President Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan flew to Washington Tuesday to find out whether he will be fired, after a magazine article quoted him and his staff as speaking critically of top members of President Obama’s team.
With the war effort lagging, the comments by General Stanley McChrystal illustrated the disarray and enmity among the president’s Afghanistan team, as well as the tensions between the president and the military.
In the magazine article, General McChrystal or his aides spoke derisively of Vice President Biden, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, National Security Adviser General James L. Jones, Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, an unnamed minister in the French government, and even Mr. Obama himself. But in many ways, his comments expose similar remarks others inside the group have made about each other over the past year.
Still, the criticism of the general’s public statements were swift.
The White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, pointedly refused to say whether General McChrystal would keep his job. He questioned the general’s judgment, calling the comments an "enormous mistake" and adding that military parents need to know that "the structure where they’re sending their children is one that is capable and mature enough in prosecuting a war as important as Afghanistan."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates released a statement criticizing General McChrystal for "a significant mistake" and "poor judgment in this case," while Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was described by a senior aide as "deeply disappointed" in the article and the comments it contained.
Whether or not General McChrystal keeps his job, Mr. Obama will try to use Wednesday’s meeting to urge his Afghanistan staff to work together, Mr. Gibbs said. The president, he said, will say that "it is time for everyone involved to put away their petty disagreements, put aside egos, and get to the job at hand."
But the release of the interview comes as violence in Afghanistan is rising sharply and several central planks of the president’s strategy to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" the Taliban and Al Qaeda have stalled, his top advisers have continued to criticize each other to reporters and international allies alike, usually in private conversations, and almost always off the record.
"Yes, we do hear them disparage each other," said a senior European diplomat who works closely with the United States on Afghanistan strategy. "It’s never good to hear that." Added Bruce O. Riedel, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution who helped the administration formulate its initial Afghan policy: "This flap shows once again that his team is not pulling together, but is engaging in backbiting."
The many conflicts engulfing the Afghanistan team include complaints from General Eikenberry about Mr. Holbrooke, whose relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai went downhill last year after difficult meetings following the August elections.
The general apologized for his remarks, saying the article, which appears in the July 8-22 edition of Rolling Stone, was “a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened.”
n the article, one of General McChrystal’s aides is quoted as referring to the national security adviser, James L. Jones, as a “clown.”
A senior administration official said Mr. Obama was furious about the article, particularly with the suggestion that he was uninterested and unprepared to discuss the Afghanistan war after he took office.
The magazine article, “The Runaway General,” quotes aides of General McChrystal saying that he was “pretty disappointed” by an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Obama, and that he found the president “uncomfortable and intimidated” during a Pentagon meeting with General McChrystal and several other generals.
The article does not mention any serious policy differences with Mr. Obama, who chose General McChrystal to take charge of a major escalation of American troops and equipment. And most of the critical remarks attributed to General McChrystal appear to come from his aides.
In his statement, General McChrystal said, “I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to General McChrystal late Monday and was described by a senior aide as “deeply disappointed” in the article and the comments it contained. The article seems destined to set off debate over the wisdom of Mr. Obama’s strategy, at a time when violence in Afghanistan is rising sharply and when several central planks of the strategy appear to be stalled. Two important American allies, the Dutch and the Canadians, have announced plans to pull their combat troops out of the country.
Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday in remarks broadcast on CNN that he had “enormous respect for General McChrystal” and warned against overreaction to the remarks. He added, however, that the general would have to “deal with” the fallout from his comments.
“My impression is that all of us would be best served by just backing off and staying cool and calm and not sort of succumbing to the normal Washington twitter,” Mr. Kerry said.
Indeed, the situation put both Mr. Obama and General McChrystal in a vise. As the commander in chief, Mr. Obama could decide to relieve General McChrystal of command, but if he did so, it seems difficult to imagine how his strategy for Afghanistan, now in midstream, could carry on. If General McChrystal keeps his job, however, it seems likely that his reputation — and therefore possibly his effectiveness — will be diminished.
The author of the article — Michael Hastings, a freelance journalist — appears to have been granted intimate access to General McChrystal’s inner circle. Most of the comments seem to have been uttered during unguarded moments, in places like bars and restaurants where the general and his aides gathered to unwind.
