Recently the wife and I dined with friends we hadn’t seen since Christmas. The Usual (social) Suspects asked what I’d been up to. I answered that from early January through mid-March, I wrote 100,000 more words and finished the first draft of Pack of Lies. The second half of the month, the boss and I took a break to visit the US for a son’s spring break baseball barnstorming trip around Maryland and Virginia. Now that I was back in Singapore, my head was full of sawdust from a chest cold plus jetlag.

 

Books and travel go hand in hand, and I’ve read several books since issuing West’s Bests in 2017 | Picks and Pans in the Thriller Genre (1 February). For True Lies nation, the most interesting book was The Operators (2012) by Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings. It’s the story of Special Forces general Stanley McChrystal’s one-year stint in charge of the Afghanistan War mid-2009 through mid-2010. I gave it four stars overall.

Source: Rolling Stone, The Operators Michael Hastings cover shot

 

I’m of two minds about The Operators. I was impressed by Hasting’s analyses and anecdotes: he can write. I also agree that the US and our allies have no reason to be there. The majority of this blog entry explores these topics. Conversely, I disliked the hatchet job Hastings did on McChrystal. Hastings’ Rolling Stone article reprinted every ill-considered comment uttered by the general’s team. The result was Obama fired the general within forty-eight hours of publication. Hasting’s defense was that the people quoted actually said what he attributed to them, and by saying it on tape they got what they deserved. He ignores that McChrystal’s inner circle confided in him, thinking him at least honorable enough not to sink them with their own words.

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

As for Pack of Lies, starting next week I’ll put my head down and do a full-length edit. Then I’ll bring in the structural editor and alpha readers before finalizing the book in July with the help of a copy editor. In August the advance reader copies go out to True Lies nation and the PR drums will begin to beat ahead of a fall launch. At least that’s the outline, but as a wise general once said, “No plan survives the first contact.”

 

Bradley West

 

Singapore

 

April 14, 2017

REVIEW OF THE OPERATORS | AFGHANISTAN AS A MONEY-SUCKING, BLEEDING QUAQMIRE

 

One man brings down a hero

 

Author Michael Hastings ingratiated himself and then betrayed the people who trusted him. The imperfections on display surely weren’t of career-ending magnitude under normal circumstances. I suspect that a contributing factor was the free pass the press previously gave General Stanley McChrystal on two matters that were worthy of dismissal if proven. One was the cover-up of the torture and abuse of interrogation subjects by Task Force 6-26 (the secret unit hunting Musab al-Zarqawi) from 2004. The second was the whitewashing of Army Ranger (and ex-NFL star football player) Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. Maybe in Hastings’ mind his demolition piece was justified because McChrystal got off with a wrist-slap in each instance.

 

I don’t excuse McChrystal or his entourage, either. When you’re the smartest guys in the room, you’re supposed to act like it. McChrystal’s team let their guard down with Hastings because they wanted an adulatory Rolling Stone cover story. They allowed themselves to be seduced by a journalist who wanted to tear them down for being warrior elites who thought they knew better and/or for unpunished past sins. I’m just glad Hastings never was around when I worked: this fellow would have ended my career after the third beer.

 

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s focus on the war in Afghanistan and whether the US should be there. Spoiler alert: Not now, and maybe not ever, post-Tora Bora in late 2001 when bin Laden bought his way out of that infernal cave complex.

 

“The Vietnam Principle”

 

I’ve read many books about the US’s three most recent wars: Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie told the story of America’s misadventures in Vietnam through a biography of John Paul Vann. It’s a brilliant book and won a Pulitzer Prize for Sheehan (dubbed “The last prisoner of the Vietnam War” as it took him sixteen years to complete his masterwork). The takeaway was that the US shouldn’t be fighting wars to support unpopular leaders and/or dysfunctional governments. If the population of a particular country wasn’t rallying around the government, then the war would eventually prove unwinnable and the US must keep away.

 

Source: Random House/Penguin, Bright Shining Lie cover and blurb

 

Against that backdrop, Hastings has this to say (paraphrased by me) about President Hamid Karzai and his government:

 

  1. Karzai came to power in 2001 on the back of the US invasion post-9/11. Elected president in 2004 with medium-level polling fraud. Re-elected in 2009 after massive voting fraud (e.g. 200% turnouts in pro-Karzai cities) despite $300 million spent by NATO democracies supporting fair elections. Karzai as of 2009 was hated by most locals and the US officials who interacted with him. However, Karzai ran the security forces and state media, and there was no credible alternative.

 

  1. The corrupt Afghanistan government wasn’t worth supporting, so most talented Afghans left or squirreled money abroad. Of the $70 billion in aid money given from 2002 to 2009, at least $18 billion couldn’t be accounted for. The Afghan elites cynically referred to the present as “The golden era: the time when we all get our gold.”

