General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has been summoned to Washington to explain disparaging remarks he made in a magazine interview.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a statement that McChrystal “made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment” in the comments quoted by Rolling Stone magazine. He said McChrystal has apologized to him and that he recalled the general to Washington to discuss the matter in person.
The article, in the magazine’s latest edition, quotes the general and his aides as criticizing Vice President Joseph Biden, special envoy for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, and U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry.
Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president read the Rolling Stone article in the White House residence last night and “was angry.”
As the top U.S. civilian and military officials in Afghanistan, Eikenberry and McChrystal are required to jointly implement U.S. policy in the country.
The Rolling Stone profile, titled “The Runaway General,” mentions the first meeting that McChrystal had with President Barack Obama the week after he took office. They met with a dozen senior military officials in a Pentagon room known as The Tank. The reporter of the article cites a source familiar with the meeting saying that McChrystal thought Obama appeared “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the room filled with military brass.
The article also describes the first one-on-one meeting McChrystal had with Obama in the Oval Office four months later, which an adviser to McChrystal called “a 10-minute photo op.”
McChrystal is described by an aide as “disappointed” in this first meeting with the president. While McChrystal voted for Obama, the two didn’t connect from the start, the article says.
The general today apologized for his remarks. He issued a five-sentence statement after news organizations published excerpts from the Rolling Stone article.
“I extend my sincerest apology,” McChrystal said in the statement e-mailed by the press office of his command, the International Security Assistance Force, in Afghanistan. “It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened.”
Duncan Boothby, a civilian communication adviser to the general who was responsible for arranging the Rolling Stone interview, submitted his resignation today, a defense official said.
McChrystal will meet separately tomorrow with both Gates and Obama. Asked if the general’s job is “safe,” Gibbs said, “We’ll have more to say after that meeting” with the president.
“All options are on the table,” Gibbs said. “There clearly has been an enormous mistake in judgment to which he is going to have to answer.”
McChrystal commands 142,000 troops in Afghanistan from the U.S. and 45 partner nations. Their aim is to reverse Taliban gains and make room for newly trained Afghan soldiers and police and their civilian counterparts to begin taking charge as the U.S. begins a drawdown planned to start in July 2011.
McChrystal is executing a strategy that took the White House months to approve. The approach involves adding 30,000 U.S. troops to carry out a counter-insurgency, which includes convincing Afghans to resist the Taliban’s takeover of parts of the country. The general said recently that this would take more time than expected.
McChrystal’s second in command is his deputy, General David Rodriguez, who oversees day-to-day military operations in Afghanistan.
The article about the general was being read far beyond Washington. The Afghan people “will be witness of more division among the U.S. and other nations’ commanders or their civilian officials,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman.
McChrystal has been in trouble before with the administration. Obama met privately with the general in Copenhagen Oct. 2, the day after the commander delivered a speech in London in which he said the U.S. and its allies will have to “do things dramatically differently, even uncomfortably differently” to succeed in Afghanistan.
The administration was in the midst of debating its strategy in Afghanistan, and McChrystal was perceived to be lobbying publicly for his position that more U.S. and international troops would be needed to provide security and train Afghan forces.
Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones both issued implicit rebukes of McChrystal, saying the U.S. military’s advice to the president should be given privately.
In the Rolling Stone article, one aide calls retired four- star General Jones “a clown” who is “stuck in 1985.”
McChrystal also has been at odds over the Afghan war strategy with Biden, who originally opposed McChrystal’s plan for increasing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and with Eikenberry, who was reported by Bloomberg News in November to have expressed reservations to Obama about a military buildup before Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government took steps to fight corruption and mismanagement.
The Rolling Stone article says at one point that McChrystal wondered aloud what Biden question he might face that day. “I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem,” he is quoted as saying.
“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh, according to the article. “Who’s that?”
“Biden?” a top adviser to the general is quoted as saying. “Did you say: Bite Me?”
The Rolling Stone article says McChrystal spoke of feeling “betrayed” by an Eikenberry memo leaked to news organizations last year in which the ambassador criticized Karzai as an inadequate partner for the war effort McChrystal was leading.
McChrystal spoke with exasperation upon getting a BlackBerry message from Holbrooke during the Rolling Stone interview. “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don’t even want to read it,” the article quotes McChrystal as saying.
The article also quotes a McChrystal aide as comparing Holbrooke to a “wounded animal.”
“Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous,” the aide said.
A statement from the U.S. embassy in Kabul said Eikenberry is “fully committed” to working with McChrystal.
“As Ambassador Eikenberry has said on many occasions, he and General McChrystal are both are fully committed to the president’s strategy and to working together as one civilian- military team to implement it,” said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
She said Eikenberry planned to make no statement on the controversy.
McChrystal was ordered to appear in person at the monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan, rather than over a secure video conference from Afghanistan, as is the custom, a U.S. defense official said. The meeting is scheduled tomorrow, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Geoff Morrell, a spokesman for Gates, said the general will meet separately with Gates.
Gates, in his statement, said, “I believe that General McChrystal made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment in this case.”
“We are fighting a war against al-Qaeda and its extremist allies, who directly threaten the United States, Afghanistan and our friends and allies around the world,” he said. “Going forward, we must pursue this mission with a unity of purpose.”
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, called McChrystal’s remarks “inappropriate” and told reporters on Capitol Hill he was “very troubled.”
Levin stopped short of calling for McChrystal to be fired. If the comments reflected a policy disagreement, the president would have “no alternative” but to fire him, Levin said. McChrystal’s comments reflect more of a “personality problem,” the senator said.
Three other members of the committee said McChrystal’s statements were “inappropriate.”
John McCain of Arizona, the panel’s ranking Republican, Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a statement, “General McChrystal’s comments, as reported in Rolling Stone, are inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between commander-in-chief and the military.”
“The decision concerning General McChrystal’s future is a decision to be made by the president,” they said.
Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said he didn’t know if McChrystal would survive in his position.
“Politics are politics, and we are in the middle of an extraordinarily difficult war, and we don’t have anyone with the same skills and leadership, and people do make mistakes,” Cordesman said in a telephone interview.
Still, he said, “You are caught up in the problem that a president and an administration are dealing with a war that’s politically uncertain while his popularity is diminishing.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization issued a statement calling the Rolling Stone article “rather unfortunate, but it is just an article.
“We are in the middle of a very real conflict, and the Secretary General has full confidence in General McChrystal as the NATO commander and in his strategy,” the statement said.
Captain John Kirby, spokesman for Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs; Colonel Eric Gunhus, spokesman for General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, and Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell did not respond immediately to e-mailed requests for comment.