Recalled from the front, the General who said too much

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Barack Obama fired his top commander in Afghanistan last night over a series of overtly contemptuous remarks General Stanley McChrystal and some of his military aides had made to a magazine about the American civilian leadership.

The General, whose support crumbled on Capitol Hill and even among his military colleagues, was rudely relieved of his command during a confrontation with the President in the Oval Office. It lasted just 30 minutes and was quickly followed by a long-scheduled meeting of Mr Obama and his national security team on Afghanistan and Pakistan – without General McChrystal.

The news leaked minutes before Mr Obama gave a statement to the nation in the Rose Garden. The President confirmed that he was appointing General David Petraeus to take over the top Nato command in Afghanistan. General Petraeus, who led the successful American surge in Iraq, is an expert like General McChrystal on counter-insurgency operations and is well known to the allies.

With General Petraeus by his side, Mr Obama insisted that his decision was not based on "any difference on policy with General McChrystal... or any sense of personal insult". But he said his remarks in Rolling Stone did "not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general".

"It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that's necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan," he said.

"War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president," Mr Obama added in his address. "As difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I think it is the right decision for our national security." The President concluded by acknowledging that it had been "difficult" to come to his decision. "Indeed it saddens me."

On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans alike predicted that the confirmation of General Petraeus in his new post would be completed very quickly, perhaps as soon as next week. In the meantime British Lieutenant General Nick Parker will be in charge of Nato forces. He told David Cameron, the Prime Minister, that the campaign in Afghanistan would not "miss a beat" because of the command upheavels, a message that Mr Cameron reported relayed to Mr Obama in telephone call.

While the choice of General Petraeus, who was chief of the US Central Command and General McChrystal's direct boss, brought praise from many quarters, there are some concerns about his health, not least since he briefly fainted while giving testimony on military operations in Washington last week.

The offending article is out tomorrow. Entitled "Runaway General", it is peppered with pot-shots taken by the General and his staff at political figures including Vice-President Joe Biden, the President and his special envoy Richard Holbrooke.

A grim-faced General McChrystal was seen ducking through a side entrance to the White House for his encounter with the President. Mr Obama had been described as furious when he saw the profile late on Monday evening.

In the article, the General and his aides were quoted as calling the Vice-President "Joe Bite-Me", referring to Mr Holbrooke as a "wounded animal" and suggesting that Mr Obama was "intimidated" and "disengaged" in early meetings with the military to discuss strategy for the war. One of the aides reportedly claimed that Mr Obama did not know who the General was when he appointed him.

General McChrystal was also quoted as saying that he had been betrayed by Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, who last year questioned the wisdom of the Afghanistan troop surge in a cable to the President.

The author of the article, Michael Hastings, surely sent further chills through Washington yesterday when he claimed in an interview that he had heard remarks while reporting the story that were even more insubordinate but he had chosen not to put them in print. It fell to the President to decide whether to fire General McChrystal or merely admonish him and send him back to the war theatre. But few were willing to come to the General's defence, at least publicly. That Mr Obama acted swiftly and decisively may play well among the broader American public.

The sacking of General McChrystal will disappoint the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, who had voiced support for him. Similar signals had been sent by Pakistan.

The successor

The instant reaction to the choice of General David Petraeus to succeed General McChrystal was almost unanimous praise from both civilian and retired military figures in Washington and from both sides of the political aisle. It was testament to what was already known about him: he is widely liked and venerated.

Questions may be asked about his physical fitness after he fainted during a hearing this month before the Senate Armed Services Committee. On returning, he joked: "I demonstrated yesterday the importance of following my first platoon sergeant's order 35 years ago: to always stay hydrated."

If Petraeus is seen by some as a hero it is because of his service in Iraq. In 2003, he commanded the 101st Airborne Division that spearheaded the overthrow of Saddam. But most significant was his appointment in 2007 as the top commander in Iraq. An architect of anti-insurgency tactics, he oversaw the successful surge of US troops.

He has denied repeated rumours that he might stand as a Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012. If there is any truth to his harbouring such an ambition, it is not something that apparently is concerning President Obama. Or not just now, at any rate.