ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- He still sleeps just five hours a night - up at3:30 a.m. and out for a morning run or workout - and eats a single meal aday.
Stanley McChrystal lives in a comfortable brick townhouse inthis Washington suburb these days, not in spartan personal quartersabove the military command center in Kabul. But the habits of a lifetimedie hard.
It has been 2 1/2 years since his three-decade careerin the Army, which included leading a transformation of the nation'smost secret counterterrorism operations, came to an abrupt end with thepublication of a Rolling Stone article headlined "The RunawayGeneral" that quoted his team denigrating the country's civilianleaders. An aide had awakened him at 2 a.m. when the story was publishedand warned, "It's really bad." An hour later, the commander of the warin 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-opsoperation he ran, the controversies he's caused and what's ahead asAmerica's longest war finally nears a close.
"I don't miss thebureaucracy of the government, and I don't miss the politics," he saysas he walks from home to the offices of the consulting firm heco-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 thisweek as key decisions on the future of Afghanistan are being made.Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with McChrystal wasprobably closer than with any other top U.S. official, is scheduled tomeet with Obama in Washington on Friday. Meanwhile, Obama is weighingPentagon recommendations on troop levels in Afghanistan after mostcombat forces are withdrawn by the end of next year.
In 2009,McChrystal was the architect of a counterinsurgency strategy designed toturn around a war that was faltering. The approach relied on U.S. andallied ground troops not only to kill the enemy but also to build trustwith ordinary Afghans, and to help forge a credible Afghan governmentand 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.
Obama,who had just been elected on a promise to wind down the wars in Iraqand Afghanistan, agreed to send 30,000 more even as Vice PresidentBiden and others argued for fewer troops and a more limited U.S. rolethat targeted terrorists.
That disagreement is at the heart of thefriction that eventually cost McChrystal his job. In an October 2009speech in London, McChrystal called the counterterrorism strategy Bidenbacked "shortsighted" and a recipe for chaos. That prompted anearly-morning phone call from his boss, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. MikeMullen, over the apparent criticism of the vice president.
"It wasn't intended as such," McChrystal says, "but I could have said it better."
McChrystalsays Obama didn't mention the speech when they met aboard Air Force Onein Copenhagen the next day, contrary to published reports. But he sayshis relationship with the president never really recovered after thefurors over the leaked memo and the London remarks.
Most damaging of all, the Rolling Stonearticle out in June 2010 described the scene as McChrystal andwise-cracking aides prepared possible responses to questions at a speechin Paris. "Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal isquoted as saying with a laugh. "Who's that?" His staff was quotedreferring in derogatory terms to the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, aState Department special envoy and the White House national securityadviser.
Braced for impact
McChrystal says he wastaken totally by surprise when he read the story, although he stilldeclines to confirm or deny the accuracy of the quotes. (In aninterview, Annie McChrystal, who was in Paris at the time to celebratetheir 33rd wedding anniversary, does dispute the article, saying theinsubordinate tone it reports "wasn't what I heard.") McChrystal refusesto assess the leadership of the presidents he most closely served,George W. Bush and Obama. And while he confirms that he voted for Obamain 2008, he won't say whether he did so again in 2012.
"I'm not amedia expert, but I knew that the impact of the story would be very,very significant," he says wryly. He called Mullen and Gen. DavidPetraeus, then head of the U.S. Central Command, and Annie. Summonedback to Washington, he offered his resignation to Obama the nextmorning.
"I knew that as a commander, regardless of what I mightthink about the origin of the controversy, that I'm responsible," hesays. "The hard part of command is that you're responsible foreverything. But the marvelous simplicity of command is that you'reresponsible for everything."
The Afghanistan command seems to havebeen a particularly unlucky post. McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. DavidMcKiernan, was removed amid concerns about the war's course. Petraeus,McChrystal's successor, resigned as CIA director last year when anextramarital affair he had in Afghanistan was revealed. Petraeus'replacement, Gen. John Allen, faces a Pentagon investigation intoe-mails with a Florida socialite that has delayed plans for him tobecome the NATO supreme allied commander in Europe.
McChrystalwon't discuss Petraeus' situation ("That's really his business") anddemurs when asked if the missteps might signal something amiss withmilitary culture, perhaps a sense among generals that the rules don'tapply to them. "I haven't tried to connect the dots," he says.
McChrystal'scritics cite continuing difficulties in Afghanistan - including aKarzai government accused of rampant corruption and Afghan securityforces that have struggled to step up - as evidence the strategy hedevised has failed. The debate has been revived by Obama's pendingdecision on U.S. troop levels after the end of next year, when he haspromised to withdraw most of the 66,000 troops now there.
Onmany topics, McChrystal speaks with emphatic certainty of a soldier on amission. On the future of Afghanistan, however, he responds with themost cautious of words. "I'm not confident that I can predict how thingsare going to turn out in Afghanistan," he says during an interview inthe study of his home. "I think it is possible a government ofAfghanistan succeeds."
