In Kabul, the entrance to the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force—the coalition of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan—is easy to miss. Ever since the Taliban blew up the main gate a month ago, visitors have been required to pass through a small metal door and down winding, dingy passageways topped with barbed wire. Inside the ISAF compound, grimy trailers, used to provide office space, are stacked up around a seedy, once grand building that was long ago a social club for officers of the British Empire. There was a bar, but a couple of weeks ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal outlawed alcohol on the base, and he has indicated that he wants to turn a small, pretty garden, a tiny oasis of green, into a rifle range.
McChrystal, 55, is a purebred warrior, the son of a two-star general, West Point class of '76, a former commander of the elite Rangers Regiment, and, from 2003 to 2008, the head of hunter-killer black ops in Special Operations. He eats one meal a day, works out obsessively every morning at 5, and is so free of body fat that he looks gaunt. Lately, as commander of the war in Afghanistan, he has become a kind of Zen warrior, preaching that often "the shot you don't fire is more important than the one you do." He is a student of what he calls "counterinsurgency math." If you encounter 10 Taliban members and kill two, he says, you don't have eight remaining enemies. You have more like 20: the friends and relatives of the two you killed.
McChrystal reinforces his sermon early every morning in a dreary, windowless bunker at a meeting called the CUA (pronounced koo-ah), for commander's update assessment. He sits in the back row of five tiers of computer modules, facing giant video screens streaming with data and statistics. One day last week, when a briefer informed him that two Taliban had been killed the day before by soldiers using a multiple-rocket launcher, McChrystal dryly noted, "That's an awful lot of firepower to kill two people." He used gentle humor to chide an officer who presented a convoluted diagram full of boxes and arrows to illustrate counterinsurgency in Kandahar. "The day we can explain that, we've won," the general observed.
McChrystal has a disarming, low-key style, free of the bombast and sense of entitlement that can come with four stars. He is polite and gracious, if direct, and he can be funny. At the end of the CUA, an officer brought up the spate of articles appearing in the American press suggesting that McChrystal's request for more troops in Afghanistan was being seriously questioned by policymakers in Washington, including President Obama. McChrystal had sent his chiefs in the Pentagon a secret assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, which he described as "deteriorating" and headed for "failure" unless the Americans sent more troops. The 66-page document had been leaked to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, setting off a buzz of critical stories in the media. Hawks seized on the report to argue that Obama was going all wobbly, while critics of the war suggested the military was dragging him toward another Vietnam. The controversy caused evident anxiety among McChrystal's commanders at the morning briefing. The officer asked if General McChrystal was feeling the pressure. "I am," McChrystal allowed, and deadpanned, "Money would make me feel better." There were a few laughs as his legal adviser, Col. Rich Gross, gave the general a dollar, but the joke fell a little flat. McChrystal's people want to believe in him, and they want to believe in their mission; they do not want to see McChrystal's judgment questioned—and certainly not his integrity.
At the morning briefing, McChrystal tried to make light of stories in the press quoting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying McChrystal's call for more troops was just one opinion among military experts. "She's absolutely right," said McChrystal to his lieutenants. "There are other experts and they're smarter than me," though, he quipped, "not in this room." The jokes were uncharacteristically lame, as if he was struggling to put a bright face on bad news. Later that evening, eating his one meal of the day (salmon salad, chick-en, strawberry shortcake), McChrystal was clearly troubled—"a bit bothered," as he put it—by the rumors appearing in the media that he might resign over his differences with those unnamed other experts in Washington. "It is my responsibility, my duty—my sacred duty," he said, to tell the unvarnished truth to his leaders, but then to carry out their orders. He would not resign, he said, even if they rejected his advice.
Duty, that most noble of military virtues, is a deceptively simple notion. "Duty, Honor, Country" is the motto of the U.S. Military Academy. But what if duty to your troops conflicts with duty to your political leaders? What then is the honorable thing to do for your country? McChrystal would not acknowledge that there might be a conflict. But virtually everything he said to me over the course of an hour last week suggested that he believes he cannot carry out his mission in Afghanistan without more troops. He would not say how many he is asking for in a still-secret document, but knowledgeable military officials who would not be quoted discussing classified information say the number is about 40,000. Maybe McChrystal will salute smartly if he is ordered to make do with fewer. He has great political skills; he couldn't have risen to his current position without them. But he definitely does not see himself as the sort of military man who would compromise his principles to do the politically convenient thing. At the very least, when he is called back to Washington to support his assessment and recommendation, he will make a strong public case that only an all-out campaign of counterinsurgency against the Taliban will accomplish his assigned mission—to make sure that terrorists do not use Afghanistan as a base for terrorist operations against the United States.
