Washington President Barack Obama rebuked his Afghanistan war commander for “poor judgment” Tuesday and considered whether to fire him in the most extraordinary airing of military-civilian tensions since Harry Truman stripped Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his command a half-century ago.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal is prepared to submit his resignation at a meeting with Obama today at the White House, two military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Obama summoned McChrystal to explain disparaging comments about his commander in chief and Obama’s top aides. The meeting was a last-ditch moment for the general once considered the war’s brightest hope.
If not insubordination, the remarks in a forthcoming Rolling Stone magazine article were at least an indirect challenge to civilian management of the war in Washington by its top military commander.
“I think it’s clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed a poor — showed poor judgment,” the president said, surrounded by members of his Cabinet at the close of their meeting. “But I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions.”
The eruption comes as the war and public support for it are at a tipping point, a perilous time to change military leadership. A majority of Americans now say the war is probably not worth fighting, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that public dissatisfaction means the U.S.-led international coalition must show progress this year.
In the article, McChrystal did not criticize Obama directly but called the period last fall when Obama was deciding whether to approve more troops “painful” and said the president was handing him an “unsellable” position.
McChrystal also said he was “betrayed” by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the man the White House chose to be his diplomatic partner in Afghanistan. He accused Eikenberry of raising doubts about the reliability of Afghan President Hamid Karzai only to give himself cover in case the U.S. effort failed.
“Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books,” McChrystal told the magazine. “Now, if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so.’”
And he was quoted joking that he doesn’t recognize Vice President Joe Biden’s name.
As support for the general drained in Washington, the showdown was set to take place in two parts — as part of Obama’s regular monthly war meeting, in which McChrystal usually participates by videoconference, and a separate discussion with Obama in the Oval Office.
Several names circulated among Pentagon and Capitol Hill aides as potential successors. Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the White House meeting, said the administration has not reached out to possible successors, but might do so today.
“We all serve at the pleasure of the president,” said Gen. James Mattis, one of those mentioned. “I have a pretty full plate here,” in his current job as Joint Forces Command chief, Mattis told AP.
Other names include Lt. Gen. John Allen, the No. 2 at U.S. Central Command; Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, McChrystal’s No. 2 in Afghanistan; Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command; and Adm. James Stavridis, the top NATO commander in Europe.
A senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan told The Associated Press the general has been given no indication that he’ll be fired — but no assurance he won’t be. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions between Washington and the general’s office in Kabul.
A crucial military push to pacify the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan is going more slowly that McChrystal had planned, and showing fewer solid results. Marines in Helmand Province are in near-daily firefights, months after a push there was supposed to clear out the bulk of Taliban fighters.