Hastings, in his hard-hitting new book, discusses “politically correct imperialism,” why the military is obsessed with its legacy, and why we’re stuck in post-9/11 thinking.
By: Robert Greenwald
Not many journalists can say they had a hand in getting a commanding general relieved of duty in the middle of a war. But Rolling Stonereporter Michael Hastings did just that when his 2010 story on Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, sent shockwaves through Washington and resulted in McChrystal being recalled to DC and uneremoniously fired by Barack Obama.
Hastings’ report, “The Runaway General,” detailed how McChrystal and his top officers spoke of their civilian superiors with sneering condescension, and revealed that they didn’t genuinely embrace the counterinsurgency strategy being sold to the public at home. The piece was a result of fortuitous circumstances. Hastings had at first been allowed only controlled access to McCrystal, but when European air-traffic was grounded following the eruption of the Eyjafjöll volcano in Iceland, Hastings ended up catching a bus to Berlin with McChrystal and his staff, who let down their guard during the extended ride.
The young journo is a veteran war correspondent who covered Iraq as well as Afghanistan. The McChrystal story wasn’t Hastings’ first significant report, and it wouldn’t be his last — in 2011, he broke a story about how David Petraeus, McChrystal’s replacement in Afghanistan, was using military psy-ops units to influence visiting United States senators’ views of the conflict.
Hastings’ new book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, draws on his extensive grounds-eye-view reporting from the decade-long conflict. Filmmaker Robert Greenwald, director of Rethink Afghanistan, caught up with Hastings to discuss his book and the ongoing war.
Robert Greenwald: Let me congratulate you on this book, it’s an absolutely wonderful read. I felt like I was reading some combination of a detective story, a movie screenplay and Orson Welles all at the same time.
Michael Hastings: Thank you so much.
RG: One of the ideas that you talk about is that the “terrorist safe haven” is the “weapons of mass destruction” of the Afghanistan war. Why don’t you explain how you came to that realization and why it’s important.
MH: Well, I call it the “safe haven myth.” And what that means is that this idea that the best way to protect ourselves from getting attacked in the United States by terrorists is to invade and occupy other countries – that’s essentially what they mean when they say we can’t accept terrorist safe havens. And the response to the safe havens has been to expend billions of dollars and tens of thousands of American troops to try to prevent something that is quite nebulous.
I mean, it’s very clear a terrorist safe haven can be anywhere, and they are everywhere. So the notion that the best way to defeat them or to make yourself safer from a terrorist is by occupying countries always struck me as funny. How are 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan going to protect us from another terrorist attack? And the answer is they’re not. That hasn’t happened because all the other terrorist attacks we’ve seen, and attempted terrorist attacks, they’re not coming from Afghanistan. The terrorists have moved.
Whether they’re coming from Nigeria and Yemen or different parts of Pakistan or Connecticut, you know? The Times Square bomber, the foiled plot there, was hatched in Connecticut – is it a terrorist safe haven as well? No. And it gets to the larger point, which is that if you considered terrorism a law enforcement problem you were considered to be some sort of appeasing Neville Chamberlain type. But in fact, that’s the way to defeat terrorists.
I mean, every study shows that the way to defeat terrorist networks is through law enforcement and intelligence gathering, it’s not through invading and occupying.
RG: Yeah, I’ve read a lot of those studies and it couldn’t be clearer that there are ways to get terrorists, and the way that’s guaranteed to fail is to invade, occupy, kill lots of innocent people. So do you have a sense of how and why this theory came into being? I mean, is it completely driven by the politics of the Bush administration? The think tanks in DC? Some combination thereof? Because it’s so far off the mark in terms of any rational notion about keeping us safer.
MH: I think it has to do with the original reaction to September 11. By going into Afghanistan where, at the time, Osama bin Laden was being given safe haven by the Taliban. It was a legitimate rationale — “Okay, the Taliban government is protecting this terrorist and as a response to that we are going to punish this government for their actions.”
And at that time, remember, there were warnings. In 2001 people were warning, oh, this could be a quagmire … and again, they were laughed off the stage. So then, 10 years later when we were clearly in a quagmire, the military having kind of sunk their claws into the war find themselves in a situation where they need to justify all the tremendous outlay of resources.
And so the way they came up to justify what they were doing was to adopt these counterinsurgency tactics. Now, this is where counterinsurgency relates to the terrorist safe havens because General David Petraeus said, and I found this during the research, he said counterinsurgency is the framework we should view counterterrorism through. And that’s not true, and everyone knows that’s not true. But they had to come up with a justification to continue to pursue the policies that they wanted to pursue.
