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Leading article: A token of greater disarray

Yesterday we argued that political leaders in the United States and Britain needed to lower public expectations of what can be achieved in Afghanistan. It was time, we said, for some realism. How soon that realism will be forthcoming, however, must already be in doubt, as serious questions are raised, not just about the purpose of the mission, but more immediately about the quality of leadership.

The top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has been precipitately recalled to Washington after apologising for an article to be published in Rolling Stone magazine. The general was reportedly upbraided by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who expressed his "deep disappointment" with aspects of the article and instructed him to appear in person at the monthly regional review meeting; under normal circumstances he would have taken part by teleconference.

It was clearly a big lapse of judgement for the general, given his position, to co-operate with the magazine at all, and an even greater lapse to comment disparagingly on his Commander-in-Chief, President Obama, and White House staff. He also criticised the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, for his public opposition to the US military's favoured "surge" strategy during Mr Obama's policy review.

If it were only a matter of Gen McChrystal's incautious words – hard to explain though they are – this would be one thing. The general's remarks, however, seem to confirm rumours about continuing US military-civilian disagreements over Afghanistan. They also come at a time when other aspects of the command, on both sides of the Atlantic, are looking distinctly ragged. General David Petraeus, mastermind of the US "surge" in Iraq and now head of US Central Command, was treated for prostate cancer last year and, although said to be recovered, he fainted during a Congressional grilling last week.

Meanwhile in Britain, where Afghanistan is the military's single biggest commitment, the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, was recently given his notice, to take effect after the autumn Strategic Defence Review. It has also been disclosed that the UK's special envoy to the region, the former ambassador in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has left his post – just one month before the first international conference on Afghanistan in Kabul. Whatever the reasons, his departure removes an experienced hand at a potentially crucial juncture.

At best, these setbacks could be dismissed as simple personnel issues, surmountable with political will. At worst, they bespeak military and civilian leadership fatally lacking in cohesion and singleness of purpose.