President Barack Obama is deciding whether to fire his commander in Afghanistan after the officer, General Stanley McChrystal, and his staff made derogatory statements about the president and other senior administration officials. The comments were made to a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine.
President Obama took the unusual step of ordering General McChrystal home for an Oval Office meeting after he read the article, which White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said made the president "angry."
The president indicated he is considering firing the general. "Whatever decision that I make with respect to General McChrystal or any other aspect of Afghan policy is determined entirely on how I can make sure that we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice those men and women are making over there and that ultimately makes this country safer," he said.
The president said the article showed "poor judgment," but said he wants to talk to the general before making any decision.
Robert Gibbs called the article a "profound" mistake and said "all options are on the table" as the president considers what to do.
Gibbs said the general's mistake was to say things, and allow his staff to say things, that have distracted the attention of the president's national security team from its top priority - defeating the Taliban and related groups in Afghanistan so U.S. troops can begin to come home a year from now.
In the article in Rolling Stone, McChrystal is quoted as belittling the importance of a meeting with President Obama, making fun of Vice-president Joe Biden and accusing the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, of betraying him in a policy dispute. McChrystal also stands by as members of his staff ridicule the vice-president, the president's National Security Adviser, retired General Jim Jones, and the special U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.
McChrystal apologized for the article Tuesday, calling it "a mistake reflecting poor judgment," and said he has "enormous respect" for the president and his national security team. He telephoned several of them on Tuesday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended McChrystal for the Afghanistan command a year ago, and fired his predecessor to make room for him. At the time, and repeatedly since then, Gates has called McChrystal the right man for the job and said he has a unique understanding of the complex counterinsurgency approach Afghanistan requires. Gates praised McChrystal again just last week at a Senate hearing.
"We think we have the right assets, we have the right strategy, we have the right leadership. And most of our allies and partners share our view that things are heading in the right direction," Gates said.
On Tuesday, Gates issued a statement saying General McChrystal had made a "significant mistake and exercised poor judgment," and he lamented the "distraction" from what he said should be the "singular focus" on the war effort.
At the same hearing, the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, also offered an endorsement of McChrystal and his team. "We've got (a) tremendous leadership team, we've put the resources in, and it's a very, very difficult counterinsurgency," Mullen said.
On Tuesday, a spokesman said Mullen expressed "deep disappointment" in a call with McChrystal.
General McChrystal also got in trouble last year, during the White House Afghan policy review, when he said in London the effort in Afghanistan could fail if the president refused to send more troops.
The Rolling Stone article has resulted in much speculation about whether General McChrystal should be fired. But the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, former presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, offered some of the few words of support for the general heard around Washington Tuesday. "I have enormous respect for General McChrystal. I think he's a terrific soldier. And this is a critical moment in Afghanistan. As far as I am concerned, personally, the top priority is our mission in Afghanistan and our ability to proceed forward competently," Kerry said.
The question is whether McChrystal's ability to lead that mission has been compromised beyond repair in terms of his ability to command respect at the Pentagon and the White House, and in the field.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who McChrystal has worked hard to build a good relationship with, expressed support on Tuesday. But at the White House, Robert Gibbs indicated no one, not even as important a commander as General McChrystal, is indispensable. "I think our efforts in Afghanistan are bigger than one person," he said.
Gibbs said President Obama's decision will be announced on Wednesday, after a private White House meeting with McChrystal and a previously-scheduled meeting of his national security team to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.