Gen. McChrystal called to Washington to explain anti-administration comments
By Ernesto Londoño and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; 11:57 AM
KABUL — The top U.S. general in Afghanistan has been summoned to Washington to explain a magazine profile that includes highly critical remarks by him and his staff about top Obama administration officials involved in Afghanistan policy.
The article in this week’s Rolling Stone magazine is certain to increase tension between the White House and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. The profile of McChrystal, titled the “Runaway General,” also raises fresh questions about the judgment and leadership style of the commander appointed by President Obama last year in an effort to turn around a worsening conflict.
McChrystal and some of his senior advisers are quoted speaking derisively of top administration officials, often in sharply flippant terms. An anonymous McChrystal aide is quoted as calling national security adviser James L. Jones a “clown,” who remains “stuck in 1985.”
The story also features an exchange in which McChrystal and some of his aides appear to mock Vice President Biden, who opposed McChrystal’s troop surge recommendation last year and instead urged a more focused emphasis on counterterrorism operations. Preparing for a speech he is about to give at a French military academy, McChrystal “wonders aloud” whether he will questioned about the well-publicized differences in opinion between himself and Biden.
“Are you asking me about Vice President Biden? Who’s that?” McChrystal says with a laugh, trying out the line as a hypothetical response to the anticipated query.
“Biden?” chimes in an aide who is seated nearby, and who is not named in the article. “Did you say Bite me?”
The magazine hits newsstands Friday and was posted online at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The Washington Post received a copy of the article several hours before that from its author, Michael Hastings, a freelance journalist who has written for The Post in the past.
The insulting comments by McChrystal and his staff, many of whom were quoted anonymously, surfaced on the eve of the president’s monthly meeting with his top advisers on Afghanistan, which is scheduled to take place Wednesday.
McChrystal typically joins that meeting by a secure videoconference from Afghanistan, but he was summoned to Washington to participate directly and explain his remarks, a senior administration official said Tuesday morning. The meeting includes Biden and many of the other advisers whom McChrystal or his staff mocked in the article.
“I extend my sincerest apology for this profile,” McChrystal said in a statement issued Tuesday morning. “It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and it should have never happened.”
Most of the critical remarks in the article come from aides to the general, rather than McChrystal himself. Many of the quotes are anonymous. The magazine story also includes descriptions of McChrystal’s staff drinking heavily at an Irish pub in Paris, “two officers doing an Irish jig mixed with steps from a traditional Afghan wedding dance,” and advisers singing a slurred, intoxicated songs whose only lyrics seem to be “Afghanistan, Afghanistan.”
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called McChrystal to express his “deep disappointment” with the comments, Reuters reported Tuesday.
A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however, issued a statement saying Karzai “strongly supports McChrystal and his strategy in Afghanistan and believes he is the best commander the United States has sent to Afghanistan over the last nine years,” the wire service reported.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that “it would be a grave mistake” to allow the controversy over the article to distract attention from the war effort. “Now is not the time for Washington to be sidetracked by chatter,” Kerry said. “Everyone needs to take a deep breath.”
Kerry said he spoke with McChrystal by telephone Tuesday morning and stressed that U.S. leaders should remain focused on success in Afghanistan and the safety of U.S. troops.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he was “prepared to withhold judgment for the next 24 hours” — until after Obama could meet with the general and made a public statement.
Lt. Col. Joseph Breasseale, a U.S. military spokesman, said McChrystal called Biden and other senior administration officials Tuesday morning (Monday evening in Washington) in reference to the article. “After these discussions, he decided to travel to the U.S. for a meeting,” Breasseale said in an e-mail. Officials in Washington who were familiar with the situation said the general apologized to Biden during the phone call.
McChrystal’s civilian press aide, Duncan Boothby, submitted his resignation Tuesday as a result of the article, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because it was a personnel issue.
It is not the first time that McChrystal has been dressed down by Obama. Shortly after the general’s assessment of the situation in Afghanistan was made public last year, McChrystal gave a speech in London in which he publicly criticized those who advocated a scaled-back effort in Afghanistan.
Those comments were widely seen as being directed against Biden, who had promoted an approach in the country focused on targeting terrorists more narrowly. After that speech, an angry Obama summoned McChrystal to a face-to-face meeting on Air Force One in Copenhagen, where Obama had arrived to pitch Chicago’s Olympic bid.
White House officials declined to comment publicly Tuesday morning, but the latest public relations blunder by McChrystal was viewed as sure to further strain his relationship with a president who puts a premium on message discipline and loyalty.
The article shows open disdain for U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired three-star general who has sharp policy differences with McChrystal,. Referring to a leaked cable from Eikenberry that expressed concerns about the trustworthiness of Karzai, McChrystal is quoted as having said: “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ ”
Referring to Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama’s senior envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, one McChrystal aide is quoted as saying: “The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.”
On one occasion, McChrystal appears to react with exasperation when he receives an e-mail from Holbrooke. “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,” McChrystal says, according to the article. “I don’t even want to read it.”
The timing of the piece could hardly be worse. Amid a flurry of bad news in Afghanistan and a jump in NATO casualties, U.S. lawmakers and senior officials from NATO allied countries are asking increasingly sharp questions about the U.S.-led war strategy. McChrystal has struggled to turn the tide on a deteriorating conflict since taking over the Afghanistan effort last year.
Dutch and Canadian troops are scheduled to pull out within the next 12 months. And the White House has said it will start drawing down U.S. forces next July. (Photos of recent troop activities in Kandahar, Afghanistan)
The profile includes criticism that McChrystal is facing from some of his own troops, who have grown frustrated with new rules that force commanders be extraordinarily judicious in using lethal force.
A few weeks ago, according to the magazine, the general traveled to a small outpost in Kandahar province, in southern Afghanistan, to meet with a unit of soldiers reeling from the loss of a comrade, 23-year-old Cpl. Michael Ingram.
The corporal was killed in a booby-trapped house that some of the unit’s commanders had unsuccessfully sought permission to blow up.
One soldier at the outpost showed Hastings, who was traveling with the general, a written directive instructing troops to “patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourself with lethal force.”
During a tense meeting with Ingram’s platoon, one sergeant tells McChrystal: “Sir, some of the guys here, sir, think we’re losing, sir.”
McChrystal has championed a counterinsurgency strategy that prioritizes protecting the population as a means to marginalize and ultimately defeat the insurgency. Because new rules sharply restrict the circumstances under which airstrikes and other lethal operations that have resulted in civilian casualties can be conducted, some soldiers say the strategy has left them more exposed.
June is on track to be the deadliest month for NATO troops in Afghanistan since the war began nearly nine years ago. At least 63 NATO troops have been killed so far this month, including 10 who died Monday in a helicopter crash and a series of attacks.
In his statement, McChrystal says he has “enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team.”
“Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity,” the general said. “What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.”