KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Soldiers knew more than anyone else what damage had been done when news broke that their commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the U.S.-led international force’s 140,000 troops in Afghanistan, had criticized his commander in chief in an inflammatory Rolling Stone article.
They knew because they abide by the same rules McChrystal has to: the military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice. The code subjects an officer to a court martial if he uses any “contemptuous words against the President, Vice President, Congress,” and other civilian leaders in the U.S. government. Any one of the soldiers in Afghanistan would be removed from their positions, if not face a court martial, for a similar offense.
“I don’t see how Obama can’t remove him,” said one soldier before President Barack Obama announced that McChrystal had tendered his resignation. “It would mean McChrystal is above the rules if he doesn’t.”
With the same speed that news of the Rolling Stone interview raced across the internet, it shot across the ranks of American fighting men in Afghanistan. The story was the subject of gossip, concern, disbelief, surprise and shock from enlisted men and officers deployed in Kandahar Province.
A baby-faced private first class asked this reporter about the Rolling Stone story on a combat patrol, M-4 rifle in hand, grenades strung across the chest plate of his body armor. A brigade sergeant major heard about it and made sure to remind this journalist that some of what he said on a patrol was clearly not publishable under the media embed agreement — in this case, due to operational security concerns. A captain wondered how an officer in the U.S. Army could think he would get away with the interview.
“I can’t believe he didn’t know that he would be fired for saying this stuff,” said one soldier. “This must be intentional. But why?”
A group of senior officers and non-commissioned officers made clear that they felt betrayed by the media, once again.
“There are journalists who forge relationships with us and who we trust and who get their stories that way,” said one NCO. “And there are jerks that betray their sources for a big story and to make their name. I hope you’re not one of latter. They never get another story again.”
By Tuesday evening, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, or ISAF, which McChrystal commanded, ordered all troops to direct questions from journalists about the Rolling Stone article to ISAF’s main media office in Kabul. The troops were banned from commenting on it. Thus, no names have been used in this article.
“I think that stuff like this isn’t ever said without a deeper message,” said one soldier. “You just don’t do this for no reason.”
Troops have long had mixed feeling about McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy. They also have mixed feelings about Obama’s promise to begin withdrawing troops in just over a year.
Soldiers facing roadside bombs and Taliban ambushes have complained heavily about ISAF’s restrictive rules of engagement, implemented when McChrystal took command last year. They say they are soldiers, trained for war, not nation-building and policing. They say their hands are tied by the restrictions, meant to protect the civilian population, under the current counterinsurgency strategy being implemented in Afghanistan.
Still, many say they respected McChrystal’s background as an experienced soldier, Special Forces operator and articulate leader. A surprising number of young enlisted men who joined the Army to “see some action” understood the COIN strategy, in large part thanks to McChrystal’s simple and patient explanations of the soldier’s mission.
Obama has said the strategy for the Afghan war will not change, and that Gen. David Petraeus will fill McChrystal’s position. It’s unlikely the soldiers fighting the war will feel so much as a ripple of the bombshell that landed in Washington when the article came out.
“He’s so far above us that we won’t feel it here,” said one soldier.
Those who are sure to feel the ripples are journalists embedded for this summer’s surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan. Many career soldiers and officers view this as just another episode of a journalist ruining the reputations, and careers, of service members in order to boost his own.