McChrystal has led a charmed life until now, in part because his leadership skills have been obvious and recognized. His inspiration was his father, a Korean and Vietnam War combat vet who was, according to his son, the "non-Great Santini"—soft-spoken, never a bully. "I never, ever saw him do the wrong thing in my whole life," says McChrystal. "I never saw him say, 'With a wink and a nod we can get around this.' "
At West Point, the younger McChrystal was "a troublemaker," he recalls. He often violated the drinking ban and got caught at it, walking hundreds of hours of punishment drills, pacing up and down a stone courtyard in full-dress uniform, carrying a rifle. As a senior, McChrystal organized a mock infantry attack on a school building, using real guns and rolled-up socks as grenades, and was nearly shot by the military police guarding the building. But his classmates compared him to the Cooler King, the charismatic renegade played by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. His tactical officer at West Point made him a battalion commander, one of only a dozen on campus.
He became a Green Beret, a Ranger, and an assistant division commander in the 82nd Airborne. Twice he was taken aside by senior officers and told that he needed to get a certain staff or desk job to advance his career, but he declined in order to stay in the field. Curiously for such a warrior, he did not see combat in his early Army years. "I missed Panama and Grenada, and it bothered me. You always wonder how you'll do," he says. Rising to become a Special Operations commander after 9/11, he finally did go on combat operations, though, he says, "I've never shot anyone." Still, he has been a very effective killer. When he was head of the Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan and Iraq, from 2003 to 2008, McChrystal's black-ops teams hunted high-value targets (HVTs), eliminating some notorious ones like Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the ruthless head of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Along the way, "I became kind of an ascetic," says McChrystal. "I got fat as a lieutenant, so I started jogging and eating one meal a day, and it just worked for me." His wife, Annie, whom he married out of West Point and with whom he has a son (who chose not to become a soldier), scoffs at the suggestion that her husband is some sort of spiritual samurai, and says he just doesn't like the drowsy feeling he gets after eating a big meal. She also laughs about the fact that he has seen the raunchy NASCAR spoof Talladega Nights so many times, he can recite the lines (he can do the same for Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
Nonetheless, others say that Mc-Chrystal is like an ancient warrior-scholar, constantly reading history, pondering the mysteries of human nature. He studied for a year at Harvard in the 1990s and took a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, running to work every day from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., a dozen miles away. He was known at both elite institutions for his humility. "He's not a Petraeus," says Parag Khanna, who shared an office at the CFR. "He's not a publicity seeker." Reading about the struggles for national liberation in Indochina from the 1950s through the Vietnam War, McChrystal became fascinated by the challenges of counterinsurgency. He learned that putting down a guerrilla movement was impossible without winning the support of the local population. His convictions were reinforced by his experience running black ops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Counterter-ror operations—hunting down HVTs—went hand in hand with effective counterinsurgency, with winning over the local population. Indeed, he came to believe, "you can't have one without the other." To successfully find and kill terrorists requires the intelligence and cooperation that only the locals can provide. McChrystal already had this mindset before Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed him forward to replace Gen. David McKiernan as head of Coalition forces in Afghanistan. It was one of the rare occasions when a theater-of-war commander has been removed. (Truman's dismissal of General MacArthur during the Korean War is another.) The Pentagon was trying to send a message. In the view of Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, McKiernan had spent too much time trying to coax along the squabbling and sometimes inert NATO force commanders, and he didn't have the necessary background to implement a new counterinsurgency strategy.
Mullen and Gates found the right man to shake things up. Arriving in Kabul last June, McChrystal announced that there were two types of people at his headquarters: "Martyrs and people that are going home." The general's audiences sometimes don't know if he is being serious or kidding. "People who don't know me sometimes don't laugh," he says. "Others laugh nervously. People who do know me laugh, but they also know it's true." (McChrystal's deeply loyal staffers like to joke that they've "climbed aboard the pain train.")
McChrystal immediately decreed that the ISAF troops were going to learn how to get along with the local population. It took less than a week for him to start to make his point. He was part of a convoy blasting through city streets at 60mph when the speed limit was 20mph. The soldiers were driving heavily armored vehicles right down the middle of the road, pointing their weapons at civilian vehicles, forcing them to the side. When the convoy stopped, McChrystal took aside the commander and dressed him down. "This is exactly the way you create the ugly ISAF," he said in a low but cold tone. He issued a directive: from then on, all ISAF forces would obey local driving laws. (More difficult, he tried to set an example by not wearing body armor. "The Afghans don't wear body armor," he would say, but he ran into grumbling and resistance.)
There is a strong emphasis in the military on what is called "force protection." Many officers believe their first priority is to bring their troops home safely. To that end, American soldiers gear up in helmets and bulletproof vests and ride in massive armored vehicles. "It was like we were going through Afghanistan in a submarine," sighs McChrystal. He wants his troops to get out in the field, away from the comfy forward operating bases and into the street. In past wars, there was a term called REMF, for "rear-echelon motherf--ker." The new term of derision is FOBBIT, for those who never leave their forward-operating base. To cut down what McChrystal calls "the recreational attitude," he has been methodically closing down the concessions that sprout up on American bases—Pizza Hut, Burger King, Baskin-Robbins. "We don't need 31 flavors to fight a war," said a McChrystal aide who did not wish to be identified, but observed that when he was based at Camp Victory in Iraq early in the war there, it was possible to shop for 39 varieties of flat-screen TVs.
