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It's been nearly two months now since General Stanley McChrystal left Afghanistan under a cloud of controversy. He left behind a hand-picked team of counterinsurgency specialists. Among them was the man McChrystal once called "the finest soldier I have ever known."
Command Sergeant Major Mike Hall joined the Army Rangers in 1976. He retired in 2008, only to be called back to Afghanistan by General McChrystal for one more tour. Unexpectedly, Hall is finishing that tour with a different general in charge. Hall is set to retire in September - for good this time.
NPR's Quil Lawrence sent us this profile.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Mike Hall grew up poor outside of Cleveland, Ohio.
Command Sergeant Major MIKE HALL (U.S. Army Rangers): My dad left when I was 3 or 4; I never really knew him, you know. Then I had a couple of stepdaddies. I lived with my grandma for a little while, mostly grew up on welfare. I mean, you grew up, you didn't know things were that bad. I mean, you know, as a kid, you don't really know if you've got it good or you got it bad until you really start to look back.
LAWRENCE: 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. But for Hall, it was an instant family.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: And I walked in there and I had, basically, the 10 best friends I had in my life. My sergeant showed me how to shine my boots, showed me how to sew patches, showed me how to iron - you know, all those little things that just said: We care.
LAWRENCE: He joined the Rangers, which he reckons was the pillar that rebuilt the Army over the following decades, even though many of his teachers had post-traumatic disorders.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: Definitely broken men from Vietnam. I mean, real war heroes, at least those drill sergeants. They had a lot of alcohol problems and a lot of, you know - looking back, we called them crazy. Now, we know it's PTSD but, you know, extreme combat veterans.
LAWRENCE: Hall isn't the Hollywood drill sergeant, or the Special Forces commando with wraparound shades. He's under 6 feet, 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, he has spent 250 days traveling outside of the NATO headquarters in Kabul, checking out how the policies from the top are playing out on the ground.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: EOD.
LAWRENCE: That includes foot patrols. Recently, one in Ali Abad, in northern Afghanistan, with a platoon of soldiers living with the ANP, Afghan National Police, at an outpost that got mortared only days before his arrival.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: It's tough on you guys sitting here. 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? If you do, you ain't been around them very long. They're extremely smart people. Most people in this country aren't good or bad. You know what they are? They're survivors. So when you get too disappointed about, you know, with who you're working with, just remember, this is country of survivors. They've been, literally, at war for 31 years.
LAWRENCE: Survival means picking the side that's going to win, Hall says, adding that the Afghans can't afford to guess wrong. The soldiers need to convince them that that will be the U.S. and the Kabul government, he says.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: And when you think you ain't making progress - I mean, you are. I've been here every year since this war started, and I've watched it. And we're doing things different now.
LAWRENCE: Hall came back to Afghanistan on the condition that things would be different.
After 32 years of working special operations on five continents, he retired as a command sergeant major, the highest noncommissioned rank in the Army. A year later, an old friend, General Stanley McChrystal, took command of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Hall wrote the general an email, dropping a provocative name.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: I sort of sent an email to General McChrystal. I said, you know, congratulations. If you're looking for a John Paul Vann, you know, let me know. And he said, are you serious?
LAWRENCE: John Paul Vann was an American 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 General McChrystal the same applied to Afghanistan.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: I asked him, I said, what's your strategy? Because I'd been watching this war for a while. And I knew - you know, my opinion was it wasn't going right, and we weren't going to be successful. And I said, what's your strategy? And we talked about it.
LAWRENCE: 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 years in Afghanistan. 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. Hall went back to Washington for McChrystal's retirement.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: We never really talked about it - I mean, we're so close, you almost can't talk about it, you know, because what do you say to each other? But I think what it is, is, you know, the mission was more important than him. He could have fought it, we could - he could have refuted all those things, and made excuses. And I think the president said the same thing: The mission is more important that one man. But the sad part is, the way he was portrayed in the article was just not General McChrystal. There's no man that has more integrity or more loyalty.
LAWRENCE: McChrystal and Hall had given themselves a timeline to turn Afghanistan around. In the commander's assessment from Afghanistan, written last year and leaked to the Washington Post, they included a sober warning. Quote: 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.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: I can't say the momentum's turned around. I'll say that when that was written in August, that I firmly believed that the insurgents had the momentum. I don't think the insurgents have the momentum now. I'm not quite sure we have the momentum. I mean, to a certain extent, we have the momentum, because right now, we are dictating what's going on in this country, and they're reacting to it.
It's not about the insurgents, it's not about us. It's about what the people of Afghanistan think. The people don't know right now, but they're very close to the tipping point on deciding: Do we have the resolve to stick this out?
LAWRENCE: Hall embodies the feeling of many inside the military who saw Iraq turn around, and now think the same resources are only this summer arriving to Afghanistan. But he's aware that public opinion in the United States right 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.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: We just can't do this in vain. You can't tell them it's important and then just quit because I think it will be - have close to the same results that happened to the Army after Vietnam.
LAWRENCE: Hall says he hasn't had a good day in Afghanistan. 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. Instead of treating the man with hostility, the platoon confirmed he was a local and let the man enter, deciding he was not a suicide bomber.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: It wasn't charging a machine gun bunker, but that was a life-and-death decision that soldier and that sergeant just made. You know, I was watching it all. And I couldn't have been prouder of how he reacted if they had been charging a machine gun bunker, you know - because hopefully, the way we treated that whole village means he won't have to charge a machine gun bunker. I mean, that's our strategy.
LAWRENCE: Command Sergeant Major Michael T. Hall will retire - this time, for good - on September 1st, and return to Tennessee to watch how the history of this war unfolds.
Command Sgt. Maj. HALL: I'm very much a realist; I'm not an optimist. You know, I've got too many friends in Arlington, you know, too many friends with missing arms and legs and brains and souls over this. And I know it's important, but I think it is different now. And I think that it can be turned around.
LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.
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