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."
McChrystal did get much of what he wanted 30,000 more troops, most of whom are headed, rapidly, to the Taliban's center of gravity in the areas near the Pakistan border. One senses, however, that some discomfort remains; certainly the White House feels burned by leaks that Obama aides believe emanated from the Pentagon, particularly the leak of McChrystal's initial assessment of the Afghan situation, an assessment that included words like dire and clearly indicated the need for more troops.
But McChrystal's assessment and his initial actions in Afghanistan demonstrated a sensitivity that his critics have not credited. Two of his first moves after assuming command were to place strict limits on aerial attacks in combat situations and to change the rules for U.S. convoys driving on Afghan roads. "Afghans take huge offense at the killing of civilians," he said of his aerial-warfare directive. "They assume we're omniscient and omnipotent, so if we bomb innocent civilians, they assume that was our intent." (Civilian casualties dropped significantly after McChrystal banned offensive aerial strikes.) As for the driving directive, he ordered U.S. military and diplomatic convoys to keep a lower profile, to not stop traffic or blast along with sirens blaring. "It was important not to seem arrogant and act as occupiers might," he says. "I know they were driving in a way they thought was best for their security, but I needed them to understand how totally offensive it was to Afghans."
McChrystal sensed immediately that the mission was in trouble. He served a tour exclusively in Afghanistan in 2002 and spent significant amounts of time there since as chairman of the Joint Special Operations Command. "I arrived thinking that we wouldn't need additional forces," he says. "But as I traveled around, I began to get the sense that the problem was much worse than the obvious symptoms, the level of violence," he adds, referring to the silent Taliban coercion of the population in places like Kandahar city. "We analyzed, we calculated, we war-gamed and came to the conclusion we needed more troops."
McChrystal is a classic army brat. Both his father and grandfather were generals; his mother died when he was 16. "She was very liberal, really big into reading," he recalls. "She wanted me to think more freely, think about a career that wasn't in the Army." He didn't. "I really admired my father, who was off in combat in Vietnam during those years. I'm glad I joined the Army, and I've loved it, but I probably should have thought more about it before I joined." His mother's love of reading has stayed with him and on occasion manifested itself in odd ways. As Kimberly Dozier of CBS News reported, at a particularly dreadful moment during the Iraq war, McChrystal sent his special operators copies of the Yeats poem "The Second Coming." He directed their attention to the lines "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity" and told them that their mission was to turn those lines around.
McChrystal's interest in counterinsurgency tactics, a rarity in the Army until recently, was influenced by both his mother and his father. "I was fascinated by Indochina because my father was there," he told me, "and so I read as much as I could about it. Then, when I got to West Point, my favorite course was Revolutionary Warfare, which was taught by several really enthusiastic young officers, just back from Vietnam." That interest led McChrystal directly into special operations, a branch that demanded extreme physical fitness and focused on guerrilla insurgencies. (He continues to be an avid reader but does most of it via audiobooks as he takes his daily runs in Kabul.)
The difference between McChrystal and Petraeus was evident at McChrystal's congressional testimony in December, after the President's new Afghan policy was announced. Petraeus had arrived on Capitol Hill in dramatic fashion in September 2007, testifying about the Iraq surge with a phalanx of PowerPoint slides; an extensive, if impersonal, written presentation; and a huge media audience. McChrystal had no slides or charts. His written testimony was brief and low-key. Unlike Petraeus, he received few hostile questions; the press tables were mostly empty. In his London speech, McChrystal said, "When I am asked what approach we should take in Afghanistan, I say humility." He reiterated that now: "There is much in Afghanistan I don't understand."
It was a winning sort of candor, but it made his flat-out predictions of success very much in keeping with the military's can-do spirit seem less than credible. By this time next year, he said, "it will be clear to us that the insurgency has lost the momentum. And by the summer of 2011, it will be clear to the Afghan people that the insurgency will not win." But there was no gainsaying the emotion that overtook the general when he spoke about his troops: "The other day, I asked a young but combat-experienced sergeant where he was on 9/11, and his answer 'getting my braces removed' reminded me that it has been more than eight years since 9/11 ... This is not a force of rookies and dilettantes ... All have felt fear and loneliness. Most have lost comrades. None has lost heart."
General McChrystal may be the ultimate American Spartan, a driven ascetic, but he is not an automaton. His troops may not succeed in this near impossible mission, but they will be well led.