Sacked McChrystal once thought indispensible
June 23, 2010
ARLINGTON, Va. — When President Barack Obama fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal on Wednesday, he relieved the Afghanistan war commander once considered by the Pentagon as uniquely qualified and indispensable in leading the U.S. effort to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida.
“I did so with considerable regret but also with certainty that it’s the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military, and for our country,” Obama said in the Rose Garden on Wednesday.
“His conduct … does not meet the standard set by a commanding general.”
Obama insisted the decision was not about McChrystal’s abilities or the counterinsurgency strategy, and called the ousted general “one of our nation’s finest soldiers.”
“But war is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president,” Obama said.
McChrystal said in a statement: “I strongly support the President’s strategy in Afghanistan and am deeply committed to our coalition forces, our partner nations, and the Afghan people. It was out of respect for this commitment -- and a desire to see the mission succeed -- that I tendered my resignation.”
In his place, Gen. David Petraeus, the globally known head of the U.S. Central Command, will take over the war effort. Petraeus stood at Obama’s side during the announcement but did not speak.
In a little more than a year in command, the White House stood by McChrystal through several media gaffes while security across Afghanistan, especially in key Taliban strongholds in the south, has not improved as rapidly as expected.
But McChrystal could not overcome a stunning Rolling Stone article surfacing Monday in which he and his closest advisers disparaged nearly every high-ranking administration official involved in the Pakistan-Afghanistan war effort -– including the commander in chief, the vice president and the national security advisor -– while drinking at a Paris bar.
The episode marks the fourth occasion, and the third in a little more than one year, in which McChrystal has caused media controversy for the White House.
The dismissal also delivers a blow to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who fired then-commander Gen. David McKiernan and handpicked McChrystal in May 2008 to lead the Obama administration’s renewed counterinsurgency focus on Afghanistan.
Billed as the next “Mr. Counterinsurgency” by a slew of pundits and observers, McChrystal was touted by the Pentagon as qualified like none other for the role. A West Point graduate and infantryman, McChrystal rose to be vice director of the Joint Staff in Washington. He then was commanding general of Joint Special Operations Command, at Fort Bragg, N.C., before returning to the inner circle of top Pentagon brass as director of the Joint Staff.
The only blip on his resume was his role as commander of the unit that tried to cover up the cause of death of Pat Tillman, the NFL player-turned-soldier who was gunned down by friendly fire. McChrystal signed the Silver Star citation that said Tillman was killed by enemy fire, only to send a memo up the chain the next day saying he may have died by friendly forces. McChrystal later acknowledged he suspected the truth days before signing the citation.
Last summer, McChrystal then led a 60-day strategy review of the war. But Gates held the report on his desk when it arrived at the Pentagon in September, sparking early speculation the White House was having reservations about McChrystal and his plan.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said that any speculation that McChrystal might retire over the hesitation was “absurd.”
“I mean, this guy is a pro,” Morrell said, defending McChrystal as a “no-nonsense warfighter” uninterested in Washington bickering. “You give him a mission, give him a goal, give him the means to do it, he’ll do it. This is not about his feelings. This is about achieving a mission that is essential to the national security of this country.”
Yet, a three-month Cabinet debate over McChrystal’s proposal ensued, pitting the general’s wish for an escalation of troop levels against Vice President Joe Biden’s call for a scaled-down counterterrorism effort.
After a lifetime away from the limelight, the commander struggled in his public role as commanding NATO and U.S. forces. As White House and congressional leaders debated the way forward, McChrystal gave “60 Minutes” an interview in September that some in Washington grumbled was an attempt to usurp the process and embolded his chances.
Later that month, speaking at a London think tank panel, McChrystal was asked about the Biden option, saying, “A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a shortsighted strategy.”
That caused Obama to summon McChrystal aboard Air Force One for a private man-to-man talk.
Ultimately, Obama endorsed McChrystal’s middle path for increasing U.S. troop levels by 30,000 –- not as many as the largest option but nonetheless committing to a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign the White House said the previous administration had never attempted.
“I think kudos to the president for salvaging what was on the face an unsalvageable situation,” said Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations fellow for national security studies.
Boot said it was “ridiculously premature” to claim McChrystal’s dismissal was a referendum on his execution of counterinsurgency.
“He shot himself in the foot and took himself off the battlefield,” Boot said. “I don’t think McChrystal is being kicked out because his war effort is failing. He didn’t show the maturity and judgment to operate at the highest level.”