Top US general's career on the line after surprise attack on Obama

President calls Nato commander Stanley McChrystal back from Afghanistan for crisis talks over 'Rolling Stone' article

David Usborne,Us Editor
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:23

The Nato commander in Afghanistan today faces a meeting in Washington with Barack Obama that could end with him fired from his post.

The extraordinary White House summons to General Stanley McChrystal was issued over a series of disrespectful remarks made by himself and his military staff to Rolling Stone magazine about the president and other senior figures.

General McChrystal was ordered back to explain himself to the President, who is said to be seething with anger at the article. Washington was buzzing with rumours that he would arrive at the White House with a letter of resignation or that he would be sacked.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that "the magnitude and the greatness of the mistakes here are profound". Of General McChrystal's future, he added: "We will have more to say after that meeting." One Pentagon official, speaking anonymously, said: "The President wants to have a conversation. We'll see where it goes from there," adding that it was a "significant move to pull a commander out of the field".

The controversy has sprung from an extraordinary Rolling Stone profile of General McChrystal due on newsstands this Friday. Called "Runaway General", it includes comments attributed to the general and his aides as they voiced doubts about national security figures in Washington including the President and Vice-President Joe Biden – Or "Joe Bite-Me", as one of the aides is quoted as calling him.

While the profile does not suggest policy differences between General McChrystal and Mr Obama and his security team, it contains cheap pot-shots aimed at the politicians. Jim Jones, the National Security Advisor, is described as "stuck in 1985" by a McChrystal aide, who also calls him a "clown". A meeting between General McChrystal and a French government minister in Paris was dismissed as being "fucking gay".

However, the most damaging passages in the eight-page profile by reporter Michael Hastings may be those describing McChrystal's feelings about his commander-in-chief. An aide is quoted as saying that the general found Mr Obama to be "uncomfortable and intimidated" before the country's top military brass at a meeting in the Pentagon early in his presidency.

Video: Obama summons top general over article

When the reporter asked General McChrystal about the well-known misgivings a year ago of Mr Biden's plan – eventually approved by Mr Obama – to begin a troop surge in Afghanistan, McChrystal is quoted as responding, "Are you asking about Vice-President Joe Biden? Who's that?" Elsewhere the article hints at the general complaining openly about the "wimps in the White House".

Before leaving Kabul, General McChrystal issued a statement apologising for the magazine article. He is also said to have telephoned all those on the receiving end of the disparaging comments, which also included the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, and the special envoy to the conflicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, whose emails to the general are compared to dog pee.

"I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgement and should never have happened," the statement said, which was issued as the top press relations officer in Kabul who set up the profile tendered his resignation. "Throughout my career," the general went on, "I have lived by the principles of personal honour and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard. I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome."

Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who has called General McChrystal for a separate meeting, issued a statement last night calling the comments "distractions" and "a significant mistake". He said that the general had shown "poor judgement".

General McChrystal had few defenders in Washington. Among them was John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who called for calm. He said: "My impression is that all of us would be best served by just backing off and staying cool and calm and not succumbing to the normal Washington twitter about this for the next 24 hours."

The controversy has exploded at a bad time. The President is facing a raft of domestic problems, not least the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, violence has flared again in Afghanistan.

Cutting General McChrystal loose would be no small decision. A breakdown of this magnitude at the top of the US command would spread alarm among their allies. On the other hand, this is not the first time the general has ruffled feathers. He was hauled over the coals last year after giving a speech in London about the Afghanistan troop surge that was viewed as being far too candid by the White House.

His history with Ambassador Eikenberry has also been tricky. The article includes some recrimination from the general over an episode last year when a cable sent by the ambassador to the White House questioning the wisdom of the surge was made public. Eikenberry is "one that covers his flanks for the history books", General McChrystal is quoted as saying. "Now, if we fail, they can say, 'I told you so.'"

There were some signs last night of wagons being circled to protect General McChrystal. Statements of support for him were issued variously by the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and by a Nato spokesman who called the article "rather unfortunate", but added, "it is just an article".

What he said

Extracts from the Rolling Stone interview with General McChrystal

* "I'd rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner," McChrystal says... "Who's he going to dinner with?" I ask one of his aides. "Some French minister," the aide tells me. "It's fucking gay."

* McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. "I never know what's going to pop out until I'm up there, that's the problem," he says. Then, he and his staff imagine the General dismissing the Vice-President. "Are you asking about Vice-President Biden?" McChrystal says with a laugh. "Who's that?" "Biden?" suggests a top adviser. "Did you say: Bite me?"

* Their first one-on-one meeting [with President Obama] took place in the Oval Office..."It was a 10-minute photo op," says an adviser to McChrystal. "Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his fucking war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed."

* In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama's top people on the diplomatic side. Politicians like McCain and Kerry, says another aide, "turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticise him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it's not very helpful."

* At one point on his trip to Paris, McChrystal checks his BlackBerry. "Oh, not another email from Holbrooke," he groans. "I don't even want to open it." He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.

* McChrystal and his team were blindsided by the cable [by Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador and leaked to the New York Times]. McChrystal says: "Here's one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, 'I told you so.'"

Stanley McChrystal

Born 1954, to a military family. Herbert, his father, was a general and his brother is an army chaplain.

Education Graduated from West Point in 1976 and later trained at Fort Bragg as a Special Forces Officer.

Career After a stint in South Korea, he served as a general officer before being promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 2001. During the Iraq war he delivered nationally televised briefings from the Pentagon on combat operations. A "black ops" task force he commanded was credited with the capture of Saddam Hussein and the killing of al-Qa'ida's leader in Iraq. Alleged mistreatment of detainees by his men threatened to derail his career in 2008. But in 2009 George Bush made him a four-star general and he assumed command of Nato operations in Afghanistan. Drew criticism in September 2009 after his memo seeking troop reinforcements and warning of failure was leaked.

Typical day Includes an hour-long jog, one meal and just four hours of sleep.

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