The Dark Legacy of Gen. McChrystal

Gen. Stanley McChrystal might have left town through the back door with his four stars barely intact, his 35-year career in the Army humiliatingly cut short by a lack of judgment with a counterculture magazine. But in reality, he got off easy.

As a four-star popular with his peers, McChrystal will have professional options most retirees only dream about. In no time, he could be brought on as a highly paid consultant or “mentor” with the Army, and at the same time, as a board member at Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, or any of the other megalodon defense contractors in town.

No doubt he will be lionized, particularly by partisans who already think he was duped by Rolling Stone and hastily thrown over by the White House.

He certainly won’t be blamed for losing the war. That’s because he was pushed out for what he and his staff said, not for anything they did. This allows an easy path to spin and victimhood. The fact is, Stanley McChrystal has never faced the white, hot lights of public scrutiny. Maybe if he had, we’d have realized that locker room talk and an arrogant attitude were the least of our problems. How about the fact the president put a renowned manhunter in charge of a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy in the first place?

McChrystal came and went and we still know very little about who he really is, or what he did as chief of (JSOC) Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008. We do know JSOC operates as a highly classified branch of Special Operations Command with elite Delta Force and Navy SEALs, among others, and a singular mission to “find, fix, and finish” the enemy. We have some idea that for five years under McChrystal’s command, JSOC task forces ran secret detention facilities and engaged in harsh interrogations and targeted killings. They have been accused of illegal renditions, torture, assassinations, and teaming up with Blackwater mercenaries to mount covert “snatch and grab” missions inside Pakistan.

But on the details, we are largely groping in the dark, because everything JSOC does is clandestine or “off the books.” Instead of demanding the truth, our lawmakers demurred time and again and gave the military carte blanche to pursue what arguably amounts to a self-destructive strategy. And it is corrupting, because without oversight, we have essentially failed to hold top brass accountable when bad things are done in our name.

“Gen. McChrystal, like most of the officers, contractors, and high-level civilians who new about the secret interrogation facilities and torture at numerous locations in Iraq, was never held accountable. He was questioned during his [2009] confirmation hearing, but it was generally glossed over,” charged retired Army Col. Janis Karpinski, who was demoted from brigadier general in the course of the 2004 Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. Karpinski maintains she was a scapegoat for senior officers who “knew, allowed it, and directed” the abusive interrogation techniques system-wide – including McChrystal. She told in a recent e-mail exchange she believes there is highly classified information that would implicate McChrystal and even his patron, Gen. David Petraeus, but like other senior officers involved, they  “ultimately have a great deal of leverage and ‘protective cover’ available in many circumstances.”

We know a little. During McChrystal’s time, JSOC’s missions in Iraq– particularly what has become known as Task Force 6-26 or Task Force 121, at the unofficially named “Camp Nama” – had been the target of a major report by Human Rights Watch and a government investigation into accusations of torture and abuse and even murder. In 2006, hundreds of documents were released under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, revealing a sickening pattern of abuse that jibed with what had already been exposed at Abu Ghraib and other military and CIA detention centers throughout the theater. From the New York Times in 2006:

“As the Iraqi insurgency intensified in early 2004, an elite Special Operations forces unit converted one of Saddam Hussein’s former military bases near Baghdad into a top-secret detention center. There, American soldiers made one of the former Iraqi government’s torture chambers into their own interrogation cell. They named it the Black Room.

“In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces, and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball. …

“The abuses at Camp Nama continued despite warnings beginning in August 2003 from an Army investigator and American intelligence and law enforcement officials in Iraq. The C.I.A. was concerned enough to bar its personnel from Camp Nama that August. …

“The secrecy surrounding the highly classified unit has helped to shield its conduct from public scrutiny. The Pentagon will not disclose the unit’s precise size, the names of its commanders, its operating bases, or specific missions. Even the task force’s name changes regularly to confuse adversaries, and the courts-martial and other disciplinary proceedings have not identified the soldiers in public announcements as task force members.”

