McChrystal Reincarnated

An Inspector General Report debunks a controversial Rolling Stone article about NATO’s former commander in Afghanistan.

General Stanley McChrystal. If the name sounds familiar, it should. McChrystal, a former Army commander in Iraq and a man with a long and distinguished career in the armed forces, was the top American and NATO general in Afghanistan for a year before he got canned last summer.

To the men and women serving under his command in both Iraq and Afghanistan, McChrystal was an admirable commander who knew his stuff. He is a friend and colleague of General David Petraeus, “the godfather” of counterinsurgency and the current commander of US/NATO forces in Afghanistan.

McChrystal also happens to be a solid supporter of counterinsurgency, the military doctrine that helped turn Iraq around from the abyss and is now being applied to villages and cities across the Taliban heartland. In fact, McChrystal is credited with being one of the participants in the publication of the infamous Counterinsurgency Field Manual (PDF), a document that revolutionized how the American military has fought conflict in the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, McChrystal’s reputation was tarnished last summer, when a controversial Rolling Stone article entitled “The Runaway General” ran a damning profile of him and his staff.

The article is well known in the United States, namely because national media outlets gave the piece a lot of attention. The most disturbing aspects of the exposé were accounts of McChrystal and his assistants making disparaging and off the cuff remarks about senior White House officials. The national security advisor at the time, retired Marine Corps General James Jones, was depicted as a “clown” stuck in a Cold War time machine. McChrystal’s staff members didn’t have many good things to say about Vice President Joe Biden either, nor did they care much for the late Richard Holbrooke, the White House’s top civilian official for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

When all was said and done, the account landed McChrystal some face time with President Barack Obama, which led to his quick departure as the commanding general of the war. Technically, McChrystal resigned his position, but to anyone involved in American defense news and foreign policy, it was quite clear that the White House nudged him out for disorderly conduct.

The McChrystal brand has improved somewhat over the last year, to the point where he was tapped by the president to help lead a commission on how to improve health and psychological care for military families. But nothing come close to rebounding the general’s reputation than a recent Inspector General Report (PDF) on the incident, which all but exonerated McChrystal from wrongdoing. The review also labeled the Rolling Stone profile as a prime piece of inaccurate journalism.

There were countless remarks in the article attributed to McChrystal and his senior aides, and unfortunately, Rolling Stone editors presented the material in such a way that readers would assume that the entire American military command was composed of homophobic, disrespectful and drunken soldiers with guns. The article was suited more for a tabloid like Esquire than something you would expect to read in The New Yorker or The Washington Post. The military long suspected that writer Michael Hastings had a grudge against American war policy: he is indeed a vocal anti-war advocate. The problem was proving that Hastings had an ulterior motive.

Now, with the Inspector General’s office releasing its own version of events, McChrystal, his friends and associates, if not the entire United States military can breathe a sigh of relief.

With the report in the public domain, questions will inevitably come back to the White House as to whether President Obama prematurely dismissed his top general. But the issue is far more important than that. The Obama Administration will have to determine whether it tarnished a man’s career based on a single article with limited sources.