A general told me recently that the military is risk-averse and legacy obsessed. And I think that’s interesting. Especially the legacy-obsessed part. Because once they started in Iraq, and once they sort of started on this project in Afghanistan, it’s much less risky to keep doing what you’re doing. Leaving is a risk. Staying and doing what you’re doing, you know what the outcome is going to be because you’ve been doing it for 10 years.
And legacy-obsessed means they don’t want to have a repeat of Vietnam. They want to be able to say — the Pentagon wants to be able to say, General Petraeus and General McChrystal want to be able to say that they won. And so that’s why they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing until they can convince everyone that they won.
RG: Now, I underlined so many things in your book that it would take a day to just quote them all. But one quote that stuck with me summed up the essential flaws in the thinking, the safe haven flaw, if you will: “Marja must be controlled in order to eventually control Kandahar. Kandahar must be controlled to control Afghanistan. Afghanistan must be controlled to control Pakistan. Pakistan must be controlled to prevent Saudi Arabia terrorists from getting on a flight at J.F.K. Airport in Jamaica, Queens.”
Did that revelation all come to you at the same time? Or how were you able to put that together and make it so crystal clear?
MH: Well, to me this was apparent in Iraq, but it’s also apparent in Afghanistan: that nothing that we’re doing on a daily basis — by “we” I mean NATO and U.S. forces — has anything to do with preventing another September 11. I mean, 99 percent of the people we killed over these past 10 years would never have posed a threat to the United States. I mean, that’s a devastating indictment of our endeavors — it’s devastating.
RG: Well, when we began our work on Afghanistan, we did it at a time when the war was incredibly popular — it was the right war – but a cursory look made it clear that the fundamentals made no sense. Iraq, you could argue — obviously we were opposed to it – but you could argue they had weapons of mass destruction and therefore you should do something. It was a wrong but rational argument. In Afghanistan, I cannot find rational, logical arguments for doing what we’re doing.
MH: In 2008, after my first trip to Afghanistan, I came back and did a story forGQ, and my editor said something — and it’s a line I’ve stolen from him – he said we’re stuck in post-9/11 thinking. There was this whole period of time where you could be accused of pre-9/11 thinking, but what’s happened is we’re stuck in post-9/11 thinking. And these misconceptions that I think took hold quite early have become institutionalized. And institutionalized in a way that is meant to shut down debate.
Because you may say, well, we should get out of Afghanistan, and then the answer is, well, what about the terrorist safe havens? Grover Norquist actually made the argument that there’s a reason why there’s not a robust debate from the other side about Afghanistan – it’s because they know how flimsy their argument is.
And we haven’t even gotten to the fact that by being in these places – and with the trauma that we’re inflicting on these societies while we’re there – that’s the way you create terrorists, it’s not the way you defeat terrorists.
RG: Yes, well, with the exception of you and a few others we have allowed some of these folks to get away with outrageousness under the pretense that it’s serious thinking. And I think the so-called liberal hawks have also done us an extraordinary disservice for which they have paid no public price. And you had a really good name for it — “politically correct imperialism.” And I just love that.
MH: It’s really amazing to see. And the sort of liberal human-rights pro-war community, they only use these sort of human rights issues when it’s to their advantage. The great argument is we can’t leave Afghanistan because what about the Afghan women?
And the problem with that line of thinking is not that, oh, you know, I’m not concerned with the fate of Afghan women, it’s that the U.S. government and the Pentagon is never going to be concerned with the fate of Afghan women. And the only reason these arguments are used is to put forth these sort of plans for constant war.
But I should rephrase that. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just not a priority. And all these human rights issues that get put out there as reasons to stay, are just, in my mind, again, it becomes a strange form of this politically correct imperialism. If the U.S. government were actually concerned about the fate of these native populations, then you clearly wouldn’t want to invade them and raid their houses and detain tens of thousands of their citizens. Does anyone really think that we have any concern at all for the fate of Afghan women?
But again, that’s taken as a serious argument. You know, people at the Council on Foreign Relations will argue strenuously that’s why we have to be in Afghanistan.
RG: I want to move to a Colbert quote and talk about the Pentagon and the media. There’s a great quote of his from the White House Correspondents dinner, whenever that was, 2006: “Let’s review the rules, here’s how it works. The President makes decisions, he’s the decider. The press secretary announces the decisions, and you people of the press type these decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put them through a spell check and go home.”
It’s common knowledge about Iraq, but I think the price that we’ve paid for the press being stenographers, or as you call it, the “media military industrial complex,” is significant. And I do not think it’s a question of just sort of attacking some bad journalists, although that can be done, but I’d like you to talk about the institutional way that Pentagon approaches this.
MH: Well, one point on Stephen Colbert’s speech: it’s now considered sort of this amazing speech because it was, but at the time a lot of journalists panned it. Oh, they hated it because it hit too close.