There was more in an Esquire profile in 2006:

“It was a point of pride that the Red Cross would never be allowed in the door, Jeff [Garlasco of Human Rights Watch] says. This is important because it defied the Geneva Conventions, which require that the Red Cross have access to military prisons. ‘Once, somebody brought it up with the colonel. “Will they ever be allowed in here?”  And he said absolutely not. He had this directly from General McChrystal and the Pentagon that there’s no way that the Red Cross could get in – they won’t have access and they never will. This facility was completely closed off to anybody investigating, even Army investigators.’

“Given Task Force 121’s history, that was a remarkable promise. Formed in the summer of 2003, it quickly became notorious. … Then two Iraqi men died following encounters with Navy Seals from Task Force 121  –  one at Abu Ghraib and one in Mosul  –  and an official investigation by a retired Army colonel named Stuart Herrington, first reported inthe Washington Post, found evidence of widespread beatings. ‘Everyone knows about it,’ one Task Force officer told Herrington. Six months later, two FBI agents raised concerns about suspicious burn marks and other signs of harsh treatment. Then the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that his men had seen evidence of prisoners with burn marks and bruises and once saw a Task Force member ‘punch [the] prisoner in the face to the point the individual needed medical attention.’”

Despite these damning revelations in 2006, the nation’s top newspapers decided to suppress the more garish details of their own reporting in favor of a more flattering narrative ahead of McChrystal’s 2009 confirmation as head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Instead of emphasizing the general’s responsibility for fostering a hothouse of abuse and moral turmoil that not only stained the reputation of the military, but likely served as yet another recruitment tool for the insurgency, the press settled in with a simpler caricature, that of an intensely self-disciplined action hero, whose elite subordinates rid the world of hated terror suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and of countless other terror suspects often without the messiness of war trials or lengthy detentions.

“I do know that many policy-makers and journalists think that McChrystal’s work as the head of the super-secret Joint Special Operations Command was the untold success story of the Surge and the greater war on terror campaigns,” gushed Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger who would later serve on Commander McChrystal’s Afghan assessment team, to writer Marc Ambinder just before the 2009 confirmation hearings.

Not only that, McChrystal was a purported disciple of the Petraeus Doctrine, or COIN, which in theory, calls for winning “hearts and minds” as much as manhunting. What seemed pretty counterintuitive – putting a man who for the last five years led teams of elite killers who not only dragged off husbands and brothers and sons, but kicked in doors and called in air strikes on the urban battlefield, to engage in some amorphous, “population-centric,” clear, hold, and build mission – the press found perfectly rational, especially when he started hinting he would need more boots on the ground.

 “[McChrystal] is arguing for resources for a shift in emphasis from aggressive war of confrontation with the Taliban to a focus on protecting Afghanistan’s civilian population,” declared Peter Beaumont in the Guardian, in an assertion that became a comfortable trope during the hearings and beyond.

Even John Richardson, the man who wrote the flammable Esquire piece, seemed reluctant to ask the obvious question: Was McChrystal damaged goods? Was this manhunter even equipped for soft-power counterinsurgency? Why McChrystal?

From Richardson in 2009:

“But I’m not eager to judge soldiers on the battlefield who pushed the line to save their lives. I’m certainly not going to call them torturers for violating the Geneva Convention with a 14-hour interrogation. And, like Garlasco, I would be very cautious judging someone like McChrystal, a soldier my president has chosen to put his confidence in, a man who could end up saving tens of thousands of lives.”

Just before the 2009 hearings, Spencer Ackerman reported that a former intelligence officer had approached Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, with additional, potentially incriminating information:

“A former military interrogator who contributed to the manhunt for a senior Iraqi terrorist has urged the Senate Armed Services Committee staff to press Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Obama administration’s nominee to lead U.S. troops in the Afghanistan war, on what he knew about detainee abuse committed by troops in Iraq under his command when McChrystal goes before the panel Tuesday morning for his confirmation hearing.

