By Greg Jaffe and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; A01
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's belittling critique of some of the Obama administration's top officials left the president with a stark choice on Tuesday: overlook comments that border on insubordination, or fire his top commander at a critical moment in Afghanistan.
Even as thousands of U.S. troops were moving into Kandahar province for what is expected to be a crucial phase in one of the longest U.S. wars, McChrystal appeared dangerously close to losing his command because of the incendiary remarks he and members of his inner circle had made in an article in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine.
While a U.S. official said that McChrystal had already made an informal resignation offer to senior military officials before flying to Washington, President Obama made it clear that it is up to him to decide the general's fate.
"I want to make sure I talk to him before I make any final decision," said Obama, whom aides described as furious over the article.
There was a widespread recognition among military and political officials that McChrystal had crossed a venerated line in criticizing his civilian chain of command. Even though McChrystal issued an apology, many of his staunchest backers said the remarks by him and his staff members in the article -- titled "The Runaway General" -- were grounds for dismissal.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said McChrystal made a "significant mistake" and used "poor judgment."
"Our troops and coalition partners are making extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of our security, and our singular focus must be on supporting them and succeeding in Afghanistan without such distractions," Gates said.
During his 12 months in Kabul, McChrystal has earned a reputation as a forthright commander with an unscripted style and a strong work ethic. He has forged a close working relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was quick to come to the general's defense Tuesday, saying that his loss would be a major setback for the war effort.
Still, McChrystal has stumbled frequently in his interactions with the media, often to the great irritation of the White House. It has interpreted the general's outspoken manner as an effort to box Obama into backing a major troop surge and large-scale counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
In the article, McChrystal suggests that Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, the top U.S. civilian in Afghanistan, "betrayed" him by suggesting in a classified cable last fall that Karzai was not a credible partner in the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal was advocating. He and his staff also made derisive comments about Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Vice President Biden, who has expressed skepticism regarding McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy.
"Are you asking me about Vice President Biden? Who's that?" McChrystal is quoted as saying at one point in the article.
"Biden?" chimes in an aide who is seated nearby, and who is not named in the article. "Did you say: Bite Me?"
"I say this as someone who admires and respects Stan McChrystal enormously. The country doesn't know how much good he's done. But this is a firing offense," said Eliot A. Cohen, who served as a counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the latter days of the George W. Bush administration.
Much of McChrystal's career has been spent in the military's secretive Special Operations community, which rarely deals with the media and often views outsiders, even those within the military, with suspicion. Some of the most damaging statements in the Rolling Stone article were from his staff officers, who are also drawn heavily from the Special Operations community.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, spent a major part of his career in Washington and is far more practiced in dealing with reporters and the political leadership.
An administration official, discussing internal White House deliberations on the condition of anonymity, said McChrystal and his senior advisers are part of a unit "that is typically focused on intensive, sensitive, kinetic action."
But McChrystal's current post requires handling international diplomacy, military strategy and Washington politics. The official said that "it reaches beyond an insular fraternity of brothers."
"This wouldn't have happened in a thousand years with Dave Petraeus," the official added.
A U.S. military official said that the author of the Rolling Stone article, Michael Hastings, a freelance journalist who has also written for The Washington Post, was supposed to have had limited to access to McChrystal while he was in Europe. But after the eruption of a volcano in Iceland shut down air travel across Europe, stranding the general, Hastings had access to him for much longer.
The U.S. military official also said Duncan Boothby, McChrystal's civilian press aide, allowed Hastings to chat with staff members without establishing clear ground rules. Boothby resigned Tuesday.
White House officials said Obama was alerted to the article Monday when Biden called him around 8 p.m. Biden told Obama that McChrystal called him while he was traveling back from Illinois aboard Air Force Two to apologize for the article, which Biden had yet to read.
Obama got in touch with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, requesting that he distribute the article to the president's senior advisers and to have them discuss its contents and begin to think about which course to take.
After reading the piece, Obama told aides that he thought McChrystal should be ordered to return for the monthly Situation Room meeting to be held Wednesday, the officials said. His advisers agreed.
The White House's frustration with the story ran deeper than ham-handed media relations. It hinted at a civilian-military divide that could damage the war effort.
McChrystal and his inner-circle officers have spent much of the past decade either at war or in some of the Pentagon's most demanding staff positions. The grinding deployments have fueled tension between the White House and the military that dates to the Afghan strategy review last fall. Some military officials, including many on McChrystal's staff, interpreted the president's decision at the time to impose a deadline on the U.S. troop surge as a sign that the administration wasn't serious about winning the Afghan war.
The major question confronting Obama was whether he could lose his general without losing the war.
"My advice is to call him back to Washington, publicly chastise him and then make it clear that there is something greater at stake here," said Nathaniel Fick, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that has backed Obama's Afghan strategy. "It takes time for anyone to get up to speed, and right now time is our most precious commodity in Afghanistan."
If McChrystal is allowed to stay in command, he will have to work hard to repair his relationships with civilian leaders such as Eikenberry and Holbrooke. In recent months, senior U.S. officials and military experts have characterized the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as disjointed, with the military and the State Department at times working at cross-purposes.
Before the article was published, the relationship between McChrystal and Eikenberry seemed to be improving. But deeper divides between the State Department and the military remained.
"Of all the keys to victory in counterinsurgency campaigns, the only one we fully control is unity of effort," said a civilian adviser to McChrystal's command. "It's absolutely critical. And we've made a complete mockery of it."
Londoño reported from Kabul. Staff writers Scott Wilson and Rajiv Chandrasekaran contributed to this report.