Reasserting civilian authority, the US president sacks General McChrystal - the rising Star of the Pentagon

Early this week President Obama was faced with a dilemma. General Stanley McChrystal — his commander in Afghanistan, a darling of the Pentagon and Robert Gates, whom he had entrusted the task of bringing victory — went rogue.

General McChrystal, an expert on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, was thought to be uniquely qualified to lead in Afghanistan, but during his 12 months in Kabul he could not show any significant results. Troop casualties are on the rise, Taliban are gaining ground, Marjah has proved a failure, the Kandahar offensive faces uncertainty, NATO members like the UK, Germany, and Canada are seeking ways to cut their troop levels and Karzai has failed to deliver his part of the deal, which was a prerequisite for the strategy to succeed.

General Stanley McChrystal

General Stanley McChrystal (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

To top it all, General McChrystal and his aides, lowering their guard during a series of interviews with Michael Hastings, a free lance writer for Rolling Stone magazine, freely gave disparaging comments about the president and senior members of his administration, which are being carried in an explosive article titled “The Runaway General.” The contents became public before publication and created a furor in Washington. It surprised everyone that this journalist was allowed several weeks of exposure to the general and his aides. What made matters worse, this was not the first time the general had shown indiscretion and defiance towards the civilian leadership he was reporting to.

The White House was enraged and so was the president.

The article contains a number of biting remarks by McChrystal and his aides aimed not only at the president, but also at Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, special envoy Richard Holbrooke, and US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.

McChrystal apparently did not connect with Obama from the outset. After meeting Obama for the first time, when he had come to meet with several senior military officers at the Pentagon shortly after assuming presidency, McChrystal is reported have remarked that Obama was “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the presence of military top brass. His second encounter with Obama came four months later when he briefly called on the president in the Oval Office after being selected for the job in Afghanistan. McChrystal termed it a photo-op and was disappointed that the commander-in-chief “didn’t seem very engaged”.

The general’s aides were clearly dismissive of civilian oversight of the war and the general himself ridiculed Vice President Biden with a one-liner when he said: “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” And then added “… Who’s that?” McChrystal held a grudge against Biden because he opposed the surge that McChrystal had proposed in support of his new counter-insurgency strategy to rescue the failing war to which Obama had agreed over Biden’s objections.

The article goes on to say that McChrystal’s staff derided Jim Jones by calling him a “clown” who remains stuck in 1985. McChrystal is reported to have called Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as a “wounded animal” because Holbrooke “keeps hearing about rumors that he’s going to be fired”. An aide quoted Gen. McChrystal as saying “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke… I don’t even want to open it”, when he saw a message from special envoy Richard Holbrooke.

The article talks of the general’s disdain for U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a retired general himself. Despite denials, they both had sharp policy differences. When Eikenberry questioned the trustworthiness of Karzai in a confidential cable to Washington that was leaked, McChrystal is quoted as having said of Eikenberry: “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books”. Eikenberry drew the general’s ire because he too opposed additional troops for Afghanistan. McChrystal stood behind Karzai and remained his only channel of communication with Washington because Karzai is not even on speaking terms with Ambassador Eikenberry and Holbrooke. The only person who received good reviews by the general’s team was Secretary Clinton.

Although McChrystal issued a public apology and telephoned all those who were the objects of his scorn, except the president, it did not carry much weight. Eric Bates, the magazine’s editor, said Gen. McChrystal did not dispute the quotes when these were sent to him as part of fact checking process before publication. He did not issue any clarification either. This only indicates that he wanted the comments to be published and thought he would get away by issuing an apology later.

A furious Obama ordered McChrystal to report to Washington. He was summoned to the White House to explain his conduct in a one-to-one meeting with the president. After giving him a hearing the president asked him to resign, telling him that the general had lost his confidence. General Petraeus was immediately assigned the command in Afghanistan in place of McChrystal, who was told not to return to Kabul.

Many in Washington were demanding his head after the story broke. His allies were hoping that after being scolded he would be allowed to return and finish his job so the mission is not jeopardized. But every one agreed that this was an inexcusable blunder that betrayed in the general a streak of defiance and immaturity that led to a totally unwarranted distraction at a time when Obama’s war was in doldrums, with McChrystal failing to turn things around.

McChrystal was chided by the president last year also when, in a speech in London shortly after his strategic assessment became public, he indirectly criticized Joe Biden for advocating a scaled-back war effort in Afghanistan.

The White House also suspected him of leaking to the media last fall his Afghanistan strategy document that argued for additional troops, even before Obama could evaluate it and make a judgment. This was believed to have been done to pressurize Obama with calls from the Congress, media and opinion makers to concede to his demand. An angry White House made muted accusations of insubordination.

One reason why Obama acted so promptly to boot out McChrystal was his fear that the McChrystal episode symbolized a far more serious problem that threatened the effectiveness of U.S. military and lay at the bottom of a failed war in Afghanistan – the deep fissures between his civilian leadership and the military hierarchy. It was important for him to deal with this problem and send a message to the military that as an institution it must respect the civilian leadership and submit to the principle of civilian control over the military, which, as he said, is the “core principle of our democracy”.

President Obama assumed office without much of a dispassionate and objective assessment of the war in Afghanistan. His briefings during the transition came from Bush appointees, including Robert Gates, and were apparently colored by the neo-con agenda. Since he had committed to continue pursuing the Afghan war as candidate Obama, more out of his need to sound patriotic in the face of his rival McCain’s promise for a hundred year war than out of his own conviction about need for that war, he was left with limited choices upon entering the White House. He opted to retain Robert Gates as his secretary of defence for the sake of continuity and to oversee the war.