 

  1. In a particularly damning chapter entitled, “President Karzai has a Cold,” Hastings described the disconnect between the US military and Karzai. Karzai unilaterally opted out of a joint military initiative conceived by McChrystal and supplied by the US. All Karzai had to do was take a short trip and pose for photos, but he decided to spend the day in bed instead because he had a cold.

 

General Mike Flynn (McChrystal’s 2IC and in the news more recently over his contacts with Russia’s ambassador post-Trump’s election) said that when Karzai was elected president in 2004, the US should have bowed out. Instead the US plowed on, and the Afghans in the government and army got lazy and greedy. Now it’s a morass.

 

So Afghanistan didn’t pass muster under the Vietnam Principle. That alone is reason enough for the US to take the advice of Senator Richard Russell in 1964 when he advised Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, “Declare victory and get the hell out.”

 

Three more compelling reasons not to be in Afghanistan

 

Hastings notes many other reasons against the ongoing US troop deployment as well, but three struck me as particularly pertinent.

1.Counterinsurgency (“COIN”) warfare as endorsed by McChrystal & Co was falsely equated to the War on Terror via the linkage to denying terrorists safe havens from which to launch more attacks on the US mainland. By 2009, there were maybe one hundred al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan. Did the US need 50,000 troops to nullify this threat?

 

The planning for terrorist attacks against the West took place primarily in the West (from 9/11 through to the recent Paris-Brussels outrages). Fighting in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban from coming to power as a way of safeguarding home soil employs flawed logic. A RAND study from 2008 entitled “How Terrorist Groups End” said that military force worked in only 7% of the cases. (A negotiated settlement was the most effective approach.)

 

The strong believers in COIN said that between one and four hundred thousand US troops would be needed to win a “hearts and minds” campaign, something that was politically and financially infeasible.

2.Afghans hate foreigners. It’s perhaps their single defining trait and far more powerful a motivator than any flavor of Islam or ideology. The more foreigners are visible, the greater the inclination to oppose them. Afghanistan is a very conservative society, tribal and xenophobic. Most disputes in Afghanistan are local and warlord-based. The Afghan people hate the warlords, yet the US mostly ignored local crime bosses unless they were allied with the Taliban.

 

To portray the Taliban as a national force arrayed against the domestic army and ISAF forces was a gross simplification. The real issue was the unwelcomed presence of the International Security Assistance Force (“ISAF”, essentially NATO and a few other allies) troops. To Karzai’s credit, he was consistent in saying he didn’t want additional foreign troops in-country.

 

There was a deep split between the Afghanistan security forces and the people ostensibly there to help them. Quote from an officer at a firebase, “Ninety percent of the people are not friendly. All they want to do is kill us.”

 

  • US soldiers cited their counterparts’ drug use, thievery, dishonesty, no integrity, incompetence, corruption, bad morale, side deals with insurgents, AWOL a lot, lazy, bad hygiene and mean to dogs.

 

  • Afghan soldiers said that the US troops were arrogant, bullying, unwilling to take advice, unconcerned about civilian casualties, urinated in public, cursed at the locals, and shot farm animals. Furthermore, Americans were cowards, traveling in armored vehicles and relying on close air support in battle.

 

The result? US and Afghan forces didn’t trust each other: green-on-blue violence in one six-month period resulted in 16% of total ISAF casualties. (For the overall war, the proportion fell to “just” 6%.) Afghanistan troops surveyed said they thought a suicide Taliban bomber stood a better chance of entering heaven than a US soldier who died in combat.

 

3.The cornerstone of the US withdrawal plan was the professionalization of the Afghanistan police and army: train them up and the ISAF forces would go home. It was an abject failure in the early years. Lt. General William Caldwell arrived in late 2009 to Camp Eggers to take over. It was a $12 billion a year operation under NATO’s auspices located in downtown Kabul, spread over six blocks. Cumulative 2002-2008 prior spending on the same topic: $30 billion.

 

Only 20% of new recruits could read. A quarter deserted. Over half smoked hashish regularly. Child rape was endemic. “Boys are for pleasure, women are for children” was a popular expression. Caldwell’s starting point was to teach the recruits how to read. Nothing improved longer term.

 

McChrystal’s War (June, 2009-June, 2010)

 

Four-star General Stanley McChrystal, legendary leader of JSOC in Iraq, had a high-powered team who came to Kabul armed with energy and ideas. Stan’s team worked insane hours to try to change the Big Army mentality. McChrystal espoused COIN, minimization of civilian casualties, and a less trigger-happy military.

