Obama was warned entire military high command might leave over Afghanistan decision

President Barack Obama announcing that Gen. David Petraeus will replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal, June 23, 2010.

From Bob Woodward, the Washington Post:  Army Col. John Tien, an Iraq combat veteran and former Rhodes Scholar serving on the NSC, was junior in rank, so he spoke first. The U.S. military has thousands of active-duty colonels and it was unusual for one to be able to advise the commander in chief directly, particularly just before a defining decision.

"Mr. President," Tien said, "I don’t see how you can defy your military chain here. We kind of are where we are. Because if you tell General [Stanley A.] McChrystal [the U.S. commander in Afghanistan], ‘I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I’ve chosen to do something else,’ you’re going to probably have to replace him. You can’t tell him, ‘Just do it my way, thanks for your hard work.’ And then where does that stop?"

The colonel did not have to elaborate. His implication was that not only McChrystal but the entire military high command might go in an unprecedented toppling – [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command. Perhaps no president could weather that, especially a 48-year-old with four years in the U.S. Senate and 10 months as commander in chief. …

Obama then said to everyone, "I need you to tell me now whether you can accept this. And if you can’t, tell me right now. If you can, then I expect your wholehearted support. And that includes what you say in public, to Congress and internally to your own organizations."

He then shifted to Mullen, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had tried to block real consideration of any option other than 40,000 troops for counterinsurgency.

"When you go up and testify," the president told him, "you have an obligation to say what you think. I’m not asking you to change what you believe, but if you do not agree with me, say so now."

There was a pause.

"Say so now," Obama repeated.

"I fully support, sir," Mullen said. "Internal deliberations have been internal. . . . Testimony will fully support what you’ve said here, Mr. President. You need not worry about this." He then complimented the decision: "This does give us a shot at turning things around."  (photo: AP)

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