“’Gen. McChrystal, he was there in Iraq often, and he may have been separated from these things by couple layers [of subordinates] but it would’ve been his responsibility to know what was going on,’ said Matthew Alexander, the pseudonym of a former Air Force interrogator whose non-coercive interrogations in 2006 helped identify and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

“Alexander, who wrote about his Iraq experiences in his 2008 memoir How To Break a Terrorist and who works with Human Rights First to oppose torture, recalled that several of his colleagues attempted to use coercive interrogation techniques in the Zarqawi hunt, despite Alexander’s concerns over their dubious efficacy. ‘When I would go up to my boss and say there’s a better way’ to interrogate detainees without torturing them, ‘his answer would be “I’m sorry… because there’s something above me controlling the interrogators and those interrogators have carte blanche to interrogate how they want,”‘ Alexander said. ‘I don’t know Gen. McChrystal’s involvement in that, [or that of] his staff or below him. But I do know that mentality was extremely counterproductive and almost cost us our chance at finding Zarqawi.’

“He continued, ‘We found Zarqawi in spite of the way the task force did business.’”

The Zarqawi capture was and still is McChrystal’s greatest public claim to fame. He has never seen direct combat, but “bagging” this high-value target, in concert with anecdotes provided by Rolling Stone and others that place McChrystal near the action, like riding along on dangerous patrols, have nonetheless earned him the moniker of “fighting general.”

But would any of it make him a successful commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan? We are told that killing these terror suspects will save lives, but factor in the countless civilians whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by JSOC raids and targeted bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the new insurgents who step into the breach and the retaliatory attacks on our own troops. When you consider that two children were sacrificed during the capture of Zarqawi alone, do we truly know the net gain of it all?

Despite these loose ends, the general faced no opposition during his confirmation hearings, save for a brief, obligatory muttering about Camp Nama and McChrystal’s role in what has become the Pat Tillman cover-up, which can be considered the second bullet dodged. A Pentagon investigation ruled that McChrystal was “accountable for the inaccurate and misleading assertions” following Tillman’s killing, but again, no one seemed to care (except for Tillman’s mother, who reportedly tried to warn the president about McChrystal shortly before the hearings).

From Ackerman:

“Several senators praised McChrystal effusively, even as committee staffers spent time during the past few weeks vetting whether or not McChrystal knew about abuses of Iraqi and Afghan detainees committed by Special Operations Forces under the general’s former command. … But only one senator, panel chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), asked McChrystal about the incidents, which have been documented by Human Rights Watch. …

“When questioned by Levin about detainee abuse, McChrystal conceded that the task forces he oversaw from 2003 to 2008 had received interrogation instructions from a December 2002 memorandum from then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorizing such techniques as stress positions, the use of dogs and nudity. Without providing any specificity, McChrystal said that ‘constant improvement’ in refining interrogation techniques with which he was ‘uncomfortable’ eventually produced an interrogation regimen ‘I could be more proud of.’ No senator followed up Levin’s line of query.”

McChrystal went on to his command and began bringing in his old Special Ops friends to “quietly sway” the strategy in Afghanistan. At the same time, he issued new directives for reducing civilian casualties, though it wasn’t until March 2010 that he started reining in special operations forces (SOF) accused of perpetuating a climate of fear within Afghan communities. Even then, some units of Delta Force and Navy SEALs were exempted.

Not surprisingly, despite reports that civilian casualties are down, Afghans remain in the crosshairs, leading to fresh protests and local suspicions of – right or wrong – American and NATO cover-ups. Just this month, reporters Gareth Porter and Ahmad Walid Fazly interviewed eyewitnesses to a botched Special Operations Forces raid in Gardez in February. The Afghans said they saw American soldiers digging bullets out of the bodies of the three women killed in the raid, but they were never interviewed by investigators engaging in a probe of the initial investigation.

Perhaps this is McChrystal’s legacy. He dodged a 500-pound bomb of truth when he was hired and again when he was fired, and for that he is pretty lucky. But nine years of blowback from killing, collateral damage, and thwarted truth, festering at the center of this war like a tumor – so much that trying to dig it out with a knife only makes it worse – keeps taking its toll. It is not that he lost the war singlehandedly, but rather that his leadership at a crucial moment may have sealed an already failing strategy.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.