Is it also possible the country will fallinto a civil war? "There's that possibility, but I'm not convinced thatthat's the outcome," he says.
In a decade, what are Americans likely to see in Afghanistan?
"In10 years, when we look at Afghanistan we're still going to see thescars of the current period. They're not going to be out from thechallenges that the last 34 years have given them," he says. "I don'tthink it'll be particularly pretty. It may not be elegant from Westerneyes. But I think they will work toward a workable solution that worksfor the Afghan people."
He defends the decision to redouble theU.S. commitment, despite the costs. "You could give a kidney to a nunand you'd be criticized for it," he says. "That approach, to me, was theonly approach. You have to give an opportunity for the nation,Afghanistan, to be something." What happens next, he says, will be up tothem.
If the assessments of McChrystal's record in Afghanistanare mixed, he is credited in his previous job with building a moreeffective and more lethal counterterrorism operation that evisceratedal-Qaeda in Iraq and transformed the way the United States tracksterrorists.
From 2003 to 2008, he was chief of the Joint SpecialOperations Command, which oversees the Army Delta Force and units of theNavy SEALs. (The command was once so secret that the Pentagon wouldn'tconfirm it existed.) He convinced the CIA, the FBI and othersometimes-reluctant agencies to work across agency lines at anaccelerated pace and in an unprecedented way.
A wartime transformation
"Whatyou had had before was a very, very good commando force, but thereality was that as completely insufficient for what we needed," hesays. "We knitted together all these organizations, and intelligencecommunity 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."
Duringthis time, he was touched by a scandal after Cpl. Pat Tillman was killedby friendly fire in Afghanistan. Tillman, a defensive back for theNFL's Arizona Cardinals, enlisted in the Rangers after the Sept. 11attacks in 2001, a publicity boon for the Army. Although McChrystalwrites that he knew within 24 hours that Tillman's death probably wasthe result of friendly fire, he signed off on a misleading Silver Starcitation that became part of a Pentagon coverup.
The book details acounterterrorism operation that sounds scripted in Hollywood: an arrayof officials seated around a U-shaped hub in a command center north ofBaghdad, officers next to computer geeks. The unit gatheredintelligence, interrogated detainees and analyzed video from high-flyingdrones in real time.
"We used to do one (raid) every six monthsand we thought we were smoking," he recalls. "Then, in August 2004, wewere doing 18 a month, and we thought, 'This is breakneck speed.'" Bythe summer of 2006, they were ordering a dizzying 300 raids a month inIraq - 10 a night.
He details for the first time the operationthat killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the charismatic leader of al-Qaeda inIraq, an extraordinary enterprise that involved combining hard-woninformation from an Iraqi detainee and weeks of surveillance tracking aman 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.
"Oneof the things that if you watch the movie carefully comes throughreally well is that the effort to bring Osama bin Laden to justice wasmore than a decade," he says. "It was hundreds and thousands of people, alot of them working in the shadows, some of them losing their lives inthis long effort that required so many kinds of expertise."
Sabers and a shiv
Oncean Army Ranger and a Green Beret, McChrystal retains the intensedemeanor and the lean physique of a commando. He has set up hisconsulting firm with the same open space and U-shaped hub he used inIraq and Afghanistan. And while he has written a memoir, it is hardly atell-all. You can take the special-ops general out of the military, butapparently you can't take the instinct for discretion out of thegeneral.
Among the memorabilia on the wall of his home study is a simple wooden plaque with no identifying names or emblems.
"Froma classified organization," the citation reads. "For the stories thatshould never be told, the books that should never be written, and thememories and appreciation that will never be forgotten." Mounted on itis a lethal-looking metal shiv of the sort once issued to spies in theOSS, the precursor to the CIA.
In a case just below are military sabers from two of his grandfathers.
McChrystal'smilitary bloodlines run deep. His father was a two-star Army generalwho fought in Korea and Vietnam. All four of his brothers served in theArmy. His only sister married an Army officer; two of her children wereserving in Afghanistan when McChrystal was there, one in Special Forcesand another in the Army Rangers. His son, Sam, who lives down the blockfrom him, is an analyst for an intelligence agency.
In his formalPentagon photo, McChrystal sports a chestful of ribbons, a road map ofthe places he has served and the awards he has won, among them a BronzeStar. When USA TODAY proposed a graphic detailing what each stood for,he refused to cooperate. "Those are of no importance to me," he said.
Hemade a similar point in 2010 when he asked that his retirement ceremonybe conducted in Army combat uniforms, not in the customary dress blues.There was a 17-gun salute, an Army marching band and a tribute fromthen-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who called McChrystal "one ofAmerica's greatest warriors."
"My service did not end as I wouldhave wished," McChrystal acknowledged when he spoke, then added a mockwarning 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."