In 1982 a freshly minted army captain named Stanley McChrystal arrived at Fort Stewart, Ga., and was invited for a run by a more experienced captain named David Petraeus. There are two versions of what happened next. The Petraeus version is better known. "I took a lot of pride in my running," the general told me recently. In fact, Petraeus famously was, and remains, a fitness fanatic. "But by the end of the run, I knew I was no longer the fastest at Fort Stewart. More important, we had talked about a lot of things, and I realized that I had met a kindred spirit."
The McChrystal version is less competitive. "It was an 8- to 10-mile run, and we did spend most of it talking," the general told me recently. "He was quite a runner, and when you can keep up with Petraeus, that's something to be proud of. But I don't remember anyone winning. We ran together. I mostly remember being grateful that Dave he was the general's aide at the time reached out to me."
The friendship that ensued stands at the heart of the transformation of the U.S. Army in recent years, from the world's most fearsome conventional-warfare force to the world's most sophisticated counterinsurgency force. Petraeus led that transformation, as primary author of the Army's counterinsurgency manual and commander of the multinational forces in Iraq during the 2007 surge. Now, as Centcom commander, Petraeus is responsible for the world's most volatile region. McChrystal also became an advocate for counterinsurgency doctrine the idea that the best way to deal with a guerrilla movement is to provide security for the populace rather than focus exclusively on combat during a career in special operations, a branch of the military that uses small units of super-trained operatives working quietly within native populations. "Stan was absolutely my No. 1 choice to lead the Afghanistan mission," Petraeus says. "He was everyone's No. 1 choice."
The two men are similar in many ways. Both are fierce ascetics McChrystal eats one meal per day and sleeps four hours per night and both are military intellectuals. "Stan was willing to have experiences that were outside his comfort zone," says Petraeus, who received a doctorate in international relations from Princeton. "He went to the Kennedy School at Harvard. He spent a year as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's a student of history."
But their subtle differences may be more interesting than the similarities, as their varying accounts of the Fort Stewart run suggest. Petraeus is more overtly aggressive, an in-your-face command machine. McChrystal is probably no less competitive, but he's quieter, more bottom-up than top-down in his orientation and perhaps more soulful. Friends say his demeanor has been shaped by his training: "He's a snake eater," says one, referring to McChrystal's special-forces training. "Those guys are very sophisticated, but they do not keep a high profile."
Chain of Command
Which is why McChrystal's introduction to the American public this year was something of a shocker. After a speech in London in September noteworthy for its nuanced explanation of counterinsurgency doctrine McChrystal got into big trouble during the question-and-answer session. At the time, the Obama White House was conducting a broad review of America's faltering war effort in Afghanistan. McChrystal said a strategy of fewer troops with more reliance on special forces and drone attacks the sort of thing favored by Vice President Joe Biden would result in "Chaos-istan." He also seemed to dis the President's painstaking deliberation process: "Waiting does not prolong a favorable outcome. This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely."
Within days, the Obama Administration's national-security hierarchy landed squarely on McChrystal's head. "Ideally, it's better for military advice to come up the chain of command," said National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a former Marine general. Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that advice should be offered "candidly, but privately." Conservatives latched onto McChrystal's remarks, positing a rift between the President and his top Afghan commander, a scenario made more credible by the fact that the President had spoken only once with McChrystal since he assumed the Afghan command in June. "It was more a misunderstanding than anything," McChrystal says now. "I certainly regret anybody having the impression that there was an intent to cause a gap. I've been deeply impressed by the President's personal involvement during the Afghan-strategy-review process his rigor, his unwillingness to take shortcuts. He's not only allowed my personal assessments; he's demanded that I say what I think."
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