McChrystal's lack of political skills led to downfall

President Obama accepted Gen. Stanley McChrystal's resignation after controversial remarks in Rolling Stone magazine, replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus. Obama called the decision "a change in personnel...not a change in policy" in Afghanistan.
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who was sacked Wednesday by President Obama for comments denigrating his civilian bosses, will be recalled inside the military as an intense, highly effective soldier and an object lesson in the need to honor civilian control of the military.

McChrystal was selected for the top job in Afghanistan by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who believed that his intensity and focus would inject energy into a war that had long taken a back seat to the conflict in Iraq and seemed strategically adrift. Senior Obama administration officials hoped that McChrystal would be able to emulate the model forged by Gen. David H. Petraeus, who had won praise for both his skills in managing troops and his savvy in managing Washington.

McChrystal's lack of political skills ultimately led to his downfall after the publication of a Rolling Stone magazine article in which the general and his staff denigrated senior administration officials, including the vice president, in a series of crude and often sophomoric jokes.

(Read a breakdown of what was said about eight top officials)

"I strongly support the president's strategy in Afghanistan and am deeply committed to our coalition forces, our partner nations and the Afghan people," he said in a statement. "It was out of respect for this commitment -- and a desire to see the mission succeed -- that I tendered my resignation."

McChrystal remains an icon within the Special Operations community, where he was known for his innovations in collecting, analyzing and acting on intelligence to kill insurgent leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This will be remembered as a Shakespearean tragedy," said retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who has known McChrystal for 30 years and served with him in Iraq. "Here is a true hero who risked his life to diminish al-Qaeda. He is a leader who cared for his soldiers and shared every danger with his soldiers."

Among elite Special Operations troops, McChrystal was revered for his toughness and willingness to endure the same hardships they faced. In 2005, he joined a small team of commandos in Iraq on a pre-dawn raid aimed at killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The force of American and British troops soon found itself outnumbered by insurgents, said a senior Army official familiar with the raid. McChrystal leapt into a ditch and began returning fire at fighters swarming his position.

The next day the British commandos presented McChrystal with a certificate that he hung in his Iraq office. "This recognizes that during the period 0230-0415 . . . while facing hostile fire from enemy forces, LTG Stanley McChrystal was the highest paid rifleman in the United States Army."

McChrystal, however, struggled to make the transition from the tight-knit Special Operations world, where he led through the force of his personality and face-to-face interactions with his troops, to top command in Afghanistan, a job in which he was responsible for leading more than 130,000 U.S. and NATO troops, interacting with NATO allies and working with political leaders in Washington. Such high-level commands demand bureaucratic as well as battlefield acumen.

Soon after he arrived in Afghanistan, the general issued a series of "tactical directives," the most controversial of which put tough limits on the use of airstrikes and constrained night raids on Afghan homes suspected of housing insurgents. The general saw the directives as key to a counterinsurgency strategy that places a high premium on winning the support of the Afghan people by improving governance and protecting them from Taliban attacks.

The new rules, however, drew the ire of frontline troops, who thought they didn't have sufficient latitude to attack the enemy. Despite his almost unparalleled credentials as a warrior, McChrystal had a difficult time convincing his sprawling and skeptical force that the new rules could provide a path to victory.

"In many ways, he had a tougher job than Petraeus did in Iraq, which was an American operation," said Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and adviser to the general's command. "McChrystal not only had to change the organizational culture of the U.S. military but the culture of several other nations' militaries. Petraeus didn't have that in Iraq."

Before taking over in Afghanistan, McChrystal had to fend off allegations that he played a role in the Army's mishandling of the death of Ranger Cpl. Pat Tillman, a former pro football star who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. He also faced criticism for his oversight of detention facilities where prisoner abuse occurred.

McChrystal's immediate staff officers, many of whom came from the world of Special Operations, routinely spoke of him as someone who was accessible, warm and open to new ideas. Unlike Petraeus, who often maintained an emotional distance from even his most loyal staff members, McChrystal was often described by his inner circle as both boss and brother in arms. At times the general's openness, especially with the news media, got him in trouble. Even his allies in the Pentagon worried that McChrystal too often was naive about how his blunt remarks would echo in Washington and European capitals.

"What I really respected was his intellectual courage," said one military official who worked with the general in Kabul. "He was open to a lot of inputs from a lot of areas and had a real ability to connect with people."

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