McChrystal out, strategy remains

Obama will nominate Petraeus to take command in Afghanistan

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / June 24, 2010

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WASHINGTON — President Obama yesterday replaced General Stanley A. McChrystal following the four-star general’s disparaging remarks about the White House leadership. The president turned to General David H. Petraeus, architect of the Iraq war turnaround, to take over the US and NATO command in Afghanistan.

But Obama stressed that the decision would not result in a change of strategy, rejecting criticism from some within his own party who believe the war in Afghanistan is not in American security interests.

Obama’s decision to relieve McChrystal and nominate Petraeus was widely supported by Democrats and Republicans, who agreed that the general overstepped his bounds in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in which he and his aides mocked Vice President Joe Biden and other top officials.

In what he described as a difficult decision, a stern-looking Obama said removing McChrystal was necessary to safeguard the relationship between the military and its civilian superiors.

“The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general,’’ Obama said. “It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.’’

“I welcome debate among my team, but I won’t tolerate division,’’ he added.

McChrystal, in a statement, said that it was out of “a desire to see the mission succeed’’ that led him to offer his resignation to Obama. “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.

By moving swiftly, the president showed resolve and a determination to make sure military commanders know who is boss. But by naming a new Afghanistan commander who must be confirmed by the Senate, Obama is opening up his war strategy to another round of dissection and debate on Capitol Hill.

Both McChrystal and Petraeus, who have worked together in Iraq and Afghanistan, are leading advocates of counterinsurgency strategy, which rests on using the military to dislodge insurgent groups and build up the capacity of local security forces, while winning over the population with civilian development projects and aid.

Obama said that effort would remain unchanged.

“We have a clear goal,’’ Obama said. “We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on Al Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same.’’

The McChrystal controversy brought new attention to questions about whether a large-scale military offensive is necessary. The nine-year-old conflict is already the longest war in US history. Last year, Obama pledged to double the number of American forces in Afghanistan.

Some Democrats expressed new concern that the war is not winnable. Other Democrats as well as some Republicans expressed worry that Obama — who wants to start withdrawing troops in a year — will not apply the resources needed to succeed or will pull out prematurely.

The rift was on display among members of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation.

“I am much more concerned about the direction of our policy in Afghanistan than I am about the general’s comments,’’ said Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat and leading critic of Obama’s strategy. “I’m concerned about the corrupt and incompetent [Afghan] government. I’m concerned about the hundreds of billions of dollars we’re spending on ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan when we need to do some more nation-building here at home.’’

McGovern, who has proposed cutting off funding for a war he insists is not enhancing US security, called for a thorough reexamination of the strategy.

But Senator John F. Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a key architect of the Obama policy, said that progress made in recent months, including in the volatile district of Marjah, is at risk unless the effort is continued. “We’ve already seen in Marjah that impressive military gains cannot be maintained without effective local governance and Afghan ownership,’’ the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement. “This must happen to give the mission a chance to succeed.’’

The removal of McChrystal, a highly respected officer, was nonetheless described by most members of Congress as a legitimate exercise of authority by a commander-in-chief who had clearly lost confidence in his top war commander.

What the general will do next was uncertain, but close observers said the episode was likely to end his military career.

Petraeus, 57, is currently head of US Central Command, responsible for overseeing operations across the Middle East. He has achieved almost cult status as the author of the military’s counterinsurgency handbook who presided over the Bush administration’s surge of forces into Iraq in 2007. He is technically accepting a demotion to take the reins in Kabul at a crucial time.

A major offensive by US and NATO forces is being planned against the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, an operation that commanders have delayed due to setbacks elsewhere in the country. Between January and April of this year, insurgent attacks using improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, increased 94 percent across the country, according to figures compiled by the United Nations. Meanwhile, US military deaths recently crossed the highly symbolic mark of 1,000 and continue to climb. Obama said Petraeus, who has been intimately involved in the war planning, will maintain the momentum and has “the leadership we need to succeed.’’

Petraeus’s selection was widely hailed on Capitol Hill, where he is expected to easily win Senate confirmation as early as next week.

“His experience in carrying out at a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, when many questioned whether or not such a strategy could succeed, should provide a tremendous resource as he leads our forces in Afghanistan,’’ said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

“General Petraeus is the best that we have,’’ said Representative Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who chairs of the House Armed Services Committee.

The administration’s strategy, adopted last fall, calls for a large-scale counterinsurgency using more than 100,000 American troops to defeat insurgents while also training the Afghans and relying on the State Department and other international agencies to help build viable civil institutions in the country.

Senator John McCain of Arizona said he was concerned that Obama has set a timetable for withdrawal.

“The concern that we have is, and the issue that will be raised in General Petraeus’s confirmation hearings is, exactly what is meant by withdrawal in the middle of 2011,’’ McCain said. “If you tell the enemy when you are leaving, then obviously it has an adverse effect on your ability to succeed.’’

Said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who advised McChrystal: “There is pressure to win very quickly from Obama, but it is running up against the fact that counterinsurgency is a long-running project. That is the tension that was boiling over in the Rolling Stone interview.’’

Bender can be reached at