In his recently released memoir, My Share of the Task, former Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal paints a stark picture of a U.S. military caught between the political ambitions of a newly elected president and a rapidly deteriorating war in Afghanistan.
Much of the book, which hit shelves Monday, is focused on McChrystal’s early years in the military as an Army Ranger and the wartime exploits of the U.S. special operations counterterrorism unit — known as Task Force 714 — he commanded in Iraq.
In the now-infamous piece, McChrystal made disparaging comments about the Obama administration. That — along with his inability to quickly factor in the political ramifications of his actions — ultimately led to McChrystal’s downfall.
While admitting he was “surprised by the tone and direction” of the article, in the end, McChrystal says the story and its fallout, in which the White House called for his resignation, were his fault.
“Regardless of how I judged the story for fairness or accuracy, responsibility was mine. And its ultimate effect was immediately clear to me,” he writes.
On his decision to step down from command, rather than plead his case to the media and the American public, the four-star general writes, “I didn’t try to figure out what others might do. No hero’s or mentor’s example came to mind. I called no one for advice.”
The rest of the book focuses on his more than 30-year career in the military.
As commander of Task Force 714, McChrystal oversaw some of the more spectacular operations of the Iraq war, from the capture of Saddam Hussein in the northwest town of Tikrit and the death of then-al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.
But some of the most surprising revelations in the 397-page book come near the end, when McChrystal chronicles his brief stint as the top American commander in Afghanistan.
In the book, the retired four-star general characterizes in matter-of-fact detail the rising tensions between the demands of U.S. commanders on the ground and an administration looking to end one war in Iraq while trying to shepherd a massive strategic shift in Afghanistan.
McChrystal, who assumed the top job in Afghanistan from Gen. David McKiernan in 2009, describes “an unfortunate deficit of trust” between Pentagon leaders and the new Obama administration over what the next step should be in “an increasingly difficult and unpopular war.”
The Army Ranger and Special Forces veteran was the key architect of President Obama’s surge strategy, dubbed “AFPAK” inside the Pentagon, which funneled an additional 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan.
The move was seen by many in Washington as the new administration’s way to stop the country’s free-fall into violence and set up the endgame for the war.
However, in the book, McChrystal describes an underlying sense of pessimism from the Obama camp over his recommendations during policy debates between the White House and Pentagon over the surge plan.
“I saw little enthusiasm among policymakers for what I sensed was going to be needed in Afghanistan,” McChrystal writes.
During the discussions, McChrystal suggested a force of 40,000 American soldiers to support the surge — roughly 10,000 above what the Obama administration ended up sending into Afghanistan in late 2009.
“I received advice to recommend a higher number, to give myself ‘negotiating room’ to the lower, true requirement, but I decided against it,” McChrystal recalls. “This was no time for games. I had to provide accurate, honest inputs.”
Aside from his muted frustration with the Obama White House on the surge plan, he also expresses resentment toward the persistent information leaks of the plan from both sides of the Potomac.
“The [leaks] meant the media and the public would form their judgments [on the surge] at the same time as the policymakers,” he writes.
Media leaks had already become a problem for military planners long before The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward published his scoop on the details of the surge plan in September 2009.
Some inside the Beltway alleged the leaks were coming from McChrystal’s camp, prompted by anger over the administration’s disregard for the general’s recommendations.
In the book, McChrystal vehemently denies such claims. “They weren’t speaking for me … that was never my intent, nor that of my staff,” the former four-star general writes.
McChrystal also defends his then-controversial decision to limit how American troops in Afghanistan used lethal force, at a time when U.S. forces were taking heavy casualties in the country.
“My decision to limit fires wasn’t primarily a moral one,” he writes. “Mine was a calculation that we could not succeed in the mission … without the support of the people. That support was based upon the premise that we were there to protect them.”
As the debate over the Afghan strategy wore on, eventually ending with Obama’s announcement of the surge during a 2009 speech at West Point, McChrystal admits to his somewhat naive assumption that his military sensibilities would outweigh political realities in the development of the surge strategy.
“I recognized, perhaps too slowly, the extent to which politics, personalities and other factors would complicate a course that, under the best of circumstances, would be remarkably difficult to navigate.”