Obama: Change in Afghan command isn't change in policy

McClatchy NewspapersJune 23, 2010 

WASHINGTON — In what may prove to be a defining moment of his presidency, Barack Obama on Wednesday accepted the resignation of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the commander of the war in Afghanistan, saying it was necessary to preserve the principle of military deference to civilian leadership.

The president said that McChrystal's and his staff's derogatory comments to a magazine about U.S. civilian leadership forced the move, but he stressed that the personnel shift doesn't signal any change in American war policy.

The president nominated Army Gen. David Petraeus, 57, who led the Iraq war in 2007 and 2008, to move to Kabul and take over McChrystal's responsibilities. Petraeus currently heads the Pentagon's Central Command, which oversees U.S. military interests throughout the Middle East and central Asia, including Afghanistan, and is technically a higher position than Afghan war commander is.

"It is the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military and for our country," Obama said in a nine-minute statement from the White House Rose Garden under a blistering sun.

On a pivotal day for his presidency, Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai, British Prime Minister David Cameron and a bipartisan group of American lawmakers to solidify support for his moves. Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser James Jones also reached out, reassuring NATO allies. Obama is asking the Senate to confirm Petraeus before its July Fourth recess, and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., promised speedy action starting next week.

Both publicly and behind closed doors, the president sought to use McChrystal's ouster to unify support behind his Afghan counterinsurgency campaign and his July 2011 deadline to begin drawing down U.S. troops. He told his national security team that it's "not an option but an obligation" to quit infighting and second-guessing the war plan, for the sake of the troops and the mission.

Obama emphasized that his decision to dump McChrystal wasn't payback for "any sense of personal insult." He said he had "great admiration" for McChrystal, who had always executed his orders faithfully. "But war is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president."

In a Rolling Stone magazine article, McChrystal, 55, and anonymous aides were quoted ridiculing members of the president's war council, including Biden, Jones and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

That conduct didn't meet the standard required of a military officer, Obama said, and it threatened to undermine the bedrock constitutional principle of military deference to civilian command. It also threatened the unity that wartime demands, the president said.

"I welcome debate among my team, but I won't tolerate division," Obama said. "All of us have personal interests. All of us have opinions. Our politics often fuels conflict, but we have to renew our sense of common purpose and meet our responsibilities to one another, and to our troops who are in harm's way, and to our country."

It wasn't immediately clear who'd fill Petraeus' post at CENTCOM.

Petraeus has supported the counterinsurgency strategy and "surge" of 30,000 troops that McChrystal recommended and the president adopted last year. Petraeus collapsed last week during a congressional hearing on Afghanistan, and said later that he'd been dehydrated. When he was asked whether he supported the July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing troops, he answered with a "qualified yes."

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said Petraeus was the right person to take over the Afghanistan command.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, D-Mass., said returning Petraeus to the battlefield would provide "not just continuity in philosophy, but tested diplomatic skill that is at the very center of a military strategy which hinges on progress in governance to sustain military gains."

McChrystal issued a brief statement, saying, "I strongly support the president's strategy in Afghanistan and am deeply committed to our coalition forces, our partner nations and the Afghan people. It was out of respect for this commitment — and a desire to see the mission succeed — that I tendered my resignation."

The Rolling Stone article has energized anti-war members of Congress, as the House of Representatives considers whether to allow an up-or-down vote on war strategy or perhaps funding.

"We know there's a lot of skepticism within the caucus about the war," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut.

Some anti-war lawmakers said the article proved that the war continued to go in the wrong direction. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she sensed an "unreadiness" among some colleagues to support another funding measure for the war.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said he wanted to hear Obama spell out an exit strategy. "I want to know when the last soldier is coming home."

McChrystal's removal capped a roller-coaster drama that began late Monday afternoon, when White House officials first learned of the Rolling Stone piece. An assistant press secretary, Tommy Vietor, obtained an advance copy and showed it to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

A senior administration official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about behind-the-scenes events said that Gibbs took a copy to the president's residence at the White House about 8 p.m., and Obama, after reading the first few paragraphs, which were insulting to the French, called a meeting in the Oval Office.

"If you read the beginning of the article, you are left with great concern about how our allies will read this, as they have made sacrifice — as we have — and as we ask for them to increase their contribution," the official said.

Attending were Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Jones, Senior Adviser David Axelrod, Gibbs, Jones' chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

Immediately, a discussion began over whether McChrystal had to go.

Obama's public stance as late as Tuesday was that he wanted to meet with McChrystal in person before deciding, but White House aides acknowledged that Petraeus' name already was being discussed at the highest levels by Tuesday afternoon.

The president's scant half-hour meeting Wednesday with McChrystal suggested that there wasn't much left to discuss.

McChrystal landed in Washington early Wednesday, met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, then was whisked to the White House. He began his private meeting with Obama at 9:51 a.m. and left the compound before 10:30. The senior official declined to share what the two men said privately, other than to say that McChrystal offered his resignation and the president accepted it.

Obama then met for 45 minutes with Biden, Emanuel, Jones, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Gates.

He called Petraeus in for another 40 minutes, and just before noon he convened a broader, previously scheduled national security meeting to discuss Afghanistan-Pakistan policy.

The president called Karzai, and also a group of senators, before speaking in the Rose Garden. Later he called Cameron.

Karzai, through a spokesman, said before Obama's meeting with McChrystal that removing the general would open a dangerous gap in the military campaign. but the senior administration official said that the Afghan president later was supportive of Obama's decision.

Nonetheless, McChrystal's departure after a little more than a year on the job adds another element of uncertainty to a war triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and inherited from the Bush administration by Obama. Over the past 15 months, there have been two generals, two ambassadors and two major strategy reviews, with additional deadlines looming.

(McClatchy special correspondent Saeed Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Steven Thomma, William Douglas and David Lightman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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