A group of American terrorist-hunters that included one of the most senior commanders in Iraq quickly descended on the burned-out rubble that framed the dying body of Abu Musab Zarqawi.
The deadly operative of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi had been the personal quarry of a super-secret task force whose backbone is the Army Delta Force and Navy SEALs of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Its commander, Army Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, was so personally involved in the hunt that he went with his men to the bombed-out hut near Baqouba to make sure they got their man.
A source close to the special-operations community said Gen. McChrystal’s eyes-on identification is representative of the three-star general’s hands-on approach as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s chief terrorist pursuer in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He goes on raids. He doesn’t sit back at headquarters,” said the source, who asked not to be named. A spokesman at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., declined to comment on the general’s operating style.
The West Point graduate’s personal commitment to the mission has led some to dub him the first “commander-forward” of JSOC. He spends little time at the command’s headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C. Instead, he shuttles between task forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to personally supervise hundreds of commandos.
Gen. McChrystal’s team was so instrumental in finding Zarqawi, and enabling an Air Force F-16 National Guard pilot to kill him in an air strike, that President Bush thanked the general in a phone call to him and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
“I haven’t spoken to our commanders yet, except to call Gen. Casey and McChrystal and congratulate them, but more importantly, for them to congratulate the troops and the intel groups that were working on finding Zarqawi,” Mr. Bush said at a June 10 press conference at Camp David.
The “intel groups” represent part of Gen. McChrystal’s domain. He oversees a task force that includes JSOC, as well as a special intelligence group that specializes in intercepting communications and the “Night Stalkers” aviation unit. The group is augmented by intelligence officers, including the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency.
The task force’s special intelligence unit cinched the kill. Once Jordanian agents identified Zarqawi’s clerical adviser, a frequent visitor to the al Qaeda in Iraq leader, the intelligence unit used special technical means to track his whereabouts. On June 7, the unwitting accomplice ended up on the front door of the terrorist’s hide-out. JSOC has used the technical means to track and capture scores of Zarqawi henchmen.
Mr. Rumsfeld takes a personal interest in the assignment of admirals and generals, especially for such a key post as JSOC commander. The defense secretary has made it a priority to bolster special-operations spending and manpower. Shortly after the war on terrorism began, he traveled to Fort Bragg and toured the highly secret training ground of Delta Force. He watched a HALO (high-altitude, low-opening parachute jump), a practice raid and some sharpshooting, and he met Delta recruits.
Gen. McChrystal caught the defense secretary’s attention in 2003 when the formertwo-star general was vice director of operations in the Joint Staff, the planning arm of the Joint Chiefs chairman. He conducted nationally televised press briefings at the Pentagon and met frequently with Mr. Rumsfeld and others to map strategy.
At his debut in March 2003, as war kicked off in Iraq, former spokeswoman Victoria Clarke introduced him. “I won’t quite say he volunteered, but he’s going to help out on the briefings,” she said.
After less than a month of fighting, Gen. McChrystal declared from the podium, “I would anticipate that the major combat engagements are over.”
Gen. McChrystal long had a special-operations niche: He trained and deployed as an Army Ranger, an elite special-operations force that does the big missions of unconventional warfare.
“There are very few flag-officer movements the secretary doesn’t decide,” said Larry Di Rita, a former senior aide to Mr. Rumsfeld who worked with Gen. McChrystal. “He tends to invest a lot of time into those decisions, and this one was no different.”
He added, “[McChrystal] is well-known in the Army as an exceptional operator and an ability to work in a joint environment, an ability to work at various levels of operational skills. It is those things the secretary tends to look at in these kinds of commands. An ability to communicate. [McChrystal] is a very good communicator.”
Special-operations insiders say that when it is time to replace Army Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown, commander of Special Operations Command, Gen. McChrystal will likely be a finalist, along with Lt. Gen. Dell Dailey, a former JSOC chief.