Like many in a new generation of senior officers, General McChrystal maintained a remarkably open policy with the news media, bringing them into secret briefings and on his helicopter as he traveled the country. Usually it worked in his favor; reporters gained insights into the general’s strategy and the challenges of the job.
This time, however, it did not. Duncan Boothby, a special assistant to General McChrystal who coordinated the article, resigned, aides said. Many of the offending remarks were picked up when General McChrystal and his team were grounded in Paris in early June by the ash cloud by the volcano in Iceland, they said.
“Everyone kind of relaxed,” an aide said.
A McChrystal aide is quoted saying of Mr. Holbrooke: “The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to be fired, so that makes him dangerous.”
On another occasion, General McChrystal is described as reacting with exasperation when he receives an e-mail message from Mr. Holbrooke. “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don’t even want to open it.”
The article also describes a conversation in which General McChrystal and an aide talk about Mr. Biden. Mr. Biden is known to have opposed the decision to escalate the war, preferring instead a slimmed-down plan focused on containing terrorism.
“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” General McChrystal jokes.
“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say ‘Bite me?’”
General McChrystal is also quoted making disdainful remarks about Mr. Eikenberry, the ambassador, with whom he has had sharp disagreements over the war. Last year, Mr. Eikenberry sent confidential cables to Washington opposing Mr. Obama’s decision to send more troops.
“He’s one that covers his flanks for the history books,” General McChrystal is quoted as saying. “Now, if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ ”
The article also describes a meeting in which a soldier vents his frustration over General McChrystal’s tightening of the rules governing the use of airstrikes against suspected insurgents. The soldier, Pfc. Jared Pautsch, is quoted telling General McChrystal that he is endangering the lives of soldiers by forcing them to be too restrained.
Private Pautsch is quoted as telling the general the Americans should just drop a “bomb on the place,” and asking, “What are we doing here?”
The Rolling Stone Article's Juiciest Bits
"Who's he going to dinner with?" I ask one of his aides. "Some French minister," the aide tells me. "It's fucking gay."
Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked "uncomfortable and intimidated" by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn't go much better. "It was a 10-minute photo op," says an adviser to McChrystal. "Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his fucking war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed."
Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it's going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm. "It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win," says Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal. "This is going to end in an argument."
At one point on his trip to Paris, McChrystal checks his BlackBerry. "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke," he groans. "I don't even want to open it." He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance. "Make sure you don't get any of that on your leg," an aide jokes, referring to the e-mail.
This is one of the central flaws with McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy: The need to build a credible government puts us at the mercy of whatever tin-pot leader we've backed - a danger that Eikenberry explicitly warned about in his cable. Even Team McChrystal privately acknowledges that Karzai is a less than-ideal partner. "He's been locked up in his palace the past year," laments one of the general's top advisers. At times, Karzai himself has actively undermined McChrystal's desire to put him in charge. During a recent visit to Walter Reed my Medical Center, Karzai met three U.S. soldiers who had been wounded in Uruzgan province. "General," he called out to McChrystal, "I didn't even know we were fighting in Uruzgan!"
It doesn't hurt that McChrystal was also extremely successful as head of the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite forces that carry out the government's darkest ops. During the Iraq surge, his team killed and captured thousands of insurgents, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. "JSOC was a killing machine," says Maj. Gen. Mayville, his chief of operations. McChrystal was also open to new ways of killing. He systematically mapped out terrorist networks, targeting specific insurgents and hunting them down -- often with the help of cyberfreaks traditionally shunned by the military. "The Boss would find the 24-year-old kid with a nose ring, with some fucking brilliant degree from MIT, sitting in the corner with 16 computer monitors humming," says a Special Forces commando who worked with
McChrystal in Iraq and now serves on his staff in Kabul. "He'd say, 'Hey -- you fucking
muscleheads couldn't find lunch without help. You got to work together with these guys.'"
But however strategic they may be, McChrystal's new marching orders have
caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire,
soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. "Bottom line?" says a former Special
Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I would love
to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers' lives in even
greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing."
CNN has just reported that McChrystal submitted his resignation, it's unknown whether Obama will accept it.