It's been nearly two months since Gen. Stanley McChrystal departed Afghanistan under a cloud of controversy. He left behind a hand-picked team of counterinsurgency specialists. Among them is the man McChrystal once called "the finest soldier I have ever known."
Command Sgt. Maj. Mike Hall joined the Army Rangers in 1976 and retired in 2008 -- only to be called back to Afghanistan by McChrystal for one more tour of duty.
It started with a congratulatory e-mail from Hall to McChrystal after the general was named the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. In that e-mail message, Hall dropped a provocative name in military circles, and he suggested that the U.S. effort needed a new direction.
"I said congratulations," Hall recalls. "And I said if you're looking for a John Paul Vann, you know, let me know. And he said, 'Are you serious?' "
John Paul Vann was an American lieutenant colonel in Vietnam who later became a senior civilian adviser as the U.S. got deeper into the war. He tried to push the Army away from massive bombardment and toward counterinsurgency against the Viet Cong. Vann died when his helicopter crashed in the jungle. Vann famously said that America had not been fighting the war in Vietnam for 12 years, but for one year 12 times.
Hall told McChrystal that the same applied to Afghanistan.
'It Wasn't Going Right'
"I asked him, I said, 'What's your strategy?' Because I'd been watching this war for a while, and I knew my opinion was it wasn't going right and we weren't going to be successful," Hall recalls.
After they talked, Hall took a few days to get the courage to ask his wife if he might interrupt his retirement for another two-year tour in Afghanistan.
After 32 years of working special operations on five continents, Hall came back to Afghanistan on the condition that things would be different.
He became the command sergeant major for all NATO forces and began to implement an overhaul of the Afghan strategy.
But just as it got going, and before a surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops was complete, McChrystal was forced to resign after unflattering comments about the Obama administration by him and his aides were printed in Rolling Stone magazine.
With McChrystal gone, Hall is finishing his tour early and is set to retire in September -- for good this time.
An Instant Family
Hall grew up poor outside Cleveland. Joining the Army seemed like a matter of course.
"My dad left when I was 3 or 4 -- I never really knew him -- then had a couple of stepdaddies. I lived with my grandma for a while. You know, mostly grew up on welfare. But as a kid, you didn't know if you had it good or bad until you really start to look back," Hall says.
When he stopped by a military recruiter's office, right out of high school in 1976, it might have been the U.S. Army's nadir in public opinion and soldier morale, just after the Vietnam War. But for Hall, it was an instant family.
"I walked in there and had the 10 best friends I had in my life. My sergeant showed me how to shine boots, how to sew patches, how to iron. All the things, little things that just said, 'We care,' " he says.
Hall joined the Rangers, which he believes was the pillar that rebuilt the Army over the following decades, even though many of his teachers had post-traumatic stress disorder. "[They were] broken men from Vietnam, real war heroes. There were a lot of alcohol problems, and we called them crazy. Looking back now, we know it [was] PTSD," he says.
Close To His Troops
Hall isn't the Hollywood cliche of a drill sergeant, or the Special Forces commando with wraparound shades. He is less than 6 feet tall and smiles more often than not. In his 50s, he seems grandfatherly to many of the young soldiers.
In the past 13 months in Afghanistan, Hall has spent 250 days traveling outside the NATO headquarters in Kabul, checking on how the policies from the top are playing out on the ground.
That includes foot patrols. He took part in a recent patrol in Ali Abad, in northern Afghanistan, with a platoon of soldiers living with the Afghan national police, or ANP, at an outpost that came under mortar fire only days before his arrival.
"It's tough on you guys sitting here," he told the soldiers. "You're working with the ANP. They don't speak the language. They don't trust you. You don't trust them."
"Anybody think Afghans are dumb?" he continued. "If you do, you ain't been around them that long. They're extremely smart people. Most people in this country aren't good or bad -- they're survivors. They've been literally at war for 31 years."
Survival means picking the side that's going to win, Hall says, adding that the Afghans can't afford to guess wrong. The American soldiers need to convince them that will be the U.S. and the Kabul government, he says.
"When you think you ain't making progress, you are. I've been here every year since this war started and I've watched it. We're doing things different now," he says.
Seeking To Regain The Momentum
McChrystal and Hall had given themselves a timeline to turn Afghanistan around. In their commanders' assessment from Afghanistan -- written last year and leaked to The Washington Post -- they included a sober warning: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
Twelve months later, Hall stands by that assessment.
"I can't say the momentum's turned around. I'll say that when that was written in August, I firmly believed the insurgents had the momentum. I don't think the insurgents have the momentum now. I'm not quite sure we have the momentum," he says.
"To a certain extent, we have the momentum, because right now we are dictating what's going on in this country and they are reacting to it. It's not about the insurgents and it's not about us. It's about what the people of Afghanistan think. The people don't know right now, they're very close to the tipping point on deciding, do we have the resolve to stick this out?" he says.
Hall expresses the feeling of many inside the military who saw Iraq turn around and now think the same resources are only this summer arriving in Afghanistan. But he's aware that public opinion in the United States now is every bit as tenuous as that of the Afghans.
The consequences Hall talks about are as much for his soldiers, he says, as for Afghanistan and America. "We just can't do this in vain. You can't tell them it's important and then just quit. I think it'll have close to the same results as what happened to the Army after Vietnam," he says.
No Good Days In Afghanistan
When asked to describe a "good day" in Afghanistan, Hall's voice cracks.
"We just haven't had a good day," he says -- because that would have to be a day without an American or Afghan or NATO soldier losing life or limb.
But he has had many moments of pride. Most of them involve a soldier not firing his weapon, but using his head.
On the foot patrol in Ali Abad, a lone driver approached the village. Suicide bombers are often single men in cars, but instead of treating the man with hostility, the platoon confirmed he was a local and let the man enter. A confrontation would have defeated the entire point of reaching out to the villagers, says Hall.
"It wasn't charging a machine gun bunker, but it was a life or death decision that soldier and that sergeant just made," Hall says. "I couldn't have been prouder if he had been charging a machine gun bunker, because hopefully the way he treated that whole village means he won't have to charge a machine gun bunker. That's our strategy."
When he says "our strategy," it's hard not to think that Hall is including the absent McChrystal. Hall took a trip back to Washington this summer for McChrystal's retirement ceremony, but the two men have not spoken about the incident that prompted the general's early departure from Afghanistan and a long military career.
"What do you say to each other? I think what it is was, that the mission was more important than him. But he just wrote the check for everybody, and said, I got it, I'm out of here. He could have fought it, he could have refuted all those things, and made excuses. I think the president said the same thing: The mission is more important that one man," Hall says.
"But the sad part is that the way he's portrayed in the article was just not Gen. McChrystal. There's no man who has more integrity and more loyalty," he adds.
Hall, after achieving the highest noncommissioned rank in the Army, will retire this time for good on Sept. 1 and return to Tennessee to watch how the history of this war unfolds.
"I'm very much a realist; I'm not an optimist. I've got too many friends in Arlington [National Cemetery] and too many friends with missing arms and legs and brains and souls over this and I know it's important," Hall says. "But I think it is different now, I think it can be turned around."