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Military rivals fight for the ear of Obama

A long-standing feud between two of America's most senior soldiers lies at the heart of the President's inability to decide his Afghan strategy, says Kim Sengupta

Aides to General Stanley McChrystal yesterday condemned the intervention of US ambassador and former military man Karl Eikenberry in the debate on troop reinforcements as nothing short of a military betrayal. "He ambushed us" and "he went behind our backs" were two complaints widely repeated in Kabul. The US commander of Nato forces himself was said to be "fuming".

The remarkable spectacle of Washington's top two men in Afghanistan, feuding in public is not just a matter of policy; there is a personal dimension too. This is not the first time that the two West Point graduates have failed to see eye-to-eye.

During his military career Lieutenant-General Eikenberry completed two tours of Afghanistan. During the second the pair clashed when General McChrystal – who was at that time leading clandestine operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – repeatedly pushed for commando operations. Mr Eikenberry was said to have resisted them because of the risk of unacceptable levels of civilian casualties.

More recently, Mr Eikenberry is said to have been dismayed by the way the previous US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, was pushed aside to make way for General McChrystal. The move had the backing of General David Petraeus, who was General McChrystal's boss when the two men organised the "surge" in Iraq.

The Petraeus camp was of the opinion that General McKiernan was refusing changes to the command structure and was resistant to new ideas. However, some senior US army officers, including Mr Eikenberry, reportedly felt that General McChrystal's promotion was another example of the Afghan operation being taken over by the "Boys from Baghdad". Mr Eikenberry felt General McKiernan had done nothing to deserve the indignity of becoming the first US commander to be relieved of his post since General MacArthur in the Korean War.

Meanwhile, General McChrystal's supporters accuse Mr Eikenberry of trying to undermine the US commander over reinforcements. His ally General McKiernan, for example, told National Public Radio in the US that he would prefer to see 10 agricultural experts arriving to a hundred troops. Western diplomats recall that he made a repeated point of saying the US must not be rushed into sending extra forces.

Ironically, when Mr Eikenberry was appointed US ambassador just 24 hours after he retired from the military, some critics claiming it had been engineered by the Pentagon so it could exert more control over Afghan policy. The replacement of General McKiernan by General McChrystal, a staunch supporter of the "surge" doctrine, added to the expectation that force rather than diplomacy would start to rule.

It was a surprise when Mr Eikenberry began to criticise the strategy for being too geared towards a military solution. The soldier-turned-diplomat lobbied the State Department to send more civilian staff. He obtained a pledge that the number of civilian advisers should be raised to about 1,000.

This need not necessarily have led him into conflict with General McChrystal, who had repeatedly stated that troops were needed to provide security so that vital reconstruction could take place. But, staff around the commander now feel particularly aggrieved that a fellow soldier is delaying vital military operations. Mr Eikenberry, they say, does not have the excuse of being merely an "armchair-general" such as Vice-President Joe Biden, who also opposes sending reinforcements.

The envoy's supporters insist his opposition to reinforcements now is that Hamid Karzai has taken no discernible steps to carry out reforms since his return to power. They hold that he was forced to make his move at this stage after waiting, with increasing dismay, for Mr Karzai to mend his ways. Mr Eikenberry, they say, is not ruling out reinforcements permanently – simply in this crucial period when the issue can be used to put pressure on the Afghan President.

Whatever President Obama decides, the feeling in Kabul is that it will be difficult for America's civilian and military chiefs to work together harmoniously now. What was once seen as a cosy team of two generals in Afghanistan has turned out to be anything but. And, say diplomats, President Obama may, at some stage, have to choose between the two men.

Future strategy: Who says what?

Hillary Clinton

The Secretary of State is reportedly joining with Robert Gates in backing a compromise on troop levels. The two are said to be counselling the President to opt for a deployment of between 30,000 and 35,000 troops, on the understanding that 10,000 would not be dispatched to the front but would train the Afghan army.

Karl Eikenberry

The retired general was sent as US ambassador to Kabul by President Obama in January and has become an increasingly active figure. He has contradicted General McChrystal, cautioning Washington against sending major reinforcements while Karzai procrastinates.

Rahm Emanuel

As chief of staff, Emanuel's job is to protect Obama from criticism that he is dithering. Internally, he may side with Eikenberry. "It would be reckless to make a decision on US troop levels if you haven't done a thorough analysis of whether there's an Afghan partner ready," he said recently.

Robert Gates

The man in the middle. Commanders on the ground expect him to fight for more soldiers, but the Secretary of Defence understands the dilemmas faced by Obama. Gates, who also served under George Bush, does not want to go down as the man who helped march the US into a quagmire.

Stanley McChrystal

The US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan has presented a highly critical report on the conduct of the war so far, warning it could be lost within a year and calling for 40,000 more troops. He voiced his views publicly in London earlier this year.

General Richards

The new head of the British Army argued 30,000 more troops would be needed long before McChrystal said so. He helped persuade the UK to send 1,500 new troops. The first non-American to command US troops since the Second World War, his views are taken seriously in Washington.