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Stanley McChrystal’s war path on White House


  • Stanley McChrystal — the Runaway General
  • Excerpts from the Rolling Stone interview with General Stanley McChrystal
  • The White House must decide whether stability in the war effort outweighs the need to discipline the commander.
  • As President Obama weighs whether to relieve his Afghanistan commander over inappropriate comments in a magazine article, he is also wrestling with the future of a war that he has taken on as his own.
  • If he fires Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Obama will be forced to consider revising his strategy, which relies on large numbers of U.S. troops and a far-reaching counterinsurgency effort to promote governance and development in Afghanistan.
  • The White House now has to decide whether stability at the top of the war effort outweighs the need to discipline a commander who twice has seemed to publicly challenge civilian oversight of the war.

The article in this week’s Rolling Stone depicted Gen Stanley McChrystal – the top US military commander in Afghanistan – as a lone wolf on the outs with many important figures in the Obama administration and unable to persuade even some of his own soldiers that his strategy could win the war.

The interview describes McChrystal as “disappointed” in his first Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama. The article says that although McChrystal voted for Obama, the two failed to connect from the start. “McChrystal thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated’ by the roomful of military brass,” said the magazine about the general’s first meeting with his new commander-in-chief, a week after the latter took office.

McChrystal’s one-on-one meeting with the president a few months later did not go much better either. “It was a 10-minute photo-op,” the magazine quotes an adviser to McChrystal. “The Boss was pretty disappointed,” the aide had said, referring to the general.

The Rolling Stone article, which quotes several McChrystal aides anonymously, portrays a split between the US military and Obama’s advisers at an extremely sensitive moment for the Pentagon, which is fending off criticism of its strategy to turn around the Afghanistan war.

  • Firing McChrystal would also probably ignite fierce debate in Congress, with some Republicans charging that Obama had sacrificed an effective wartime commander because of comments that, while intemperate, did not challenge the course set by civilians.
  • Opponents in Congress of the current strategy would probably respond by pressing even harder for a shift in strategy.
  • In December, Obama essentially sided with McChrystal, who recommended a troop buildup and a dedicated counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.
  • And he rebuffed, at least for the moment, Vice President Joe Biden and other advisors, who expressed skepticism about the strategy.
  • Obama set a July 2011 deadline for beginning a troop drawdown in Afghanistan and promised to review the strategy in December — in effect giving McChrystal a year to show results.
  • McChrystal’s approach already has been under fire, because stabilization efforts have proved less successful than expected in Helmand province and the general has extended an operation around the city of Kandahar because of delays in getting Afghan support.
  • Officials who back the current strategy say that firing McChrystal would set back that effort even further.

Obama appointed McChrystal to lead the Afghan effort in May 2009. He was, however, not happy with the proposals the general was making – calling, among other things, for another 40,000 troops – to avoid a ‘mission failure’, writes the magazine.

“The White House was furious. McChrystal, they felt, was trying to bully Obama, opening him up to charges of being weak on national security unless he did what the general wanted. It was Obama versus the Pentagon, and the Pentagon was determined to kick the president’s ass,” states the Rolling Stone piece.

“I found that time painful,” McChrystal said in the article. “I was selling an un-sellable position,” he added.

Obama agreed to dispatch an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan only after months of study, which many in the military found frustrating. And the White House’s troop commitment was coupled with a pledge to begin bringing them home in July 2011, in what counter-insurgency strategists advising McChrystal regarded as an arbitrary deadline.

A diplomatic incoherence among several officials in the Obama administration dealing with the war in Afghanistan, opines the magazine, has effectively allowed McChrystal’s team to call the shots and “hampered efforts to build a stable and credible government in Afghanistan”.

The magazine goes on, “part of the problem is personal: In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side. One aide calls Jim Jones, a retired four-star general and veteran of the Cold War, a ‘clown’ who remains ‘stuck in 1985′.”

“Politicians like [John] McCain and [John] Kerry, says another aide, ‘turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticise him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful,” quotes the magazine.

Only US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton receives good reviews from McChrystals advisers. “Hillary had Stan’s back during the strategic review,” an adviser tells Rolling Stone, adding, “She said, ‘If Stan wants it, give him what he needs’.”

The assessment of McChrystal’s team of Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the official charged with the reintegration of the Taliban is not nearly as rosy: “‘The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal’,” the magazine quotes a member of the general’s team. “‘Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous. He’s a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, [and] pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto’,” quotes the magazine.

McChrystal, says the magazine, does not bother concealing his annoyance over the diplomat. “At one point during a trip to Paris, he checks his BlackBerry. ‘Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke’, he groans. ‘I don’t even want to open it’, he says. He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket.”

McChrystal, a widely respected former special operations chief, has enjoyed mostly sympathetic US media coverage since he took over the NATO-led force last year with a mandate from Obama to launch a major counter-insurgency offensive.

In the interview, McChrystal said he felt betrayed by US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the man the White House chose to be his diplomatic partner. If Eikenberry had the same doubts, McChrystal said he never expressed them until a leaked internal document threw a wild card into the debate over whether to add more troops last November. In the document, Eikenberry said Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not a reliable partner for the counter-insurgency strategy McChrystal was hired to execute.

McChrystal accused the ambassador of giving himself cover.

“‘Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books’,” McChrystal told the magazine, adding, “‘Now, if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so’.”

  • The most logical successor would be Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who is already in Afghanistan serving as McChrystal’s deputy. Replacing McChrystal with Rodriguez would signal continuity, rather than a shift in approach.
  • Another name being mentioned as a possible successor was Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. He has command combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Even if he remains the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, McChrystal is almost certain to emerge from the furor as a damaged figure, less able to defend his war strategy against those in the administration hoping to change it.
  • “I strongly believe McChrystal will return, but the damage is done,” said a senior military official sympathetic to McChrystal.
  • Among the issues Obama will have to decide is whether McChrystal can remain effective as commander in the wake of the furor.
  • “Does he come back weakened or gun shy or hesitant to make that case?” asked one senior official. “We need him engaged.”

The article depicts the strained relationship between McChrystal and Eikenberry. “According to those close to the two men, Eikenberry – a retired three-star general who served in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2005 – can’t stand that his former subordinate is now calling the shots. He’s also furious that McChrystal, backed by NATO’s allies, refused to put Eikenberry in the pivotal role of viceroy in Afghanistan, which would have made him the diplomatic equivalent of the general.”

The job instead went to British ambassador Mark Sedwill – a move that effectively increased McChrystal’s influence over diplomacy by shutting out a powerful rival.

“‘In reality, that position needs to be filled by an American for it to have weight’,” the magazine quotes a US official familiar with the negotiations.

The Rolling Stone article appeared to catch him and his staff in unguarded moments, including a drinking session at an Irish pub in Paris.

In the article, McChrystal joked sarcastically about rehearsing an answer for US Vice-president Joe Biden, known as a sceptic of the general’s strategy of hurling thousands more troops into the fray.

“‘Are you asking about Vice President Biden?’ McChrystal says with a laugh.

‘Who’s that?’” the article quotes him as saying. “‘Biden?’ suggests a top adviser. ‘Did you say: Bite Me?’”

Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan – the brainchild of McChrystal – will see NATO and US numbers peak at 150,000 later this year before a draw-down scheduled to start next year.

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