Conflict and Tension Over Afghanistan

The dispute over Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s comments to Rolling Stone magazine exposes deep fissures in the Obama administration over the war effort in Afghanistan. Those fissures have their roots in disagreements over an exhaustive three-month policy review last year. At the end of that review, President Obama decided to embrace a substantial increase in troops — 30,000 — but also insisted that troops begin leaving Afghanistan in July 2011. Today, tensions remain among key players in Washington and Afghanistan.

In the article, Obama is depicted by McChrystal as being “uncomfortable and intimidated” when he first meets with top military officials and then not “very engaged” in his first meeting with McChrystal. Below are key players, their position in last year’s debate and how they were depicted in the Rolling Stone article.

— Glenn Kessler

Position on U.S./Afghan strategy
Depiction by McChrystal

David H. Petraeus

Head of the U.S. Central Command with responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus wrote the military's counterinsurgency manual and was responsible for the surge strategy in Iraq. He saw parallels between the two conflicts and backed McChrystal's request for more troops.

In the article, he is seen as letting McChrystal take center stage in Afghanistan but with a strong personal stake in the outcome: “A defeat would ruin his 'win' in Iraq: 'He's 1-0,' says a McChrystal insider.”

Secretary of Defense

Robert M. Gates

Gates, deputy CIA director in the 1980s, worried at first that a buildup would end up in disaster like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in that decade. But he became sympathatic to McChrystal's request and helped shape a plan that tried to bridge the administration's differences.

The article says Gates is “the mastermind” behind an ambitious plan to retool the military for more counterinsurgency fights. But he denounced McChrystal's comments, saying the general “made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Michael Mullen

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was a strong advocate for McChrystal and his troop surge.

The article depicts him as a key ally of McChrystal: “a big defender of the counterinsurgency doctrine, he has even recommended it as a way to fight drugs in Mexico.”

National security adviser

James Jones

Jones ran the process that considered McChrystal's request for 40,000 troops. He appeared largely neutral, but before McChrystal made his request Jones had told military officials not to expect more troops beyond the 22,000 Obama had originally authorized. He made McChrystal justify every soldier.

In the article, Jones is depicted as a 'clown' and an 'inept bureaucratic infighter' stuck in the past. 'Team McChrystal wants to see him go,' the article says.

Vice President


Biden was an outspoken critic of McChrystal' s troop surge, thinking that would lead to a quaqmire. He asked why more forces were needed in Afghanistan if the objective was to destroy al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan. He wanted to keep the focus on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency.

The article depicts McChrystal and his staff trying to think of ways to dismiss Biden with a sharp one-liner. “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who's that?” A top adviser suggests: “Did you say: Bite Me?”

Special Representative to Afghanistan

Richard C. Holbrooke

The administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke had watched the U.S. buildup in Vietnam as a junior Foreign Service officer and felt he knew the meaning of quagmire. He was a consistent advocate for a “civilian surge” to help bolster Afghanistan's political and economic development.

Holbrooke is depicted as a “wounded animal” fearful that he will be fired. When McChrystal gets an e-mail from Holbrooke, he groans, “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don't even want to open it.” The article asserts that the White House won't fire him because it “fears a 'tell-all' more than his diplomatic blunders.”

Secretary of State

Hillary Rodham Clinton

An active participant in the internal debates, Clinton worried about Pakistan remaining a haven for terrorism no matter how many troops were sent, but eventually joined with Gates and Mullen to push for a more robust force. In doing so, she bucked the advice of the U.S. ambassador, who reports to her.

Clinton comes off well in the article as the only non-military person who earns McChrystal's respect. Her spokesman said she had read the article but “has not offered any particular comment.”

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan

Karl W. Eikenberry

Eikenberry, once a three-star general in Afghanistan, sent a cable on Nov. 6 expressing doubts about a troop surge. The immediate leak of the cable — apparently designed to swing the debate against McChrystal's proposal — badly damaged relations between the two men.

The article says Eikenberry is “furious” that McChrystal blocked his bid to be the senior civilian “viceroy” in Afghanistan. It suggests that he has little impact as ambassador, in part because McChrystal has much better relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

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