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Obama Removes McChrystal From Top Afghan Command Post

  • Heather Maher

General Stanley McChrystal arrives at the White House for his meeting with Obama.

General Stanley McChrystal arrives at the White House for his meeting with Obama.

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has removed General Stanley McChrystal from his position as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan and named the head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, to replace him.

"Today I accepted General Stanley McChrystal's resignation as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan," Obama said June 23 at the White House. "I did so with considerable regret but also with certainty that it is the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military, and for our country."

The decision to replace McChrystal was made following the publication of a magazine article in which he made derisive comments about several top administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden.

In the "Rolling Stone" magazine article, McChrystal and his top aides are quoted calling national security adviser James Jones "a clown," characterizing Obama as "unprepared" for a strategy meeting, mocking Biden, and criticizing U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.

Obama said his decision was not made out of "any sense of personal insult," or policy disagreement with McChrystal. "This is a personnel decision, not a policy decision," he said.

Indeed, McChrystal released his own statement reaffirming his "strong support" for Obama's strategy in Afghanistan.

But the president did fault McChrystal for eroding the trust within the nation's military and security leadership team.

"The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system and it erodes the trust that's necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan," Obama said.

Consensus On Firing

Disagreement to the president's decision was hard to find in the halls of Congress and Washington think tanks.

At a hastily-called press conference, Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) appeared with fellow members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to praise the move and Obama's choice to replace McChrystal.

"We applaud the decision of the president of the United States to ask General Petraeus to serve again in defense of our nation," McCain said. "We think there's no one more qualified, or a more outstanding leader than General Petraeus, to achieve a successful conclusion of the Afghan conflict."

McCain, who opposes Obama's decision to set a date to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, took the opportunity to raise a question he has many times before: whether next summer's scheduled troop drawdown is "etched in stone" or would be "conditions based," now that a new general is leading the effort.


"I am convinced that we can succeed in Afghanistan with the leadership and the talent of the young men and women who are serving, but we have to send the message that we will do whatever is necessary in order to achieve success," he said. "And if that means a longer period of time, or even an increase in troops, as necessary, that those actions will not be precluded in consideration of the facts on the ground at the time."

Along with McCain, Senator Joseph Lieberman (Independent-Connecticut) praised McChrystal's years of loyal military service but said his "unfortunate and inappropriate comments" had put Obama in a hard spot. "The president today stepped up and dealt with it directly and strongly and made the right decision in accepting General McChrystal's offer of resignation," he said.

Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) said it was "a sad day" because "a good man's ... career is probably over, but the president of the United States, our commander in chief, had no other choice, in my view."

He added, "I've been a military officer most of my adult life and there's lines you can't cross. Those lines were crossed. And it was poor judgment, but it was beyond poor judgment. It made it, I think, virtually impossible for the general to stay in his job, and as commander in chief, President Obama did the right thing today by accepting his resignation."

No Strategy Change

As decision day in Washington dawned, the country's second most widely-read newspaper, "USA Today," carried an editorial by Brookings Institute scholar and national security expert Michael O'Hanlon, with the headline, "Don't Fire McChrystal."

Hours after Obama made his announcement, O'Hanlon told RFE/RL that he had changed his mind.

"I was a person who was calling for a second chance for General McChrystal and yet, I can't, in any way disagree with President Obama's reasoning," O'Hanlon said. "Fundamentally, he has every right to feel completely comfortable with his commanding general, the offenses were indeed rather serious, even if one could quibble about whether they were quite as bad as some people alleged, they were certainly significant, and I certainly cannot imagine choosing a better successor [than] General Petraeus."

O'Hanlon said he expects no significant changes in U.S. strategy under Petraeus' leadership, short of "ongoing recalibrations because the situation is constantly changing."

Nor does Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. Obama's choice of Petraeus, he believes, was a signal that the president "won't give an inch to either side" in the policy debate over how much longer the U.S. military should stay in Afghanistan.

"He's saying with this decision, 'We're going to stay on course. We're not going to review those basic benchmarks of the strategy at this point' -- down the road that may happen -- but they're certainly not going to allow this appointment to do that," Clemons said.

Clemons said he felt McChrystal deserved to be removed because of what he described as "the toxic culture" the general had created among his staff.

As to why the general chose to share with a reporter his private opinions of White House leadership in the first place, Clemons said it was puzzling, since among all of Obama's national security team members, 'the one who had the monopoly of resources and who really did have the complete trust of the president, was Stanley McChrystal."

"This was a self-inflicted thing that he did to himself," he said.

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