Obama Ousts McChrystal, Picks Petraeus To Step In

Gen. Stanley McChrystal (C) arrives at the White House in Washington,DC on June 23, 2010.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal (C) arrives at the White House in Washington,DC on June 23, 2010. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama accepted Gen. Stanley McChrystal's resignation as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Wednesday and replaced him with Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command. McChrystal was pushed out over his blistering remarks about administration officials quoted in a magazine interview.

President Obama ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Wednesday, saying his scathing published remarks about administration officials undermined civilian control of the military and eroded trust on the president's war team.

Obama chose McChrystal's immediate superior -- Gen. David Petraeus -- to take over the troubled 9-year-old war in Afghanistan.

The president said he did not make the decision to accept McChrystal's resignation over any disagreement in policy or "out of any sense of personal insult."

"I believe it is the right decision for our national security," Obama said in a statement in the Rose Garden, where he was flanked by Petraeus along with Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

McChrystal said in a statement that he resigned because of his "desire to see the mission succeed."

Obama had summoned McChrystal to Washington from Afghanistan after learning of the scathing, mocking comments from the general and his inner circle about administration officials, including the president. The White House rebuke of McChrystal on Tuesday suggested that it would have been hard for him to give an explanation that would have been enough to save his job.

Article's Author Expresses Surprise

The author of the Rolling Stone article, "The Runaway General," on Tuesday night told NPR's All Things Considered that he was surprised that his story had raised such a ruckus. Journalist Michael Hastings said he remembered being shocked by the general's candor and outspokenness during the interviews, but he did not anticipate the hullabaloo the article has caused.

Hastings said that, while he could only speculate about what motivated McChrystal and his aides to say what they did, he guessed that they might have wanted "to throw a hand grenade into the pond and create some shockwaves," to get more people to pay attention to the war in Afghanistan.

"Perhaps they just created bigger shockwaves than they're accustomed to," Hastings said.

McChrystal didn't criticize Obama himself in the magazine article but called the period last fall when the president was deciding whether to approve more troops "painful" and said Obama appeared ready to hand 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 Karzai only to give himself cover in case the U.S. effort failed. "Now, if we fail, they can say 'I told you so,' " McChrystal told the magazine. And he was quoted mocking Vice President Joe Biden.

If not insubordination, the remarks — as well as even sharper commentary about Obama and his White House from several in McChrystal's inner circle — were at least an indirect and extraordinary challenge and one that consumed Washington. The capital hasn't seen a similar public contretemps between a president and a top wartime commander since Harry Truman stripped Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his command more than a half-century ago after disagreements over Korean War strategy.

Consequences To Challenging A Commander

Notably, neither McChrystal nor his team questioned the accuracy of the story or the quotes in it. McChrystal issued an apology.

"The comments are certainly egregious," said Nathaniel Fick, of the Center for a New American Security, on Wednesday's Morning Edition. "They're reprehensible and unforgivable. But I'd make the point that if you caught some NSC staffers or people on the vice president's staff sitting around on a Saturday night with a bottle of scotch, you'd hear a lot of the same things, but the guns would be pointed in a different direction."

Still, military leaders rarely challenge their commanders in chief publicly. When they do, consequences tend to be more severe than a scolding.

"Once the president says you've shown poor judgment, that is a classic case of lack of confidence, and that is a basic reason for release in the military," said Tom Ricks, also of the Center for a New American Security. "When you lose confidence in a subordinate, you're obliged to relieve them — if only as a matter of obligation to the troops underneath that person."

Press secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly questioned whether McChrystal was "capable and mature enough" to lead the war.

"Our efforts in Afghanistan are bigger than one person," Gibbs told reporters, a formulation typically used when one person is about to leave.

Gates had said in a statement that McChrystal had made "a significant mistake."

McChrystal was viewed as a visionary with the guts and smarts to turn around the beleaguered, 8-year-old Afghanistan war when he was chosen to take over last year. But despite his military achievements, he has a history of making waves. This is not his first brush with Obama's anger. Last fall, the president scolded McChrystal for speaking too bluntly about his desire for more troops.

Ricks noted on Morning Edition that leaving McChrystal in place would send "a very poor message to the troops about discipline and judgment."

"The troops have a term — 'different spanks for different ranks' — in which they suspect that generals get away with stuff that corporals don't get away with," Ricks said. "And the message here that Obama needs to send is, 'No, the entire military is subordinate to me and must show good judgment and discipline."

Wisconsin Democratic Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had called for McChrystal to resign. Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was among three prominent Republican senators to criticize the general.

Support From NATO, Afghanistan

Before the announcement of McChrystal's fate in Washington, Afghan and NATO leaders, as well as Afghan citizens, were generally supportive of the top NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

A spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense, General Azimi, praised McChrystal for policies that reduced civilian casualties and arbitrary arrests of civilians. Azimi also credited McChrystal for putting Afghan soldiers in charge of most household searches, a culturally sensitive area in which NATO troops often offended Afghan sensibilities.

Some members of Afghanistan's parliament echoed that support. Mir Ahmad Joyenda, who represents a district in Kabul, said that if McChrystal is ousted, "it definitely won't help the situation," especially since the operation to regain control of Kandahar is under way and the Afghan parliamentary elections are approaching.

"Whenever U.S. policy changes," Joyenda said, "of course, the people of Afghanistan will have less confidence."

Bismillah Aghanmal, a member of parliament from Kandahar, praised McChrystal's achievements and said he's acceptable to the Afghan people. "I don't know if [McChrystal's difficulties] will aid the Taliban or not," said Aghanmal, adding that nobody before McChrystal was able to establish such good coordination between NATO and the Afghan government.

The support for McChrystal extended to people on the streets of Kabul. Masood Sayedi, a 34-year-old man who works for a foreign aid organization called McChrystal "my favorite military personality in Afghanistan."

Sayedi cited McChrystal's focus on reducing civilian casualties and stopping most house searches by foreign forces. "I don't know who will take his place," he said.

NATO leaders also showed support for the general. In a statement, NATO spokesman James Appathurai acknowledged that the article is rather unfortunate but emphasized that it's just an article: "We are in the middle of a very real conflict, and the secretary general has full confidence in General McChrystal as the NATO commander and in his strategy."

Even Afghanistan's president expressed confidence in McChrystal -- during a video conference Tuesday night with Obama, said President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar.

"We hope there is not a change of leadership of the international forces here in Afghanistan and that we continue to partner with Gen. McChrystal," Omar told reporters Wednesday in Kabul.

Several names had circulated among Pentagon and Capitol Hill aides as potential successors, including Gen. James Mattis, Joint Forces Command chief; 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.

With reporting from NPR's Corey Flintoff and Teri Schultz and material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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