Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star general, was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan but resigned in the wake of a candid interview that was critical of Vice President Biden and others. (H. Darr Beiser / USA TODAY)
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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 day.
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 die hard.
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 said as he walked 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 Meanwhile, Obama is weighing Pentagon recommendations on troop levels in Afghanistan after most combat forces are withdrawn by the end of next year.
In 2009, 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.
Obama, 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."
McChrystal said Obama didn't mention the speech when they met aboard Air Force One in Copenhagen the next day, contrary to published reports. But he said 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 adviser.
Braced for impact
McChrystal said 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 said 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 morning.
"I knew that as a commander, regardless of what I might think about the origin of the controversy, that I'm responsible," he said. "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 emails with a Florida socialite that has delayed plans for him to become the NATO supreme allied commander in Europe.
McChrystal 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 said.
McChrystal's 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.
On 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 said during an interview in the study of his home. "I think it is possible a government of Afghanistan succeeds."
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 said.
In a decade, what are Americans likely to see in Afghanistan?
"In 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 said. "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 defended 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 said. "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 said, will be up to Afghans.
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-Qaida in Iraq and transformed the way the United States tracks terrorists.
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
"What you had had before was a very, very good commando force, but the reality was that as completely insufficient for what we needed," he said. "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."
During 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-Qaida in Iraq, an extraordinary enterprise that involved combining hard-won information from an Iraqi detainee and weeks of surveillance tracking a man the Iraqis 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 said the movie captured some crucial realities.
"One 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 said. "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
Once 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 general.
Among the memorabilia on the wall of his home study is a simple wooden plaque with no identifying names or emblems.
"From 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.
McChrystal's 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.
He 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."