 

Hastings wrote that McChrystal’s predecessors had said the same thing since 2004, so in the author’s mind the media mistook style for substance now. This is unfair to McChrystal: even Hastings’ own reporting shows that the general’s team was far more effective about changing how the US waged the war than any of his predecessors. (Whether these changes went too far or fell short is another topic altogether.)

 

The following points give a flavor of how McChrystal’s thoughts and doctrine differed from those of the mainstream US military mindset.

 

1.Empower the good Afghans who display competence, care and commitment to their people.

 

2.The insurgency is the Afghan people: they are conservative and averse to change. If you kill insurgents, it multiplies the people you’re fighting. In one presentation, he wrote “10-2=20” to mean “If you kill two bad men out of ten, the unintended result is that another ten join the opposition.

 

3.“Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a cold-blooded thing, but you can’t kill your way out of this war. The Russians killed one million and lost.”

4.Instead of focusing on killing the enemy, protect the civilian population. Don’t cause excessive damage and alienate people.

 

5.His team asked intel officers about land ownership, water rights, local power brokers, tribal affiliations and similar, but no one at ISAF headquarters in Kabul had answers.

 

6.Troops should spend 95% of their time helping build schools and resolve land disputes. He didn’t want “shoot-first and blow-shit-up” soldiering.

 

McChrystal’s approach made sense, but was preordained to failure because his point of departure was that the US would work with a credible government and honest, capable leaders who inspired their citizens. In the absence of this, all the US could accomplish was to shore up a doomed regime and hope for better days.
There’s also a secondary reason why the ISAF mission might have failed even if Afghanistan had been under better management. The US Army troops in the field—regular infantry, Marines and Special Forces—weren’t trained for this type of deployment. Hastings visits forward operating bases (“FOB”) where the troops have incurred casualties as a result of following McChrystal’s new, much more restrictive rules of engagement. They are demoralized and hostile almost to the point of mutiny.

 

Hastings’ Rolling Stone article The Runaway General (June, 2010) caused a firestorm in the press. Obama fired the general (perhaps doing him a favor by extricating him from an already-lost cause). Hastings profited from the notoriety and turned the article into The Operators which became a bestseller. McChrystal retired from the military and now teaches international relations at Yale University.

 

THE OTHER SIDE

 

Pack of Lies took on a life of its own, blowing through the target word count by over 50,000 words (!). The characters decided that mythical Lala Airforce Base in Pakistan was a fine place to stage shootouts, unravel conspiracies and uncover new mysteries. By the time Bob Nolan escaped to Karachi, it was only fitting that he reunite in Sri Lanka with Yu Kaili of China’s Ministry of State Security, and old nemesis Frank Coulter, CIA legend.

 

The Sri Lanka add-on was the result of questions I fielded on my most recent visits. (Sea of Lies sells more copies in Colombo than anywhere else.) Several of the fans asked if Pack of Lies was going to have Sri Lanka in it. I lied and said, “Of course!” Later I figured out how to make it happen, but it took another twenty thousand words and several plot twists. I’m very pleased that POL made the trip to Galle (southern Sri Lanka) after all, but brevity was the casualty.

 

I’ll be taking a medium-sized carving knife to the manuscript over the next month in the hope that word liposuction has the desired effect. I’ll also put the resulting draft in front of a structural and then a copy editor. You should find the end result worth waiting for, as there’s no shortage of devious conspiracies, gratuitous sex and large-scale violence.

 

LOCKER ROOM MOTIVATION

 

Jake McFerren, an old friend of Stanley McChrystal and retired colonel, had a few drinks under his belt when he said to Michael Hastings,

 

“We’ll hunt you down and kill you if we don’t like what you write.”

US Army Colonel (ret.) Jake McFerren as quoted by Michael Hastings

2012

The Operators

 

In December, 2013 Hastings died in a fiery single car crash late at night in Los Angeles, his body burned beyond recognition. Conspiracy theorists speculate that McChrystal supporters (or perhaps the FBI and/or the CIA) with cyberwarfare expertise may have taken control of Hastings’ Mercedes’ on-board computers and wrecked the vehicle. This sounds farfetched, but it certainly is technically feasible and has been done before. There are a handful of YouTube videos on this topic, e.g. FBI murdered Michael Hastings.

 

“Declare victory and get the hell out.”

Senator Richard Russell to Lyndon Johnson referring to the Vietnam War

1964

 

Good advice for Vietnam; better advice for Afghanistan.

 

HUE AND CRY

 

Very little has hit the in-box of late save for one of my kids’ godmothers asking, “Could you make the next book less complicated and shorter?” My answers were “Yes” on both counts. POL will end up about three-quarters the length and two-thirds the intricacy of Sea of Lies.