethal-looking metal shiv of the sort once issued to spies in the
OSS, the precursor to the CIA.
In a case just below are military sabers from two of his grandfathers.
military bloodlines run deep. His father was a two-star Army general
who fought in Korea and Vietnam. All four of his brothers served in the
Army. His only sister married an Army officer; two of her children were
serving in Afghanistan when McChrystal was there, one in Special Forces
and another in the Army Rangers. His son, Sam, who lives down the block
from him, is an analyst for an intelligence agency.
In his formal
Pentagon photo, McChrystal sports a chestful of ribbons, a road map of
the places he has served and the awards he has won, among them a Bronze
Star. When USA TODAY proposed a graphic detailing what each stood for,
he refused to cooperate. "Those are of no importance to me," he said.
made a similar point in 2010 when he asked that his retirement ceremony
be conducted in Army combat uniforms, not in the customary dress blues.
There was a 17-gun salute, an Army marching band and a tribute from
then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who called McChrystal "one of
America's greatest warriors."
"My service did not end as I would
have wished," McChrystal acknowledged when he spoke, then added a mock
warning that brought a wave of laughter. "I have stories on all of you,
photos on many," he said. "And I know a Rolling Stone reporter."