President Barack Obama has sacked Gen Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, over comments made in a magazine interview.
By Toby Harnden in Washington
Published: 6:38PM BST 23 Jun 2010
In what could become a defining moment for his presidency, Mr Obama said he had accepted Gen McChrystal’s resignation “with considerable regret but also with certainty that it is the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military and for the country”.
Gen McChrystal was immediately replaced as commander by Gen David Petraeus, the architect of the successful Iraq surge in 2007.
Standing with Gen Petraeus outside the White House some three hours after his 22-minute meeting with Gen McChrystal, Mr Obama said: “War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or president.
“As difficult as it is to lose Gen McChrystal, I believe it is the right decision for national security. I welcome debate among my team but I won’t tolerate division.”
Gen McChrystal had been summoned from Kabul to be ignominiously dismissed after he and anonymous aides were quoted in a Rolling Stone magazine article.
They criticised Vice-President Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke, Mr Obama’s regional envoy, Karl Eikenberry, US ambassador to Afghanistan, and Gen Jim Jones, the national security adviser.
A McChrystal aide even mocked Mr Obama himself, stating he looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by senior officers and had not seemed “very engaged” when he met the general for the first time.
Gen McChrystal had offered his resignation as he flew to Washington and formally tendered it to Mr Obama in the Oval Office. But his abject public apologies and private telephone calls to all those who had been insulted proved to be insufficient to prevent Mr Obama from accepting it.
Gen Petraeus, the former commander of US forces in Iraq, will step down as head of the US Central Command in what is technically a demotion but in practice puts him at the very centre of American foreign policy.
Lt Gen Sir Nick Parker, the British deputy commander of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force under Gen McChrystal, has taken interim command until Gen Petraeus is formally installed.
Mr Obama insisted he had not acted out of “any sense of personal insult” but because Gen McChrystal’s conduct “does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general”.
He stressed that the change in leadership should not be seen as signalling a shift in his overall war strategy in Afghanistan, where 94,000 American troops are fighting alongside 10,000 British troops and those of other Nato nations. “It is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy,” he said.
The decision to fire Gen McChrystal for insubordination is likely to be seen as one of the most momentous decisions of Mr Obama’s presidency. Senior Democrats attempted to force Mr Obama’s hands by arguing that he would be seen as a “wimp” if he did not reassert his authority by jettisoning Gen McChrystal.
It comes at a time when the president’s Afghan surge strategy is faltering. Gen McChrystal had delayed the summer offensive on Kandahar and said that Marja, which was “cleared” in a major operation at the start of the year, was a “bleeding ulcer”.
Gen McChrystal’s remarks and those of his aides about senior officials exposed the fact that the disagreements which emerged during Mr Obama’s three-month review of Afghan strategy last year remained and that relations between the key players were poisoned.
Their impact was exacerbated by a series of setbacks for the war effort, which produced a consensus in Washington that the war was faltering or even failing as violence in Marja continued and the credibility of the Afghan government sunk to new lows.
The article accelerated a crisis of confidence about whether the war could be won amid eroding public support for the nine-year conflict and rising American casualties.
Gen McChrystal was the American official able to deal most successfully with President Hamid Karzai and many viewed Mr Obama’s war strategy as being personified by the former special forces officer. Mr Karzai said yesterday he regretted Mr Obama’s decision but understood it.
Gen McChrystal devised the plan for 30,000 extra troops to fight the Taliban and its allies as part of a new counter-insurgency strategy that elevated the needs of the Afghan people above even the safety of American troops.
Some lower-ranking soldiers complained that restrictive rules of engagement gave the Taliban a tactical advantage and even led to American deaths.
Gen McChrystal and his aides did not overtly criticise the Obama administration’s policy. Instead, the differences were personal, crude and publicly aired. White House officials described Mr Obama as being especially livid that the president had been characterised as disengaged.