President Obama removed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander of American forces in Afghanistan on Wednesday, and tapped as his replacement the general’s boss and the architect of the 2007 surge in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus.
Mr. Obama, standing with General Petraeus and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the White House Rose Garden to underline the continuity and solidity of his Afghan policy, said that he had accepted General McChrystal’s resignation “with considerable regret.”
Mr. Obama said he had done so not out of personal insult, but because a magazine article featuring contemptuous quotes from the general and his staff about senior administration officials had not met standards of behavior for a commanding general, and threatened to erode trust among administration and military officials and undermine civilian control of the military.
“War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or president,” Mr. Obama said. “As difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe it is the right decision for national security.”
“I welcome debate among my team,” he said, “but I won’t tolerate division.”
Mr. Obama stressed that the change in leadership did not signal a shift in his overall war strategy in Afghanistan, where thousands of new American troops have been arriving in recent months among increasing casualties and growing questions about the progress of the war.
“It is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy,” Mr. Obama said.
The reshuffle injected new uncertainties into relations between the United States and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who had urged American leaders to let General McChrystal remain in place.
Although General Petraeus has held overarching responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the head of the United States Central Command, it was General McChrystal who spent more time on the ground in Afghanistan, building the trust of Mr. Karzai and traveling to tribal meetings with him.
In a brief statement, General McChrystal said he supported the strategy in Afghanistan and had resigned out of a “desire to see the mission succeed.” General McChrystal and Mr. Obama met for about 20 minutes earlier in the day, after the general flew from Afghanistan to Washington a day earlier amid a growing furor over the article in Rolling Stone magazine.
The article quoted General McChrystal and his aides speaking critically of nearly every member of the president’s national security team, saying President Obama appeared “uncomfortable and intimidated” during his first meeting with the general, and dismissing Vice President Biden as “Bite Me.”
The firestorm over the article was fueled by increasing doubts — even in the military — that Afghanistan can be won and by crumbling public support for the nine-year war as American casualties rise. The remarks also laid bare the disarray and enmity in a foreign policy team that is struggling with the war.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, once the general’s biggest supporter, criticized General McChrystal for “a significant mistake” while Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was described by a senior aide as “deeply disappointed” by the comments. But Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and his powerful half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, mounted a full-throated defense of General McChrystal.
The Afghanistan team has suffered many internal conflicts, including complaints from the American ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, about Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In one episode that dramatized the building animosities, Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, wrote to Ambassador Eikenberry in February, sympathizing with his complaints about a visit Mr. Holbrooke had recently made to Afghanistan. In the note, which went out over channels that were not secure, officials said, General Jones soothed the ambassador by suggesting that Mr. Holbrooke would soon be removed from his job.
The Jones note prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to complain to Mr. Obama, and her support for Mr. Holbrooke has kept him in his job.
In the Rolling Stone article, which was posted on the magazine’s Web site on Tuesday, one of General McChrystal’s aides is quoted as referring to General Jones as a “clown.”
The infighting has been made more severe by the increasingly perilous situation on the ground. Violence in Afghanistan is on the rise. The mission to pacify Marja and Kandahar is far off track. And the effort to create a viable Afghan government is increasingly in doubt because of widespread corruption. Criticism is mounting on Capitol Hill, even among the president’s backers, and many allies have announced that they are looking for the exit, with others expected to do the same in the coming months.
General McChrystal had proved to be the one American official most able to successfully deal with Mr. Karzai on a daily basis. Beyond that, Mr. Obama’s war strategy is in many ways a McChrystal strategy. The general devised the plan, which called for thousands of extra troops to fight the insurgency and, perhaps more important, create a sense of security for the Afghan people.
There has been vigorous debate within the administration about how to proceed in Afghanistan, but General McChrystal and his aides did not overtly criticize administration policy.
Rather, the differences were personal, and publicly aired. One administration official described Mr. Obama as being particularly furious at a McChrystal aide’s characterization of him as not seeming “very engaged” during that first White House meeting.
Over all, the magazine article depicted General McChrystal at the head of a small circle of aides engaged in almost locker-room trash talk as they discussed foreign policy, the French, their allegiance to one another and their own concerns about course of the war. The civilian communications adviser who set up the interview, Duncan Boothby, has resigned.