The Stanley McChrystal — and the war in Afghanistan — I knew is not at all like what you’ll see on Netflix.
- By Whitney KasselWhitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm.
As with any film or show that touches on my own experience in government, I was prepared to do a lot of eye-rolling when I turned on War Machine, a new Netflix feature starring Brad Pitt as a caricatured version of retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal while he was the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. War Machine is based on Michael Hastings’s The Operators, the book-length version of his infamous 2010 Rolling Stone profile of McChrystal, which ended the general’s military career. I expected to find it full of the usual holes and oversimplifications and the occasional factual blunder. Add the fact that Hastings’s piece took down a man I worked with during the time in question and deeply respected — one near-universally viewed as an American hero of integrity and intelligence — and the chances I was going to like this film felt very slim.
But my eye-rolling quickly gave way to expletives. I had not prepared myself for the level of condescension and hand-waving dismissiveness of a war effort that, while certainly replete with absurdities and mistakes, was and continues to be fought by men and women who are dedicated to improving the security of the United States and its allies by helping to build an Afghanistan that will not provide safe haven for al Qaeda or, more recently, the Islamic State.
Pitt’s depiction of McChrystal as out of touch with both the reality of the situation in Afghanistan and his own troops could not be less accurate. Likewise — and this is the part that matters today — the portrayal of the U.S. and NATO’s very presence in the country since 2001 as rooted in fantasy and an inflated sense of American prowess is disingenuous and dangerous in its mischaracterization of a war that remains, particularly in the face of escalating violence and instability, an important part of reducing global terrorism.
I was with McChrystal and his team in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, when then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked him to conduct a review of the state of the war in Afghanistan and make recommendations on how to move the effort forward. In an attempt to bring credibility and intellectual rigor to the “strategic assessment,” as it came to be known, McChrystal enlisted a number of public intellectuals and experts from prominent think tanks to come to Kabul and get a feel for what was happening on the ground. The office of the secretary of defense, where I worked at the time, along with Gen. David Petraeus’s team at U.S. Central Command, decided to send representatives to accompany them. My superiors in the Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia office tapped me to join the effort.
Upon arrival, I found McChrystal and his team to be respectful, thoughtful, and far from the leering, obnoxious clan portrayed by Pitt the War Machine cast. (Military culture, and frankly that of any group living in close quarters under regular threat of death, tends to lean towards the sarcastic or even obscene; without weighing in on whether what Hastings witnessed was a fireable offense, I will say what I observed never struck me as out of line.) McChrystal spent endless hours with the members of the assessment team — very few of whom had direct military experience — exploring the strategic options available to the United States and NATO. And while there may have been an inclination to expand the effort in order to bring the conflict to a conclusion that achieved the Obama administration’s stated objectives at that time (i.e. preventing the Taliban from retaking Kabul and reestablishing the extremist government that had sheltered Osama bin Laden), I never felt the recommendations were pre-engineered or politically motivated.
McChrystal and his team’s willingness to consider that those with very different training and background might have something to contribute was emblematic of their approach upon arriving in Kabul in June 2009. They made a genuine attempt to understand the situation on the ground, the mistakes made over the previous eight years, and the tools available for trying to turn around what was considered an urgent national security priority. In fact, with the majority of the general’s team hailing from the counterterrorism community, which relies almost exclusively on brute force rather than winning hearts and minds, there was actually a healthy skepticism toward counterinsurgency, a strategy that seemed to be working in Iraq (maybe) but otherwise had failed the United States in its greatest military defeat, Vietnam. War Machine, on the other hand, paints McChrystal as a belligerent egotist, certain that counterinsurgency is the answer to every aspect of the quagmire into which he has fallen. This is neither what I witnessed, nor is it an accurate characterization of the environment at the time.
