McChrystal article renews attention to split with Biden over Afghanistan

President Obama removes McChrystal as commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Wednesday after remarks he made in a magazine interview about top administration officials.
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; 2:23 PM

Vice President Biden may have lost the battle last fall over the administration's Afghanistan strategy. But with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal -- his chief rival during the protracted debate -- now relieved of duty, will Biden be poised to win the bigger war?

Biden was a chief target of McChrystal's scorn in a Rolling Stone profile of the general that hijacked the White House this week. Though many of the damning quotes in the piece were anonymous, McChrystal gave a nine-word, on-the-record dismissal of Biden that infuriated the White House.

"Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal said jokingly, in an imagined exchange with a hypothetical questioner. "Who's that?" (An anonymous McChrystal aide took it a step further, saying: "Biden? Did you say, 'Bite me'?")

The underlying tension between the two men dates to last fall's strategy review, in which Biden argued for a narrower counterterrorism approach that would focus on targeting al-Qaeda leaders. McChrystal argued for a broader counterinsurgency strategy -- one requiring many more troops, with a mission of securing the civilian population and reinforcing the government. In the end, Obama sided mostly with McChrystal.

Six months later, questions abound about whether that plan is working. Administration officials stress that it is still being implemented and that no revisions to the strategy will be considered before a planned review in December. But progress has been slow, with missions in Marja and Kandahar behind schedule. Political support within Washington for remaining in Afghanistan, especially among Democrats, has waned.

Biden scored two victories during the policy debate: the December review of the policy, and a start date of July 2011 for withdrawing troops. The military has resisted both, suggesting the dates may slip -- only adding further to the sense of conflict between the vice president's office and the McChrystal command on the ground.

But even before the Rolling Stone article appeared, Biden's viewpoint was regaining traction, with Democratic members of Congress suggesting that it would soon be time to revisit Biden's idea of a targeted counterterrorism strategy. Now, even critics of that strategy believe that Biden's hand will be strengthened by McChrystal's missteps.

"The Rolling Stone piece puts these issues back on the table," said Bruce Riedel, who conducted Obama's original Afghanistan review in early 2009 and opposes the counterterrorism approach. More generally, Riedel said, "The description that it portrays of how our commander in the field is operating, and how some of the people around him are behaving, will definitely undermine support for the war."

Biden aides reject the question of whether the vice president will be strengthened now that McChrystal has been ousted. In order for Biden to be "proven right," the current war effort in Afghanistan would have to fail; and anyway, they argue, the two men were never as sharply opposed as it appeared.

"The vice president's position on Afghanistan is the same as the president's," senior adviser Jay Carney said.

And, according to at least some senior administration officials, the latest dust-up between Biden and McChrystal didn't amount to much.

On Monday night, as he was flying home from Illinois on Air Force Two, Biden got an unexpected call from the general, who was calling on a crackling phone line from Afghanistan.

McChrystal told Biden he was calling to apologize, aides said. He had cooperated with an article in Rolling Stone that was about to appear and could, he said, be looked on unfavorably by the White House.

Biden told McChrystal that he had no idea what he was talking about. Jovially, he assured the general he was sure it would all be fine. Biden then called Obama, expressing bewilderment about the apology call he had just received.

That set in motion the chain of events that led the president to summon McChrystal back to Washington on Tuesday and ultimately resulted Wednesday in the general's dismissal.

Obama called down to his aides, asking for a copy of the article. Senior advisers had already been poring over it for hours. Obama read it late Monday. When he was finished, advisers said, he was angry. But in typically understated fashion, Obama referred to the article simply as "unhelpful."

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