Afghan Noir: review of Michael Hastings’ “The Operators” in The Daily

Opinion: Afghan noir

Atmospherics stand in for solid reporting on America’s effort to stop the insurgency

By Ann Marlowe Sunday, January 8, 2012

“The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan”
by Michael Hastings
Blue Rider Press, $14.99

Selfishly, I wish “The Operators” were a better book. Though we come from different places in the political spectrum, Michael Hastings shares many of my views on Afghanistan and has the notoriety to bring them to a wide audience.

Was the surge a mistake, increasing levels of violence? Yes. Has the American effort to train the Afghan army and police been an unbelievably expensive boondoggle? Check. Did the American military’s toleration of thugs like Ahmed Wali Karzai and Border Police Gen. Raziq help fuel the insurgency? Yes. Was former commanding Gen. David Petraeus more concerned with managing perceptions than reality? Check. Was his predecessor Stanley McChrystal an amoral mediocrity in way over his head? We agree there too.

Furthermore, Hastings has the guts to let the chips fall where they may — as he did in the June 2010 Rolling Stone profile of then-commanding general McChrystal that quickly led to his firing.

But “The Operators” is a mess. Someone came up with the bad idea of having Hastings interlard an expanded version of the McChrystal material with a potted history of the Obama administration’s deliberations on the Afghan war. This was made worse by putting the McChrystal sections in the past tense and the history in the present tense — a stale device often advocated by bad editors to bring “immediacy” to dull narratives. The end result is likely to confuse anyone whose bread and butter isn’t Afghan policy — and even they won’t learn anything here.

It would be reasonable to buy “The Operators” for more of the juicy details that made Hastings’s Rolling Stone piece so compelling. Though there’s a lot more verbiage in this 379-page book — Hastings says he taped 20-plus hours of interviews with McChrystal and his team — the nuggets are lacking. Hastings gives us details we don’t need — how the computers were set up in a command post in a hotel, a meeting with a terribly boring hotel hooker-spy, even that he was third off the plane landing in Kabul — in place of those that might have enlivened his characters. As in the Rolling Stone profile, McChrystal himself remains a shadowy figure, as the legendary special-forces operator doubtless intended.

The book’s silly subtitle — “The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan” — isn’t Hastings’s fault. But anyone who is really interested in the Obama White House debate on the war will have read Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s War,” and Hastings’ two dozen or so interviews don’t offer any new insights. Hastings strings together others’ reporting — and seems to take it all as gospel, even after correctly condemning the mainstream media’s uncritical acceptance of the military’s views — for want of having logged much time in Afghanistan himself. He might have interviewed the very knowledgeable experts at the Afghanistan Analysts Network and International Crisis Group instead.

Ironically, Hastings is guilty of the same disdain for the facts as the war boosters he justly skewers. Where they wave away statistical measures that suggest more U.S. troops cause more violence, Hastings would rather write off the whole Afghan war as a bad trip than try to explain why some tactics work and some don’t, why some parts of Afghanistan are doing well and others are horrific.

Hastings’ tone edges unhelpfully toward the hysterical when he discusses Afghanistan — he repeatedly mentions his security detail, which will only make experienced visitors smirk, and he speaks of his last trip in the fall of 2009 as one of “extreme violence.” Witnessing the aftermath of a suicide attack on an American base and being present in Kabul when a suicide attack occurs on the Ministry of Culture isn’t actually so extraordinary for a month in a war zone. “Extreme violence” is more rhetoric than accurate observation.

Hastings doesn’t specify the American base where the suicide bombing took place, but he should. It was in a district in Khost Province; I recognized the name of an officer he mentions, because I was embedded in the same district around the same time. Nor does he explain the specific reasons this suicide bombing took place — mainly because the commanders of the 101st Airborne and of the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team made bad decisions and undid much of the good work of their predecessors. They mismanaged tribal politics, and despite some very brave Afghan leaders who died for their pains, Khost has never really recovered.

Hastings also makes confidence-diminishing mistakes. The January 2008 Taliban assault on the Serena Hotel he discusses killed six people, not two, as he claims, and he seems not to know that one was an American, Thor Hesla. This assault, also, didn’t just happen because Afghanistan is a randomly dangerous place. It may have occurred because the Norwegian Foreign Ministry was stupid enough to publish the fact that their foreign minister was staying there. WikiLeaks even suggests that the International Security Assistance Force knew months in advance that plans for an attack were in the works.

Hastings spent a short embed at what he — and no one else — calls “the Kandahar Airfield.” But he somehow messes up his description of the most famous landmark at KAF (as everyone else refers to the base). The Boardwalk isn’t a “pavilion” but a huge, four-sided wooden deck surrounded on its perimeter by stores and restaurants. McChrystal ticked off a lot of soldiers by threatening to close the fast food outlets on the boardwalk — something worth exploring because it suggests an indifference to the needs and pleasures of the lower enlisted ranks. For the reporter who ended the general’s career, Hastings hasn’t dug very deep on McChrystal. I heard that he was just as callous in Iraq, where he wanted to remove TVs from the dining facilities at U.S. bases — never mind that for those without computers or Internet access, TV was the only way for them to get the news. And since we may not have seen the last of McChrystal in the public world — he waltzed right into a Yale teaching job and corporate board memberships — it would be fair to look harder.

This could have been a much better book. Hastings can write, he’s smart and he’s not afraid to stick his neck out. But there is no substitute for spending time on the ground and getting the facts. Hastings advances various good explanations for the press’s failure to “write honestly about people in power,” but he forgets one: They’re lazy. If you’re going to call the military on their facts, you have to know the material better than they do. Most journalists would rather hang out with each other than immerse themselves in whatever country they’re supposed to be covering. Hastings seems to know better than this. But he would rather cloak the war in hipster noir than detail what went wrong. Like American commanders in Afghanistan, he is punching below his weight.

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