How Rolling Stone Got Into McChrystal's Inner Circle

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It’s the kind of story that ricochets through Washington—and around the world—at lightning speed. "The Runaway General," published by Rolling Stone and written by former NEWSWEEK reporter Michael Hastings, recounts the misgivings of Stanley McChrystal (the commanding general in Afghanistan) and the closest members of his team about President Obama, French diplomats, civilian leaders in Afghanistan, and pretty much everyone. Immediately, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai proclaimed his support for the general. But calls are getting louder for his resignation. Obama has summoned the general to explain himself face-to-face in Washington. NEWSWEEK’S Andrew Bast talked by phone to Michael Hastings, still in Afghanistan, about his article and how it had turned Washington (and perhaps the war) on its head.

You’re in Kandahar at the moment. Surely you’ve heard, but your article has unleashed a furor stateside. President Obama will be meeting with General McChrystal on Wednesday. Did you expect this?
I’m actually shocked by the response. Because usually we end up ignoring Afghanistan, so I’m quite surprised it’s creating such a stir. I knew I had some decent material to work with, but I’m surprised at the level of involvement.

You think that Afghanistan has fallen off the radar back home?
I think it has. And I think that McChrystal and his staff feel that, too. That’s part of the frustration that was vented in the story.

You reported a lot of sentiments that are usually only expressed in private—why were the general and his team so candid?
Part of it was the circumstances. They were in a different environment. They were in Paris. But you would really have to ask them why they gave me the access that they did.

Can you explain how the article came about—what was the pitching and reporting process?
I was Baghdad correspondent for NEWSWEEK for two years, and I left the magazine after covering the elections. I wrote a piece for GQ before Obama took office that raised some serious questions about the direction we were taking in Afghanistan. So it was something I wanted to be writing about. I saw General McChrystal and his new strategy as a way to look at our Afghan policy to see if it’s working or if it’s a totally insane enterprise. I met with editors at Rolling Stone, they seemed into the idea, so I e-mailed McChrystal’s people. I didn’t think I was going to get any access at all. It’s one of those strange journalistic twists. They said yes, come on over to Paris to spend a couple days with us.

How much time did you spend with McChrystal over the month?
Another strange journalistic twist. The Icelandic volcano happens, and so my two-day trip turned into this month-long journey following General McChrystal and his staff around from Paris to Berlin to Kabul to Kandahar and then back to Washington, D.C. I wasn’t with him at every moment, obviously, but fairly regularly over that period of time.

One of the most vivid scenes in the stories comes when you are out with the general, his wife, and his team for a night on the town in Paris. His team is entirely forthright with you, did that surprise you?
Well, they were getting hammered, I don’t know at that moment if they were being the most forthright. Of course it was surprising. A lot of the reporting that is getting most of the attention happened right away in the first few days in Paris. So I was surprised—because they didn’t know me.

It was always clear that you were a reporter and you were, in essence, on the record? And more, the entire article was thoroughly fact-checked, yes?
Yes. It was crystal clear to me, and I was walking around with a tape recorder and a notepad in my hand three-quarters of the time. I didn’t have the Matt Drudge press hat on, but everything short of that it was pretty obvious I was a reporter writing a profile of the general for Rolling Stone. It was always very clear.

What’s the response from the military been? Do you think your access will be cut in the future?
The most interesting response has been, in Kandahar, and having more than one person come up to me and saying, "We heard about your story, and we like McChrystal, but the message needs to get out there that these restrictions he’s putting on the soldiers are no good." So it’s actually been a positive response among the soldiers here.

You write that General McChrystal is perhaps closer than any American to Karzai. If the general goes, what does that do for the relationship between Washington and Kabul, and well, the future of the war?
You’d think it would be hard for the relationship between Karzai and Washington to get any worse, but obviously a change in generals is not going to help. Whoever it is, they would have to establish their own relationship. Gen. McChrystal and his guys take a pretty pragmatic view toward Karzai—he’s the only game in town. I assume any general is going to have the same problem, because the wheels are set in motion and coming up with a solution to deal with Karzai is one of the major issues.

Describe how this debate all looks from Afghanistan, away from the politics of Washington—what does the war look like today?
I’m getting ready to go out on a mission with U.S. troops. They’re concerned with doing the job that’s in front of them. I’m trying to take the same attitude—I’m just reporting the story that I’m here to report right now. The way I view journalism is you try to focus on the story, report what you see and hear, try to piece it together, and then tell the reader what is really happening. I did that, and the aftermath is not really something I can control. Especially when I have no Internet connection, the power keeps going out, and the occasional fighter jet flies overhead, which is not suitable for phone interviews, at all.

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