If lazing about on a couch is classically American, so is aggressively attacking the enemy. "It's not the American way to back down from a fight," says Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, deputy commander of Special Operations and a friend and classmate of McChrystal's. Traditionally, the "American way of war" has been to overwhelm the enemy with superior firepower. McChrystal has been after his junior officers and soldiers to think twice before they shoot. "Is it worth killing that insurgent if you might also kill a family in the compound? Probably not," he says. When he first arrived, he asked, "Why do we even have 2,000-pound bombs? Afghanistan doesn't have big-enough targets for them." He issued another directive instructing troops not to call in airstrikes or supporting fire unless necessary for self-defense. This order has cut down on civilian casualties, probably the biggest obstacle to winning the trust of the Afghans.
Young American soldiers who a few years ago might have sought combat as a macho way to "get some" are learning self-restraint. But McChrystal also has to deal with the opposite problem—allied forces whose national leaders basically want them to stay out of the fight. The Germans do not fight at night, and the Canadians have pulled back from combat in recent months. McChrystal has no power to order them into battle.
A month ago, the Germans called in an airstrike on two hijacked fuel trucks. Perhaps 90 people died in the fireball, maybe a third of them civilian. McChrystal immediately went on the local airwaves to apologize, antagonizing the Germans, who initially proclaimed no civilian casualties. He further irritated the Germans by shutting down the bar at ISAF headquarters. McChrystal last week jetted off to Europe to stroke allies, some of whom refuse to use the word "war," preferring "armed humanitarian conflict."
The general's real diplomatic challenge is at home in Washington. He was taken aback last week by the flap over the leak of his assessment of the Afghanistan war. "It's sort of like, 'Why is this happening to me now?' " says his executive officer and old friend, Col. Charles Flynn. McChrystal was palpably uncomfortable with the suggestion that Obama was having second thoughts about the whole counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The general, who admires Obama, has met him only three times, and has never really had the chance to discuss the war with the president in any depth. If asked back to Washington, McChrystal says, he would welcome the opportunity to make his case for more troops. ("General McChrystal knows this is not the appropriate time for him to come back to speak to Congress," says Geoff Morrell, a spokesman for the secretary of defense. "He knows his views are well represented in Washington.") McChrystal's aides point out that if Obama does approve the additional troops, it will still take months to get them into the theater—while the war continues to go downhill.
The general is trying to put the best face on the stories of dissent bubbling up in Washington. "The debate is healthy. The worst thing would be no debate," he says. He is aware that there is a move on, reportedly emanating from the office of Vice President Joe Biden, to give up on nation building in Afghanistan and just go after the terrorists in their lairs. Or, maybe just trying to bring security to Kabul and a few provinces, and leave the rest to the Taliban. With some effort, McChrystal tries to be open-minded about his critics. "Maybe they're right," he says.
But it's obvious he thinks they're wrong. He uses the analogy of a burning building: "You can't hope to contain the fire by letting just half the building burn." His chief of intelligence, Gen. Mike Flynn, says flatly, "Civil war would immediately break out. You'd have a failed state, like Somalia, only much harder to get to."
The enormity of the challenge facing McChrystal and his team becomes clear from attending their morning CUA. Reams of data stream across the video screens, but what does it really mean? ISAF is building more power generators, but what good does it do when the power is stolen or cut off—which in a thoroughly corrupt, broken country, routinely happens? McChrystal has a bright staff, but they're smart enough to know what they don't know. Cmdr. Jeff Eggers—a Navy SEAL with an Oxford degree who was the chief drafter of McChrystal's assessment—notes, for instance, that it would be useful to know who usually shoots first in a fire fight with the Taliban. Often the side that takes the initiative has better intelligence. The problem is "we don't know who shoots first. We can't tell," says Eggers. He blames the conflicting reports on the fog of war.
McChrystal is so sincere, well informed, and impassioned that he will make a good case for getting more troops if and when he is ever summoned to Washington. But he has a natural bias toward assertive action, not retreat. What if Obama says no to more troops, or does not approve enough troops? "I'll do the best I can," McChrystal says. "He's not the type to resign to make some kind of political statement," says his friend General Kearney.
On McChrystal's shelf is a novel called Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer. The book, which pits a noble warrior named Sam Damon against a conniving careerist named Courtney Massengale, has a cult following in the military. "I've read it about six times," says McChrystal. He is "flattered" to be compared to the Damon character, as he often is by his admiring staff. But he adds that the book is actually complex, and that the Damon hero is a "bit too rigid," while the villain Massengale is "brilliant when he wants to be." McChrystal has an appealing earnestness and openness (he doesn't hesitate to tick off his flaws: "I'm impatient, I shoot from the hip, I ride my staff too hard…"), but one senses a certain wiliness as well. There are many ways to be a good soldier, and McChrystal wants to be them all.