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Thursday, 06.24.2010, 01:10pm (GMT)
By HELENE COOPER and DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday fired his top Afghanistan war commander after only a brief meeting in the Oval Office, replacing Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal with his boss and mentor, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and sending a clear signal that the current war strategy will continue despite setbacks and growing public doubts.
Two hours later, an angry Mr. Obama privately reprimanded members of his bickering national security team, adopting a “stern” tone during a meeting in the Situation Room and ordering them to put aside “pettiness,” and not to put “personalities or reputation” ahead of American troops who have been put in harm’s way, administration officials said.
Speaking in the Rose Garden to reporters, Mr. Obama said he did not fire General McChrystal for critical comments about him and his staff in Rolling Stone magazine, nor “out of any sense of personal insult.” Rather, the president cited the need for his team to unite in pressing the war effort.
“I don’t think we can sustain that unity of effort and achieve our objectives in Afghanistan without making this change,” he said.
Even by the standards of a capital that has seen impeachment and scandals in recent years, the drama surrounding the firing of a wartime commander was palpable.
Generals have come and gone in disputes over policy and execution — indeed, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired General McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, just a year ago. But the removal of General McChrystal culminated a remarkable public waiting game, with White House and top military officials trying to guess what the president would do, and Mr. Obama keeping his cards close to his vest until the very end.
While publicly rebuking him Tuesday, Mr. Obama had said he would not decide the general’s fate until they met face to face. But as early as Monday night, officials said, when Mr. Obama first learned of the Rolling Stone article in which General McChrystal and his staff criticized administration officials, the president and his advisers were discussing the likelihood that the general would have to go.
“A lot of us were arguing that the message of letting McChrystal’s comments roll off our backs would be enormously harmful,” one administration official said.
By Tuesday, when the president met with the general’s biggest supporter and a powerful one, Secretary Gates, White House and Pentagon officials were already discussing General Petraeus as the most likely replacement.
It has been nearly 60 years since President Harry S. Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the midst of the Korean War, the last time a president directly stepped in to remove the senior commander in a war zone for disrespect toward the White House. For Mr. Obama, this was a MacArthur moment, a reassertion of civilian control.
The president also used the moment to emphasize that the policy in Afghanistan would not change, even as his own party and international allies display strong doubts about the way forward, including whether the United States can ever navigate a troubled relationship with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai.
General Petraeus is taking a step down. As head of United States Central Command, he has oversight for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and the entire region. He has supported General McChrystal’s point of view during internal administration strategy debates. His appointment is meant in part to calm the nerves of NATO allies and Mr. Karzai.
Mr. Obama called Mr. Karzai Wednesday to try to get the Afghan president on board — Mr. Karzai made a personal appeal to Mr. Obama on Tuesday night to keep General McChrystal — and Mr. Obama received at least an initial public statement that “President Karzai respects President Obama’s decision.”
Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, whom one of General McChrystal’s aides had dismissed in the article as a “clown,” called his counterparts in Europe to assure them that Mr. Obama was not abandoning his approach. He repeated Mr. Obama’s line that this was a change in personnel, not in policy.
The president chose General Petraeus, a media-savvy, ambitious officer, instead of lesser-known figures who might have had more trouble stepping in to such a volatile situation. “The one person you could have inserted in there to calm those nerves was Dave Petraeus,” said one senior administration official.
General Petraeus will have to relinquish the top job at Central Command to assume command in Afghanistan. White House officials said no decision had been made on who would succeed him.
General Petraeus, while intimately familiar with Afghanistan and its myriad problems, is inheriting direct command at a particularly fraught moment. Seven months into President Obama’s surge of forces, there is little evidence that the addition of tens of thousands of troops has beaten back the Taliban, or that Mr. Karzai’s government will soon be able to hold and administer territory the United States helps it retake.
Mr. Obama admitted as much indirectly on Wednesday in the Rose Garden when he said: “We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum.” They were the same words he used seven months ago at West Point in announcing the surge, and as one senior official said, “The president was acknowledging that a third of the way into the surge, the momentum has not been broken.”
One senior administration official noted that General McChrystal and Mr. Karzai “just came off the most constructive week we’ve had in a while with Karzai” when the two men traveled through Kandahar, the site of the next big counterinsurgency push. General McChrystal reported back that Mr. Karzai finally seemed deeply engaged in the details of the effort to regain control over the sprawling city, one of the Taliban’s home bases, administration officials said.
General Petraeus will now be responsible for executing the Kandahar offensive into the spiritual heart of the Taliban. White House and Congressional officials say they expect he will be confirmed quickly — probably by the end of next week.
General McChrystal had already prepared his brief resignation letter when he walked into the meeting with Mr. Obama; he left quickly afterward, saying nothing to the reporters who converged near him. Relieved of his post, he did not attend a regularly scheduled National Security Council meeting that included all the same administration officials whom he or his staff disparaged in the article.
“I welcome debate, but I won’t tolerate division,” the president said afterward. He said that it was crucial for American troops and military officers to observe a “strict adherence to the military chain of command and respect for civilian control over that chain of command.”
In the Rolling Stone article, General McChrystal and his aides belittled many of their civilian counterparts on the Afghanistan strategy team.
In a typical response from other military officials, one Army officer with multiple tours in Afghanistan expressed anger at the lack of discipline displayed by General McChrystal and his inner circle. But he warned that it was symptomatic of wider problems with Mr. Obama’s strategy and among his national security advisers.
“They brought this upon themselves and embarrassed the entire military as an institution,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid any punishment for criticizing his chain of command.
“Hopefully, the president uses this as an opportunity to refine his policy and objectives, and also to shuffle the rest of his Af-Pak team, as well,” he said, using the abbreviation for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. “McChrystal isn’t the only one who probably needs to move elsewhere.”
The major criticism of the United States strategy is that its success relies on support from an Afghan government that so far has been unwilling or unable to exert control and eliminate widespread corruption.
Lawmakers from both parties as well as senior military officers in Afghanistan and in Washington expressed regret at General McChrystal’s departure, but strongly supported Mr. Obama’s decision. And while the change in four-star commanders is unlikely to cause any change in strategy, they said General Petraeus might subtly alter the ways it is carried out.
“The overall strategy is not going to change, but like anyone, Petraeus will go back and check the assumptions, the vantage from Kabul, the personal dynamics and interpersonal relationships,” Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said in a telephone interview. “There will be shifts in emphasis and tone. Petraeus’s leadership style is reaching out, going down to the troop level, reaching out to allies and to the civilian leadership.”
In Kabul, Afghanistan, senior officers spent most of Wednesday anxiously waiting for news out of Washington, watching the BBC for leaked reports about their boss’s fate. One military official in Kabul described the mood at General McChrystal’s headquarters as a “mix of despondency and anger.”
“People are shocked,” he said. “People are upset.”
Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.