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Weakening, possible firing of McChrystal compounds sense of peril in Afghanistan

By Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; A01

The firestorm sparked by the general responsible for creating and implementing President Obama's Afghanistan strategy has further set back U.S. prospects in a war that was already on shaky ground.

Combat delays, rising casualties and new reports of Afghan corruption have led to growing skepticism in Congress and among the American public. The weakening, and possible firing, of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal over disrespectful comments he made to Rolling Stone about Obama and his policy team has compounded the sense of peril.

However the McChrystal crisis ends, "much is different going forward," a senior administration official said. "It's hard to brush past it."

McChrystal's apparent disdain for his civilian colleagues, and the facts on the ground in Afghanistan, have exposed the enduring fault lines in the agreement Obama forged last fall among policymakers and military commanders. In exchange for approving McChrystal's request for more troops and treasure, Obama imposed, and the military accepted, two deadlines sought by his political aides. In December, one year after the strategy was announced, the situation would be reviewed and necessary adjustments made. In July 2011, the troops would begin to come home.

Each side thought it had gotten the better part of the deal.

Many senior military officials considered the withdrawal deadline a bad idea and argued among themselves whether counterinsurgency, inherently a time-consuming roller coaster of a process, could be conducted on a clock. Civilian policymakers, including Vice President Biden, thought the scope of the commitment -- 30,000 additional troops and a massive civilian deployment -- was unnecessary to achieve Obama's narrowly focused goal of decimating al-Qaeda.

But the new deployments, Obama concluded, would prove to allies and Afghans the depth of the U.S. commitment; the timetable would compel Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government to put their own house in order. The president's advisers agreed that significant progress toward the goals they had set -- putting the Taliban on the run, establishing a stable and competent government, and building Afghanistan's own security forces to eventually take over -- could be achieved within a deadline.

"He asked each of them directly if they had any problems with the strategy and if they could implement it," an administration official said Tuesday of Obama. "They all stood up and said, 'Yes, sir.' "

Several administration officials portrayed McChrystal's comments, made this spring in the presence of a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine, as a reflection of "behavior" rather than an unraveling of consensus around the war strategy. Some speculated that what many consider his tactical brilliance did not translate well in Washington's political arena. Others said that after years of 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week warfare, one interlude in which he and his staff unwisely unwound had no bearing on McChrystal's competence and commitment to the strategy.

But as the administration confronts the possibility that success in Afghanistan, if it comes at all, will take far longer than the president and his advisers envisioned when Obama first announced it nearly seven months ago, no one saw McChrystal's remarks as anything but a setback.

"There is no question this is a distraction we could ill afford," a senior defense official said. "It comes at an inopportune time. Although we believe it is fundamentally the right strategy and we are on the right course, we still have a lot of work to do to prove that to the American people, and this doesn't help."

The speed with which support for the strategy has seemed to unravel over the past several weeks has frustrated and concerned many senior officials, none of whom was willing, in an atmosphere of high anxiety within the administration, to speak about it on the record.

Barely a month ago, Karzai and much of his cabinet ended a visit to Washington with hugs, handshakes and assurances that things were moving in the right direction. The administration declared an end to its uneasiness about Karzai's abilities and honesty, endorsed his plans for an eventual political settlement of the war and pledged a long-term relationship with Afghanistan that would outlive the Taliban.

(See photos from Karzai's visit)

A Marine offensive in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan, was said to be progressing, the new troop deployments were underway and plans were set to begin operations in the key city of Kandahar this month.

But just as there seemed a small breathing space, reports emerged of problems with a lagging civilian governance program and a resurgent Taliban in Helmand. Two weeks ago, McChrystal expressed public concerns about the rate of civilian progress in Kandahar and announced that military elements of the offensive there would be delayed. Karzai abruptly fired his interior minister and intelligence chief, two officials who had been singled out as star performers by U.S. officials.

Obama went directly to McChrystal for assurance, a senior official said Friday, before the Rolling Stone story broke. "He asked about it, he heard directly from the field. . . . General McChrystal's representation was that we shouldn't think of things in Kandahar as though they were a light switch. It's more of a rheostat, and it doesn't yield a black and white shift overnight."

McChrystal, the official said, "reassured the president that it's moving in the right direction, at a pace he's comfortable with . . . that seems to be in concert with what we laid out months ago."

But Congress was growing uneasy. Last week, Gen. David H. Petraeus, McChrystal's boss as head of the Central Command, and Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy were called to testify about the war. Both offered encouragement, but when Petraeus told lawmakers that he did not consider the upcoming December review Obama had ordered an important milestone, the president again went to his commanders.

"We have reminded them that there is going to be one," the official said, referring to the military. "And I think they understand."

One year, from strategy announcement to major reassessment, "will have been long enough for us to get a really good sense of how we're doing in Helmand, and to get an initial sense of the trend lines for Kandahar," he said. "It's important for everyone to see," including other nations with troops in Afghanistan, "but also the Afghans themselves, that there is a tide that's moving in a certain direction. A favorable direction, hopefully."

On Tuesday, lawmakers criticized the Pentagon's failure to supervise trucking contracts for contributing to widespread corruption in Afghanistan.

As they awaited Obama's decision on McChrystal, some officials searched for a silver lining in the thunderclouds, or at least a lull in the downpour. "Ideally this will create a moment to clarify what the mission is, what we're doing to try to make it a success, and that we are all on the same page here," one said.

"This is the policy we agreed to -- among the civilian leadership and the military brass," he said.

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