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Taking The Measure of Stanley McChrystal

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
The day after President Obama announced his Afghan war plan, General Stanley McChrystal flew around Afghanistan to reach his most important audience - the men and women who have to carry out his strategy.

"We are not going to nation-build," he told them. "What we are going to do is allow a nation to build." There's no transcript. There was no written speech. He spoke to four groups of troops around the country for an hour-plus each, completely off the cuff. And they were rapt.

When they asked him what was going to be different, he told them that for the first time, they were going to get the manpower and the resources to do the job of protecting Afghans and training their security forces to do it for themselves. The strategy hadn't changed from when he took command - but now, he said, the president has given him what he needs to carry it out.

He'll answer that same question on Capitol Hill this week, sitting behind a long table for what will likely be endless hours of Congressional speechifying mixed with equal parts grilling.

But they speak a little less politely on Capitol Hill. I predict they'll put it this way: How can you succeed in Afghanistan where others failed?

So I've been asking that of a range of special operating forces and conventional forces commanders who've worked with him, for him, or sat in on the same video teleconferences from Iraq or Afghanistan over the past several years.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press)
They all say this: a) he's a problem solver. b) he's run into walls, namely in Iraq, where he's failed, or seen others fail, and had to change his plans and come up with new strategies that work. That's a humbling process that stays with you; he learned to question his own assumptions.

And c) to work for Stan McChrystal is part agony - keeping up with his Spartan four-hours-of-sleep-a-night-one-meal-a-day work style is no easy task - and part "best job you'll ever have," because his guys say he listens to them and demands tough questions of them. No "yes" men allowed. So he gets the best for his team. Every officer I've spoken to who has worked with him or for him before tells me they'd drop everything to work with McChrystal again.

Simply put, they believe him in - even those who tell me in the same breath, "but this time, he may have bitten off more than even he can chew." They still say they'd go with McChrystal because as three different senior Special Operations Forces officers told me, "If anyone can pull it off, it's Stan."

The example they give is 2006 in Iraq. McChrystal was then heading JSOC - the Joint Special Operations Command based at Ft. Bragg - which was spearheading the fight against Al Qaeda and a collection of other violent extremists in Iraq.

"We're killing them, but they keep coming back," McChrystal said over the video teleconference link from the states to Iraq, according to one officer who was taking part from Baghdad. McChrystal told them Al Qaeda was reconstituting its cells within weeks, even days, of JSOC teams taking them out. He needed two things: a force multiplier to take more targets out faster and a way to turn around his own leaderships' morale.

The force multiplier came first. The way the idea was described to me by a senior operator who'd been on the ground in Iraq at the time was that McChrystal decided he didn't have enough special operating teams to take out enough targets. So together with conventional commanders, they came up with a plan to share JSOC's technical capability and intel in order to aid the QRFs - the conventional quick reaction forces - at every battalion across Iraq. Conventional forces always had QRFs, and they'd had an uneasy relationship with the JSOC teams, to put it mildly - sometimes working at cross-purposes. The JSOC guys would blame the conventional teams for causing unnecessary civilian collateral damage, and vice versa.

(AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
But once the QRFs were more tightly knitted into the JSOC system, with access to JSOC's intel and resources, they started taking targets out at a rapid rate - faster than Al Qaeda could find the manpower to reconstitute.

Still, success took a while to take hold…and before it did, McChrystal saw his guys needed a morale boost. He'd come across a poem - Yeats' The Second Coming, best known for the lines "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." It's a poem about losing, not winning.

But he and some his officers had discussed the last two lines of that stanza, which read: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." McChrystal sent that out to his guys, with the admonition that the key to success lay in turning those lines around - the best, meaning the U.S. troops, had to keep their conviction and steal back that passionate intensity.

Something worked. By the end of 2006, a senior officer who was in Mosul at the time described it in action — the conventional and special operating teams working in concert. "Sometimes, they were taking out thirty bad guys a day," he said. "So finally, the Iraqis were learning to trust us. We could get reconstruction done." He insists this was being done in his battle space "without high civilian collateral damage." Better intel for all meant better accuracy.

"It's an ugly truth," another senior commander asserted to me. "But the success of the surge's winning-trust-and-confidence, nation-building aspects was fueled in large part by a pyre of burning bodies," courtesy Stan McChrystal's guys and their new conventional partners.

Now success has a thousand fathers, as they say, and some reading this may argue that this idea came from conventional commanders, not JSOC or the Special Operating Command. If that is the case, McChrystal embraced the idea with enough enthusiasm to convince his guys it had been his to begin with.

So fast-forward to the present, and how McChrystal applied those lessons to Afghanistan.

"Stan…is an astute student," a senior officer wrote to me today. He learned from "years of experience in Iraq mostly and Afghanistan some on what works in each environment and what doesn't." That's a polite way of saying he has gone through that humbling "I did what I was trained to do, but it's not winning" process once before.

He'll be taking the Senators and Congressmen through that arc, sitting behind that long table - convincing them that he has figured out how to do the counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism parts of this strategy in a different and better way than its been done before.

(CBS/Mary Walsh)
One of the things he'll doubtless explain is how the training wasn't working - and why he thinks it will now. Part of it is resources - I spoke to one officer who spent a year trying to train an Afghan army team at the border with Pakistan. He had only half the troops he needed to do the job, yet all of his superior officer wanted to hear was that "the troops are ready." They weren't, and in their first engagement, "Their leader ran away so fast, he nearly ran over his own guys."

There will be more troops devoted to the initial training now. And McChrystal also borrowed from an example on the ground that was working - namely, the success the Army's Special Forces has had training and building up the Afghan commandos by fighting alongside them. Now every green Afghan army unit will be paired with battle-hardened US/NATO forces - to learn by example how to stand and fight.

He also has resources no previous commander has had - namely, people. "He has a team of trusted hand-picked associates…[who] understand his disciplined rhythm and decision making style, they all feed on each others ability to learn and offer in a synergistic command climate that promotes solutions rather than lamenting the scope of the challenges," the senior officer wrote me. "Who else had that luxury in Afghanistan?"

Lastly, he understands that in this new job, selling the mission means selling the man — hence his "60 Minutes" interview and all those speeches - putting his personal credibility on the line to convince his troops, NATO allies, the president and now Congress that he can pull this off.

That's what the four-star in charge of a new campaign has to do - as General David Petraeus did for the surge in Iraq. I ran into General Petraeus in Washington, D.C. recently, and he spoke of the luxury of saying no to all interviews his first several months in his new job. "It's really nice not to have you media types around all the time…no offense," he said. "But I had to do it in Iraq. That's part of the job." (No offense taken. It's a symbiotic relationship.)

So General McChrystal, once camera shy because he thought that's what his previous job required, has learned to step into the spotlight and put his opinions on the line — sometimes in a way that gets him into trouble, like when he gave that speech in London saying he thought he needed more troops well before the president had decided to give him any.

But "that's Stan," says one officer. While General Petraeus' style could be described as more diplomatic or professorial, McChrystal is described as painfully direct. Or "no bull," as the senior commander told me in his email today. "His weekly messages to the SECDEF (Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) include a section titled 'what I need,' the officer said. "No negotiating, just plain fact."

That's a preview of what we'll hear from behind the long tables on Capitol Hill this week.

And as for that Yeats poem? I asked his staff to ask him if it was time to send that round again. They said he smiled, and said I'd made his day. But he didn't answer.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Kimberly Dozier is a CBS News correspondent based in Washington. You can read more of her posts in Hotsheet here.
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