Book Review
Sunday, April 8, 2012
The Wild and Terrifying Story of Our War in Afghanistan

By Reviewed by Ron Hignight

"The Operators"

By Michael Hastings

Blue Rider Press, $27

Dust covers are meant to be tantalizing and the cover of Michael Hastings' book, "The Operators," shows a four-star general, in dress uniform replete with ribbons, medals and rank, with a loosened tie while holding a highball and an automatic pistol.

The general is Stanley McChrystal, who -- upon disclosures previously made by the author in an article, "The Runaway General," for Rolling Stone magazine -- was fired by President Obama as American commander of the Afghanistan War.

I have kept up with the Afghanistan War, including news reports of the termination of Gen. McChrystal, and saw two or three TV interviews with Hastings, the youthful Vermont author, answering the questions of envious reporters. I am one of a now-growing number of people who believe the United States should find the nearest exit out of Afghanistan and quit the place. I picked up this book not expecting to gain any additional information but, rather, to see how a supposedly perfect specimen of the new breed of journalist writes.

It is my sincere hope that this new breed of journalist is a short-lived incident of literature. Rather than thoughtful prose, the reader is treated to a series of "tweets." One expects to be treated with excessive profanity in a no-holds-barred first-person and interviews with the actors -- but not from the author.

It's hard to find any appreciable span of paragraphs not laced with the author's own profanities. I find it difficult to be grateful for it.

The book is largely made up of tweets and emails, the preferred communication methods not only of the new breed of journalists but by staff officers of the military as well. Hastings constantly had a tape recorder going, a fact subsequently acknowledged by the former staff officers who made no effort to guard their comments, opinions, complaints or assessment of their civilian bosses. There are ample direct quotes from all the "operators." When the back-room talk was first exposed, there was no other conclusion to be drawn other than that made by the White House: The general and his staff were trying to dictate American policy.

At the time of the McChrystal affair, some seven years into the war, McChrystal perceived that he needed additional troops to wage the already faltering counterinsurgency effort of the military. The president was trying to establish a policy of drawing down troops without abandoning the counterinsurgency effort, aimed at eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan while maintaining the hunt for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Instead of making his assessment known only to the president who was responsible for policy, McChrystal allowed the need for additional troops to go public in the hopes of pressuring Obama into prosecuting the war and pursuing American public policy his way. With Hastings' disclosures of talk criticizing and ridiculing the president, vice-president and State Department officials, Obama seized the opportunity to regain control of policy by discharging McChrystal.

As a commentator, Hastings (free of his profanity) establishes a clear need to revisit the current U.S. policy of counterinsurgency that, according to a substantial margin of experts, should be abandoned. Counterinsurgency, for those who have not been following closely, simply means we have tasked the military, with ineffectual State and U.N. support, of winning the hearts and minds of the country. We provide the Afghans with schools, roads, power plants and water-treatment plants and attempt to referee disputes between hundreds of tribes, sects, warriors and warlords. We are providing them with the largess of democracy and free enterprise, which we forget should be earned -- as a gift, it has historically been unappreciated.

The ultimate hope of the U.S./Afghanistan policy is, of course, to have a friendly nation centered in the Islamic world that will abstain from fostering and nurturing terrorists. The Afghans, however, do not share the diplomatic dreams of the American people. In a country with a literacy rate barely reaching 20 percent, the principle aim is to make sure no one takes off with one's goats and, if they do, to wage a war of attrition until the threat is removed and the goats recovered. The Afghans clearly do not want us to be there. We are waging a cultural war to change the hearts and minds of people who do not wish to be changed.

The point is raised in Hastings' book that our constantly shifting policy overriding and directing the Afghanistan War is, in effect, a solution in search of a problem.

In the current Republican political chase for the presidency, three candidates have consistently said that they would defer to the commanders in the field when pressed for policy regarding Afghanistan. This is dangerous, provocative and not in keeping with our American democracy where the people determine the policy that the military carries out.

After the recent massacre conducted by a professional soldier against Afghan civilians, now more than ever must policy emanate from the American people and through their president, not from the operators in the field.