General Stanley McChrystal arrives at the White House tomorrow with his job on the line and the strategy he devised for the war in Afghanistan at a critical juncture.
Comments made by McChrystal and unnamed aides in an article in Rolling Stone magazine disparaging administration officials threaten to fracture a unified front that President Barack Obama has sought to build for the war and distract efforts to hold together an international coalition doing the fighting.
Obama reacted with anger upon reading the article, his spokesman said, and officials from the White House to the Pentagon to Congress called McChrystal’s remarks a serious lapse in judgment.
“The magnitude” and “graveness of the mistake here are profound,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today. “There has clearly been an enormous mistake in judgment to which he’s going to have to answer.”
Asked if McChrystal will be relieved as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gibbs said, “All options are on the table.”
That question won’t be answered until the general meets with Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The controversy comes as the U.S. and its allies are confronting rising casualties and setbacks in the effort to reverse Taliban gains and give more responsibility to newly trained Afghan soldiers and police. At the same time, Obama and his aides have expressed frustration with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his efforts to stem corruption and provide services to Afghanistan’s civilian population.
The profile in Rolling Stone’s latest edition, titled “The Runaway General,” quotes McChrystal and his aides as criticizing Vice President Joseph Biden, special envoy for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, and U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry. 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 general today apologized for his remarks.
“I extend my sincerest apology,” McChrystal, 55, said in a 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 adviser to McChrystal who was responsible for arranging the Rolling Stone interview, submitted his resignation today, a defense official said.
Summoned to Washington
McChrystal was summoned to Washington for a meeting that coincides with a regular review of the war. He typically participates via teleconference from Afghanistan.
“Our combatant commander does not usually participate in these meetings from Washington,” Gibbs said. “The purpose for calling him here is to see what in the world he was thinking.”
Gibbs said the comments were a distraction from the war’s goals and “certainly in no way helpful to our broader coalition efforts.”
The article recounts the first meeting McChrystal had with Obama a week after the president took office. They met with a dozen senior military officials in a Pentagon room known as The Tank. Citing an unnamed person familiar with the session, it says McChrystal thought Obama appeared “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the room filled with military brass.
Unnamed McChrystal aides quoted in the article describe the general as being “disappointed” in this first meeting with the president and calling Obama’s National Security Adviser James Jones, a retired general, “a clown” who is “stuck in 1985.”
McChrystal himself wonders aloud what he might say at a public forum if asked about Biden.
“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?”
All those administration officials will likely participate in the White House meeting on Afghanistan.
“I’m sure that the president will say tomorrow that it is time for everyone involved to put away their petty disagreements, put away their egos, and get to work,” Gibbs said.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said Eikenberry and McChrystal “are both are fully committed to the president’s strategy and to working together as one civilian-military team to implement it.”
She said Eikenberry planned to make no statement on the controversy.
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 noted 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.
At Odds With Biden
McChrystal has been at odds over the Afghan war strategy with Biden, who originally opposed the general’s plan for increasing the number of 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.
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 remove 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.”
Up to Obama
“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.”