Afghan President Hamid Karzai has voiced his support for embattled U.S. general Stanley McChrystal directly to U.S. President Barack Obama, and the Afghan government moved Wednesday to back the commander of the campaign in Afghanistan.
Karzai fears that if McChrystal is removed, a dangerous "gap" will open up in the leadership of the campaign, the Afghan president’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, told a news conference in Kabul. The war in Afghanistan is at a critical point, with the new strategy for stabilizing the country only just getting underway.
"The President of Afghanistan expressed (to Obama) his confidence in General Stanley McChrystal and his belief that his is a soldier of great integrity," Omar said. "Any gap is not helpful. There is a great need for continuity, there's a great need for leadership. McChrystal is a trusted partner."
Privately, some senior Afghan officials said they it would be a "disaster" if McChrystal is removed, seeing the campaign and the U.S. general as synonymous.
Many frustrated officials at the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan believe that McChrystal may be made to pay the price for Obama's domestic woes, especially the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which has made him look weak. Dismissing McChrystal could bolster his credentials as a decisive president.
"If he's fired, it's because Obama can't handle an oil spill. It will be nothing to do with Afghanistan," said one military official, who could not be named as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The solid backing in Kabul is in stark contrast to the mood in Washington, where McChrystal was summoned Tuesday from the battlefield. He is expected to meet the President Obama Wednesday for what is being billed as a showdown. The U.S. general apologized Tuesday for a magazine article in which he and his close aides were quoted making disparaging comments about senior U.S. civilian officials, including Obama.
Karzai and Obama spoke by video link Tuesday evening, Afghan time, in a pre-scheduled one-hour call.
"Since he came, General Stanley McChrystal has many achievements, he's developed a strategy that's appreciated by the people of Afghanistan, appreciated by the government of Afghanistan. He's got the confidence of the people of Afghanistan," said Omar.
Although Karzai himself doesn't emerge unscathed from the article, appearing in the forthcoming issue of Rolling Stone magazine, the Afghan president's spokesman said McChrystal did not need to apologize to him.
"We do agree that this article is a mistake. But all of us have made mistakes in the past," said Omar. "We hope that we all see it as a mistake and that we are all prone to make mistakes."
Such support from the Afghan government for a U.S. official is highly unusual. Karzai's relationship with past American military commanders was much more distant, while his chemistry with civilians such as special envoy Richard Holbrooke is believed to be tense. The U.S. general has reached out to Karzai, speaking to him at least a couple of times a week, seeking to build him as a leader. McChrystal, who's led the Afghan campaign for a year, won plaudits in Afghanistan for a new strategy that prioritizes protecting civilians over killing the enemy.
Afghanistan's ministry of defense also leapt to McChrystal's protection.
"Since General McChrystal came to Afghanistan, we have seen major changes and these have been positive," said General Zahir Azimi, the spokesman for the defense ministry. "He's made people feel that the operation is aimed at providing better social conditions and economic situation. We didn't have that in the past."
International forces in Afghanistan are on the cusp of launching a major new offensive in Kandahar province, in the south, the spiritual home of the Taliban and Karzai's own power base. The provincial council in Kandahar is headed by the Afghan president's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who warned Wednesday against removing McChrystal.
"If he is fired, it will disrupt the operation," Ahmad Wali Karzai told reporters in Kandahar. "It definitely will affect it. He (McChrystal) started all this, and he has a good relationship with the people. The people trust him and we trust him. If we lose this important person, I don't think that this operation will work in a positive way."