I mean, look, there are a lot of excellent journalists doing great, great work. But the reason I called it the “media military industrial complex,” and one of the sort of insights that I have had is that they call it the Pentagon Press Corps, right? And you sort of think, oh, well it means the people who kind of watch over the Pentagon and perform the media’s watchdog function, but no, it’s an extension of the Pentagon. For the most part.
I mean, when was the last time anyone at the Pentagon broke a story that wasn’t pre-approved? It’s very, very rare. And the reason why it’s so difficult — and this gets to the information operations and the public affairs — it’s a very difficult story to tell because you’re lifting up the curtain on what have become very common practices for journalists to do.
And I noticed this first in Iraq when things were going horribly — this is in 2005, 2006, 2007 when I was there. And the spokespeople in the military public relations apparatus would just lie to your face. Every day they would lie. It was general Caldwell who was one of the spokes people there who I would sit next to at these briefings and he would say everything’s fine, you know? And there might have been four car bombs that morning.
And what’s been scary is that these sort of information operations tactics … most journalists consider them no big deal. And when you try to point out, ‘hey, this isn’t right.’ you get your head chopped off.
I did a story about this information operations team trained in psychological operations that was being asked to spin and influence visiting senators. Did the media respond by saying, ‘let’s launch an investigation, let’s make sure we don’t do this?’ No, they responded by attacking the whistle blower and then at the same time saying, ‘oh, it’s no big deal, this is fine. Of course generals use their information operations psy-ops guys to put together material, it’s not a big deal, it’s just normal public relations.’
But wait a second here. This is not just normal public relations — there are entire operations in the Pentagon whose goal is not just to influence the enemy’s population but in fact the more important goal is to influence the U.S. population. And the line that used to be, or was supposed to have been the red line between public relations and information operations, meaning one you use on Americans and one you use on the enemy, they are tearing that firewall down. So you have generals with public media handlers and they have these contracting companies that are collecting data on who’s tweeting what and they have different Twitter “sock-puppets” that they’ve put up to try to manipulate all these different social media.
And at some point they’re essentially waging this global information war against their own citizens. So that, to me, is the most disturbing trend of it all. And General Petraeus at one point said the most important thing about Iraq was information operations, information operations, information operations. And in the context he was saying it, he meant in terms of convincing the Iraqi people that things were going well. But the real people he was convincing were back in Washington. That’s who the target of all the spin really is.
RG: And when you said the people of Washington … so you are talking about the decision-makers who get impacted by this, right?
MH: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of really good reporting that’s come out on the ground while you’re over there. But you look at the reporting that comes out of Washington on some of this stuff and it’s bonkers, it’s just so far off base.
I haven’t ever really looked at the numbers, but you count up the budget of every major news organization in Afghanistan, and I would guess American news organizations spend maybe 10 million a year, maybe 20 million to cover Afghanistan. The Pentagon itself is spending 5 million just to have one information operations unit there, and they have hundreds of them. So the actual military in Afghanistan is putting hundreds of millions of dollars of resources into manipulating the media. And the media is spending $10 -20million to try to find, in theory, the truth. So it’s this huge power imbalance that you’re always fighting against.
And God forbid you step outside the packet, as some journalists have done, and point this out. Yeah, we all know they’re lying but you’re not supposed to say it, you know? We know we’re getting bullshit every day, but come on, man, don’t point it out — that’s not classy.
RG: Right. So I know that it’s systemic, but are there individual reporters whom you want to call out publicly for their sort of following the Pentagon line and not doing their job?
MH: Yeah. I saw a pretty egregious example with the New York Times Pentagon correspondent who literally just published the Pentagon spokesperson’s anonymous quotes when he was reporting on my stories. And he didn’t bother to call Rolling Stone for a comment, of course, because, well, he’s got the official line from the Pentagon.
But I would also call out a group of very influential national security reporters who work at most of the major media outlets. And if you look closely at their resumes, they all belong or have been paid by, or have worked for very influential think tanks. Now again, what’s the big deal? These think tanks — Center for New American Security is sort of the most egregious example — are funded by defense contractors. These think-tanks also employ a lot of retired generals. And,, more importantly, they are promoting very specific pro-war policies.
And so they put the guys on their payroll whose job it is to cover the policies they’re promoting. And you go through the list, all of them – the New York Times,the Washington Post — have had their guys on the payroll of these major influential think attention, again, funded by defense contractors, and then we expect them to cover their friends and colleagues very critically? They haven’t.
One guy said to me, “I don’t think that just the fact that they had a job or had a stipend or had an office space at these places impacts their coverage.” I said, “I don’t know about that. They’re all on the same team, you know, in this atmosphere.” And CNAS, amazingly enough, brags about the influence it peddles. They brag about all the big time journalists they have on their payroll and the influence that that brings.
