By Scott Wilson and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 24, 2010; A01
President Obama dismissed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal on Wednesday after concluding that his military chief in Afghanistan had badly damaged the chain of command and could no longer work effectively with the civilian leadership at a crucial moment in the war.
White House officials said Obama's decision, made over a tense 40 hours, pitted his desire to retain a talented general who designed the Afghan strategy against the importance of preserving the authority of the commander in chief. Ultimately, his decision to turn over the Afghan command to Gen. David H. Petraeus allowed the president to keep his war strategy intact, given the general's key role in formulating it last year, and changed the calculus of a choice that once seemed to have no political upside.
Obama's dismissal of McChrystal, 55, calmed fears within his own party that he might look weak if he refused to confront the general. Meanwhile, Petraeus's appointment, expected to sail through the Senate confirmation process, drew praise from congressional Republicans, who provide crucial support for a war that a majority of Americans routinely say is no longer worth fighting.
"War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president," Obama said in a Rose Garden announcement. "And as difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe it is the right decision for our national security."
The announcement effectively ended McChrystal's 34-year Army career less than two days after the publication of a Rolling Stone article featuring disparaging remarks by the general and his fiercely loyal staff about some of Obama's senior civilian advisers, including Vice President Biden, who argued against McChrystal's strategy last year.
The fallout from the profile laid bare the dysfunctional relationships among senior civilian and military officials responsible for the Afghan campaign, and undermined the methodical competence that the president has sought to bring to his management of the nine-year-old war.
McChrystal's departure played out against a faltering campaign in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, rising U.S. and NATO casualties on the battlefield, and delays in a Kandahar offensive that has been described as the linchpin to the war effort. Obama faces an uncertain partner in Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who lobbied against McChrystal's dismissal, and pervasive corruption that is undermining the attempt to build a viable Afghan state.
Obama called Karzai on Wednesday to inform him of his decision; he also called British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose office later announced that British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy commander of international forces in Afghanistan, would lead the operation pending Petraeus's confirmation.
James L. Jones, Obama's national security adviser, called NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his counterparts in half a dozen countries, including France. McChrystal and his aides had mocked the French in the article.
"This position involves managing our international partners, and there really had been some damage done there as well," said a senior administration official, who added that Obama explained to Karzai during their call the importance of defending the chain of command.
If confirmed by the Senate, Petraeus, 57, will take control of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, which comprises nearly 100,000 U.S. troops and about 40,000 forces from other countries. He currently heads the U.S. Central Command, in charge of South Asia and the Middle East.
Said a senior administration official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations: "It's as seamless as it could be, not only in terms of operations but also because you put someone in who's widely respected. No one is going to doubt that he's the right guy for the job."
Petraeus, as U.S. commander in Iraq, implemented the troop "surge" that helped change the course of the war there and endorsed the plan that Obama approved after the three-month Afghan strategy review last fall. He has, however, played down the importance of a planned December progress evaluation that civilian officials say will be important in determining the future of the mission.
Petraeus's high profile led to talk of him as a potential presidential candidate. He has said he has no such aspirations and his appointment to the Afghan command effectively ends any possibility of a campaign in 2012. In his remarks, the president said he is "extraordinarily grateful" to Petraeus for taking a job that, on military flow charts, is a demotion.
"This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy," he said.
Biden alerted Obama to the Rolling Stone article Monday evening after he received an apology call from McChrystal as he returned to Washington from Illinois aboard Air Force Two, White House officials said. From the residence, Obama called White House press secretary Robert Gibbs for a copy of the profile, which many of his senior advisers had been mulling over for several hours.
After reading it himself, Obama headed to the Oval Office, where Gibbs, National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis R. McDonough, senior adviser David Axelrod and Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, had assembled. Jones and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had left the building but quickly returned for the impromptu meeting.
By the end of the session, White House officials said, the question had already been raised: Can McChrystal continue in his post?
The following morning, Obama took up the issue during his daily intelligence briefing, which he holds with Biden. Hours later, the two held their weekly private lunch, and officials said the discussion focused in part on McChrystal.
Petraeus was first suggested as a possible successor to McChrystal a few hours later in a Tuesday afternoon meeting Obama held with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, officials said. By that evening, Petraeus was on a list of possible replacements that the Pentagon had drawn up at the president's request.
Obama fired McChrystal -- officially he accepted his resignation -- on Wednesday during an Oval Office meeting that lasted less than 30 minutes. The president had decided, as he said later in the Rose Garden, that "the conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general."
"It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system," he added. "And it erodes the trust that's necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan."
Immediately after meeting with McChrystal, Obama gathered Biden, Emanuel, Jones, Gibbs and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the Oval Office. Their 45-minute meeting produced a consensus around Petraeus, who had been waiting in the West Wing after being asked to arrive early for the monthly Afghanistan review session in the Situation Room.
Obama and Petraeus then met privately for 40 minutes. The president asked him to step down as head of the Central Command, which is based in Florida, and take over day-to-day control of the Afghan war.
The president's advisers said that Petraeus agreed to do so, but that it was clear to Obama that it came "at some great personal sacrifice." Asked to describe it, one senior administration official said: "Tampa to Kabul."