McChrystal’s Loose Lips May Sink Afghan Ship

McChrystal Runaway General

General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has been ordered home by an angry president after several intemperate remarks made in a Rolling Stone interview.

The piece, "The Runaway General," originally scheduled to debut Friday, has been rushed online.   Phil Stewart and Adam Entous, reporting for Reuters, summarize the most controversial bits:

The White House summoned the top U.S. general in Afghanistan to Washington to explain remarks critical of the Obama administration, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, as speculation grew that he could be ousted.

The unusual move comes a day after General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, apologized for comments by his aides insulting some of President Barack Obama’s closest advisers in an article to be published in Rolling Stone magazine.


The Rolling Stone article, which quoted several McChrystal aides anonymously, portrays a split between the U.S. military and Obama’s advisers at an extremely sensitive moment for the Pentagon, which is fending off criticism of its strategy to turn around the Afghanistan war.

It quotes a member of McChrystal’s team making jokes about Vice President Joe Biden, who was seen as critical of the general’s efforts to escalate the conflict and who had favored a more limited counter-terrorism approach.

"Biden?" the aide was quoted as saying. "Did you say: Bite me?"

Another aide called White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a retired four-star general, a "clown" who was "stuck in 1985."

McChrystal was quoted as saying he felt "betrayed" by the leak of a classified cable from U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry last year. The cable raised doubts about sending more troops to shore up an Afghan government already lacking in credibility.

AFP‘s Dan De Luce notes that McChrystal disparaged the commander-in-chief, too:

An unnamed adviser to McChrystal also says in the article that the general came away unimpressed after meeting with Obama in the Oval Office a year ago.

"It was a 10-minute photo op," the general’s adviser says.  "Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was… he didn’t seem very engaged.  The boss was pretty disappointed," says the adviser.

The Atlantic‘s Marc Ambinder reports that there have been tensions between McChrystal and Eikenberry going back to the days when the latter held the former’s current job and the former was head of the Joint Special Operations Command.

At some point, I think in 2005, one of McChrystal’s task-forces-that-didn’t-really-exist did something in Afghanistan that angered Eikenberriy, who was in command of the region at the time. The two men exchanged words and built mutual mistrust. They have not worked well together ever since. McChrystal blames Eikenberry for trying to influence policy by leaking information and by impeding McChrystal’s efforts to build better relationships with Afghanistan’s fragile government.

During the strategy review, Eikenberry didn’t think McChrystal’s surge could work. He told the White House that contractors would have to pick up the slack for years to come. McChrystal insisted that he could execute his COIN strategy with a heavy presence of special operations forces … and be out in 18 months (i.e, troops would begin to be drawn down). The White House ultimately sided with McChrystal.

While neither Biden nor Jones nor Eikenberry are in McChrystal’s chain of command, Article 88 of the UCMJ — one of the so-called Punitive Articles, in fact — states:

Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

Now, at least one legal expert thinks the comments in question fall short of "contemptuous," and were merely "disrespectful." In any case, one presumes that the third hand nature of the remarks — and the fact that he’s a four star general with the distinguished career that implies — will spare McChrystal a court martial.

But it may well be a firing offense.  University of Michigan Muslim historian Juan Cole terms this a "MacArthur moment" and argues,

President Obama absolutely must fire McChrystal for subordination. You can’t have the office of the vice presidency disrespected in public by a general in uniform that way. Nor is it plausible that the Obama team has a prayer of getting Afghanistan right, assuming such a thing is possible, if the commanding military officer and the ambassador are feuding like the Baizai and the Ranizai.

Even professionals occasionally say things in private about their bosses and peers that they wouldn’t want repeated in public.  When they are, smart bosses weigh the totality of the circumstances in deciding the appropriate action.

McChrystal’s allowing his representatives to go off half-cocked in an interview with a hostile publication was incredibly foolish.  And so is belittling the president’s hand-picked national security team.    Say what you will about Joe Biden and Jim Jones but they’re no amateurs; indeed, both have far more high level experience than McChrystal.

As I noted in this space last October, McChrystal has a habit of pushing the envelope on insubordination.  And it seems to stem from an arrogant belief that he’s not only the smartest guy in any room but that everyone else is an idiot.  Which was likely MacArthur’s downfall, too.

He  has already apologized and is expected to be called on the carpet tomorrow morning, where, according to an "administration official" quoted by Politico‘s Gordon Lubold, "he will have to explain to the Pentagon and the commander in chief his quotes about his colleagues in the piece.”  Absent an explanation more spectacularly convincing that I can imagine offhand, I don’t see how he survives the meeting as an active duty officer.

As Harold MacMillan famously noted, "Events dear boy, events" are what tend to blow governments off course.   With the mission already unraveling, this is the last thing Obama needed.

Thirteen months ago, when General David McKiernan was fired to bring in McChrystal and his "A team"  — largely, ironically, because McKiernan was considered much less skilled at the Washington politics game — I observed that "it simply doesn’t make sense to change horses at this juncture. While McChrystal is by all accounts a rising star and likely to be superb at this assignment, another change in command is another period of adjustment at a critical time. "   Now, it seems we’re about to change horses yet again at an even more dire time for the mission.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  Photo credit: Rolling Stone.

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