McChrystal and his team inherited a conflict that had been badly under-resourced as a result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and were serving a White House that was eager to win the “right war” after six years of losing blood and treasure in the wrong one. There were signs that the enemy was weakening, but security, particularly in the Taliban heartlands in southern Afghanistan, was deteriorating. Some in Washington, and specifically Vice President Joe Biden, were pushing for a counterterrorism-only approach — one that seemed unlikely to work as long as the Afghan government had little to no control of their territory and the late-night raids that characterize counterterrorism operations continued to spawn more enemies than they killed.
As Pitt’s character shows in an exchange with a German member of parliament played by Tilda Swinton, McChrystal was keenly aware of the potentially counterproductive role of a continued U.S. and NATO presence. In the scene, Pitt explains a kind of “insurgency math,” in which for every two insurgents killed, another 20 are created. But this was exactly why an aggressive counterterrorism approach without a training mission for the Afghan security forces and other support for the Afghan government felt short-sighted, if not detrimental. If the goal was to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups from which to attack the United States and its allies, then getting the Afghan government and military to a place where they could actually police their own territory and win the support of their people seemed like the only reasonable way to get there. In other words, a counterinsurgency approach made sense.
Implementing such a strategy turned out to be much easier said than done, and a level of responsibility rests in not predicting just how hard it would be. Obstacles like corruption and the insidious role of the Pakistan security services, of which McChrystal and his team were deeply aware, turned out to be insurmountable. Implementing restrictive rules of engagement, which McChrystal made in an attempt to reduce the civilian casualties that seemed to be fueling the insurgency, had unforeseen and in some cases tragic consequences. (As somewhat ham-handedly shown in a storyline about a young Marine who can’t understand why McChrystal is asking his troops to avoid firing until seeing a weapon, these rules of engagement were believed by some to put troops in danger by preventing them from taking lethal action without a lengthy chain of operational and legal approvals.)
Coordination with the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. and Afghan agencies was fractured at best. Green-on-blue attacks made training the Afghan security forces feel like a fool’s errand. A million things went wrong and are still going wrong today, and it will take decades to dissect all the ways in which the war could have been fought more successfully, smarter, and with better results. Nevertheless, Hastings’s and War Machine’s contention that the overall strategy was baseless and ill-informed, and that the true motive for remaining in Afghanistan was that these leaders were “desperate to be at war all the time,” is unfair and risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (Yes, that’s an actual quote from the film).
Hollywood frequently gets these things wrong, in most cases leaning too far in the other direction, glorifying war and war heroes with a blind nationalism and lack of nuance more befitting a Trump rally than a candid portrayal of modern conflict. Of course, good movies can also provide an important voice against misguided policy, foreign or domestic — classics like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now did much to reveal and educate on the blunders of the war in Vietnam. In this case, however, there is a particular hazard, namely of reinforcing a view of the war in Afghanistan as this generation’s Vietnam, led by men (and they are all men; there is nary a woman in sight the entire film, with the exception of a 60 Minutes reporter, Swinton’s German MP, and McChrystal’s wife, another point on which it is wholly inaccurate) who care only about protecting their own egos and reputations, with no sense of the sacrifices inherent in war and no strategic vision or logic behind their decisions.
President Donald Trump and his national security team are reportedly reworking their approach to Afghanistan and debating whether to send additional troops, a decision that will become more urgent as the situation there worsens. As they do so, it is critical that they, and the American public to whom they report, understand how we got here, and the reasons why some elements of a counterinsurgency strategy may remain valid moving forward. It may be that Afghanistan is simply too far gone, or that the costs of continuing to operate there aren’t justified by the threats when up against competing priorities. But dismissing the thinking and processes that came before as mere delusion and hubris is both inaccurate and an enormous disservice.
In a normal administration, we could take solace in the unlikelihood that those at the helm are getting their history lessons from the likes of Brad Pitt. But this president admittedly gets much of his information from the small screen; who is to say he won’t try solving Afghanistan by way of Netflix? Following Pitt and Hastings’s lead by writing off the last 16 years of trying to crack the code in Afghanistan will only condemn this administration to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors, not to mention make many more of its own.
Photo credit: Netflix