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U.S. Afghan war strategy in limbo.

June 23, 2010

Bad news from the Af-Pak front, a very dangerous situation is developing at the worst possible time, just as Taliban and pro-Taliban groups are gearing up for another summer offensive.

NY Times, June 23, 2010.

McChrystal’s Fate in Limbo as He Prepares to Meet Obama

By HELENE COOPER, THOM SHANKER and DEXTER FILKINS

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan flew to Washington on Tuesday to find out whether he would be fired for remarks he and members of his staff made that were contemptuous of senior administration officials, laying bare the disarray and enmity in a foreign-policy team that is struggling with the war.

In an article in Rolling Stone magazine, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his aides spoke critically of nearly every member of the president’s national security team, saying President Obama appeared “uncomfortable and intimidated” during his first meeting with the general, and dismissing Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as “Bite Me.”

The firestorm was fueled by increasing doubts — even in the military — that Afghanistan can be won and by crumbling public support for the nine-year war as American casualties rise.

The criticism of General McChrystal’s statements was swift, and the general had apologized and prepared a letter of resignation, though President Obama had not made up his mind whether to accept it when they meet on Wednesday morning.

“I think it’s clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed poor judgment,” Mr. Obama said after a cabinet meeting. “But I also want to make sure I talk to him directly before I make final judgment.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, the general’s biggest supporter, released a statement criticizing General McChrystal for “a significant mistake” while Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was described by a senior aide as “deeply disappointed” by the comments.

Whether or not General McChrystal remains at the helm of the Afghan war effort, Mr. Obama will try to use Wednesday’s meeting to urge his fractious Afghanistan staff to pull together, said his press secretary, Robert Gibbs. The president, Mr. Gibbs said, will say that “it is time for everyone involved to put away their petty disagreements, put aside egos and get to the job at hand.”

But that may be easier said than done. At a time when violence in Afghanistan is sharply rising and several central planks of the president’s strategy to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” the Taliban and Al Qaeda have stalled, many of the president’s top advisers have continued to criticize one another to reporters and international allies alike, usually in private conversations, and almost always off the record.

“Yes, we do hear them disparage each other,” said a senior European diplomat who works closely with the United States on Afghanistan strategy. “It’s never good to hear that.”

Bruce O. Riedel, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution who helped the administration formulate its initial Afghan policy, added, “This flap shows once again that his team is not pulling together, but is engaging in backbiting.”

The many Afghanistan team conflicts include complaints from the American ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, about Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who has been portrayed by some as disruptive and whose relationship with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan chilled last year after difficult meetings following the August election. For his part, Ambassador Eikenberry has had his own tensions with the mercurial Mr. Karzai.

In one episode that dramatized the building animosities, Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, wrote to Ambassador Eikenberry in February, sympathizing with his complaints about a visit Mr. Holbrooke had recently made to Afghanistan. In the note, which went out over unsecure channels, officials said, General Jones soothed the ambassador by suggesting that Mr. Holbrooke would soon be removed from his job.

The Jones note prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to complain to Mr. Obama, and her support for Mr. Holbrooke has kept him in his job. In the article, which was posted on the magazine’s Web site on Tuesday, one of General McChrystal’s aides is quoted as referring to General Jones as a “clown.”

The infighting has been made more severe by the increasingly perilous situation on the ground. Violence in Afghanistan is on the rise. The mission to pacify Marja and Kandahar is far off track. And the effort to create a viable Afghan government is increasingly in doubt because of widespread corruption. Criticism is mounting on Capitol Hill, even among the president’s backers, and many allies have announced that they are looking for the exit, with others expected to do the same in the coming months.

As the administration struggles to manage its relationship with Mr. Karzai, General McChrystal has proved to be the one American official most able to successfully deal with him on a daily basis. Beyond that, Mr. Obama’s war strategy is in many ways a McChrystal strategy. The general devised the plan, which called for thousands of extra troops to fight the insurgency and, perhaps more important, create a sense of security for the Afghan people.

There has been vigorous debate within the administration about how to proceed in Afghanistan, but General McChrystal and his aides did not overtly criticize administration policy.

Rather, the differences were personal, and publicly aired. One administration official described Mr. Obama as being particularly furious at a McChrystal aide’s characterization of him as not seeming “very engaged” during their first White House meeting.

Over all, the magazine article depicted General McChrystal at the head of a small circle of aides engaged in almost locker-room trash talk as they discussed foreign policy, the French, their allegiance to each other and their own concerns about course of the war. The civilian communications adviser who set up the interview, Duncan Boothby, has resigned.

Even though many advisers fear changing commanders at this stage of the war, there was speculation at the Pentagon and the White House about who could replace General McChrystal.

Potential successors were thought to include Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commander of the NATO military corps headquarters in Kabul, which manages the day-to-day fight in Afghanistan. General Rodriguez is a confidant of General McChrystal and previously served as a senior military assistant to Mr. Gates. Another possibility is Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, in charge of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, who has extensive experience in the Islamic world.

Another potential successor is Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, currently commander of the military’s Joint Forces Command. General Mattis is a respected war-fighter with experience in counterinsurgency missions. Some have even suggested Gen. David H. Petraeus, who leads the United States Central Command and General McChrystal’s boss and mentor, could take over the Afghan mission himself.

As the president considers his options, he must also face his own struggles with the military. By all accounts, he felt that his commanders tried to manipulate him into going along with their Afghan strategy, through leaks to the press and public comments.

The military leadership, meanwhile, continues to be frustrated by what it sees as an unrealistic deadline for completing the mission. Some have also complained that a president distracted by a health care overhaul, a flagging economy and an oil spill has not been a forceful advocate for rallying the public behind the war.

The author of the Rolling Stone article — Michael Hastings, a freelance journalist — appears to have been granted intimate access to General McChrystal’s inner circle. Most of the comments seem to have been uttered during unguarded moments, in places like bars and restaurants where the general and his aides gathered to unwind.

A McChrystal aide is quoted saying of Mr. Holbrooke: “The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to be fired, so that makes him dangerous.” On another occasion, General McChrystal is described as reacting with exasperation when he receives an e-mail message from Mr. Holbrooke. “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don’t even want to open it.”

The article also describes a conversation in which General McChrystal and an aide talk about Mr. Biden, who is known to have opposed the decision to escalate the war. “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” General McChrystal jokes.

“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say ‘Bite me?’ ”

Military officers interviewed on Tuesday noted that while the general’s statements could be viewed as inexcusable and disrespectful, he never indicated a decision not to carry out Mr. Obama’s orders or fulfill the president’s strategy.

That distinction may be too subtle in the current phase of poisoned relations between the White House and the military, but it is significant to military officers. For example, when Adm. William J. Fallon, then in charge of the Central Command, was forced into early retirement in March 2008, it was because his statements to Esquire magazine were viewed as directly at odds with White House policy on Iran.

White House officials sought to play down the infighting within the administration’s Afghanistan team, though one senior aide expressed dismay at what he described as “an undisciplined, jocular culture” that called into question whether General McChrystal and his advisers were able to execute an operation “charged with leading 150,000 in a war that is pretty serious.”

Still, said Denis McDonough, the National Security Council chief of staff and one of the president’s closest aides, “the challenge isn’t that we’re all on each other’s holiday card lists.”

“The challenge is to make sure that we’re all advancing the national interest by staying on the offense against Al Qaeda,” he said.

Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker reported from Washington, and Dexter Filkins from Kabul, Afghanistan. Mark Landler contributed reporting from Washington.

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