And you can call it soft influence peddling, but I think it’s more than that. Look, if you’re a police reporter but you’re working for a police officer association’s policy network which is funded by the police groups, you would be called out for it. If you were a golf reporter and you’re being paid by the PGA but writing for a national publication, you would be called out for it.
So the fact that they haven’t … well, they have been but it just doesn’t stick because they’re all complicit. I mean, that’s the rub. And I understand that it’s tough to make a living as a writer, and these institutions give you an office space, they give you time, they give you money to do more interesting projects, but what’s the price of that? The price is that you have to pull a lot of punches. And you may not even be realizing you’re doing it. But I think they do, I think they’re just playing the game.
RG: Right, the club. Moving from that to the final question I wanted to ask you about. When you exposed what was going on with McChrystal and his team over there, you said you learned by going out in the field not at the K Street cocktail parties …
MH: Yeah, and that was a comment that endeared me to many of my friends in Washington, I’m sure.
RG: I’m sure it did. But an important one because it’s a very clear dividing line, and a very clear perspective. You got quite viciously attacked. Was it organized? Was it the club? And how did you respond to those attacks? And have they had any lasting effect?
MH: Well, look, at first I was perplexed and thought, ‘oh, these guys just don’t get what I’m doing or they’re confused.’ But then I realized it was a little more pernicious than that. I’m trying to think of exactly how I should put this. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by it.But I was. I got a horrible review in the Wall Street Journal which was comical in many ways because it was written by a defense contractor, it was written by a guy who worked for General Petreaus and general Caldwell, and they didn’t disclose that.
But this reviewer says, you know, ‘Hastings is a fuck up because he follows in the tradition of Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, and not reporters who work for the New Yorker or The New York Times.’ And why that was interesting to me was because, I agree, I totally agree with that analysis, but it’s because Neil Sheehan and Dave Halberstam, their experiences were forged while they were in their 20s in Vietnam, you know? They were young reporters covering this stuff. So they saw the war not working first-hand. And that had a very profound impact on how they viewed everything.
And there’s a number of journalists, of my contemporaries, who I would name but I don’t want to get them in trouble, who also have seen these sort of same sort of things unravel in our 20s. And that’s the most formative kind of experience for us. Now on the other hand, you have these kind of liberal hawks guys who their first big war was Iraq, and they were dead wrong about it, you know? They’re these foreign policy experts who were just dead wrong.
And so how do you deal with that? How do you come to terms with that? And my answer to that would be I don’t think they came to terms with it well. As you see when they lash out.
And you can’t ever forget the impact of the complete failure of many of the top names in the media when it comes to the Iraq war. And we’ve never come to terms with it. They just can’t. The guys who were the worst offenders cannot come to terms with their moral responsibility in terms of waging the war in Iraq. And in fact, again, you see them making statements today like, ‘oh, well I didn’t really support that,’ or ‘I was ambivalent,’ or ‘well, I didn’t publicly support it.’ And you think they would have learned with Afghanistan to question more and to not just cheerlead the whole thing.
The fact that every journalist in the Pentagon Press Corps wasn’t standing up when they were going to escalate in Afghanistan and saying, ‘are you guys fucking kidding me? We’re going to escalate in Afghanistan? Are you guys nuts? Have you all gone mad?’ But the majority just reported that some unnamed military official says McCrystal wants more troops, and Obama better give them to him. You know? It was pathetic. It was really, really pathetic.
RG: Which was worse: the reporting on Iraq or the reporting on Afghanistan?
MH: I don’t know. I trash the media but in many ways you can actually be quite well informed if you read The New York Times and the Washington Post and all these places – again, I want to make the distinction between the reporting out in the field and the reporting that happens in Washington … you can get a pretty good sense of what’s going on, you know, from reporters in the field.
But unfortunately, in this warped Beltway view of the world, what happens on the ground matters much less than what happens in Washington. I mean, the great catalyst — and this I write about extensively in the book – the great catalyst for the Afghanistan debate was not what was happening in Afghanistan, it was the fact that Bob Woodward published a report in Washington. It was the leak. That was the great catalyst of the Afghanistan debate in the first year of President Obama’s administration.
Which is really incredible because it’s not like Afghanistan was that much worse than it was six months or a year or two years earlier. I mean, it was a little bit worse but not, you know, not entirely noticeably worse. But it was the fact that it became a political issue in Washington that actually impacted the debate.
RG: Yes. Well, I think that’s an important, and a good distinction. And we found that in our work also — that talking to the reporters who were there in the war zones on the ground is like speaking a totally different language than those who were only at the cocktail parties.
I want to thank you for the book, and the work you’ve done, Michael, and encourage anybody reading this to get a copy. It’s an important book, and it’s a great read. And I keep pretty well informed, but there’s all kinds of stuff that I didn’t know about until I read your book.