What Rolling Stone's profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal reveals about our fractured command in Afghanistan.

Military analysis.
June 22 2010 6:35 PM

Who's in Charge Here?

What Rolling Stone's McChrystal profile reveals about our fractured command in Afghanistan.

Also in Slate, read John Dickerson on Gen. Stanley McChrystal's gaffe. 

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So what to do about McChrystal?

President Obama has summoned him to the Oval Office for a meeting on Wednesday. (The general was scheduled to deliver a report on the status of the war by teleconference; after reports about the Rolling Stone story appeared, he was ordered to appear in person, in part to explain himself.)

As a prelude to this meeting, Secretary of Defense Gates publicly criticized McChrystal for making "a significant mistake" and for having "poor judgment in this case." White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, when asked at a press conference about McChrystal's job security, replied, "Wait and see," adding only that the president was "angry" because such remarks are "distracting" from the vital mission in Afghanistan.

None of this foretells what will happen on Wednesday. Gates is unsentimental about matters of personnel, but he's also pragmatic. He relieved McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan—the first time in a half-century that a U.S. commander had been fired during a war—but that was because of perceived incompetence. He hired McChrystal precisely to execute a new strategy, and, unless he thinks McChrystal is no longer capable of executing that strategy, Gates is unlikely to recommend another change of leadership. (It may be significant that Gates chided McChrystal for "poor judgment in this case," not for poor judgment generally.)

Obama clearly has to reassert his authority and make clear that McChrystal—and his staff—understand who's the real boss. McChrystal has long been a loose cannon. He said in a speech last year in London, while the internal debate over Afghan policy was still going on, that the strategy advocated by Vice President Joe Biden would lead to defeat. Earlier, he took part in falsifying the records on Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan, making it seem to have been caused by Taliban insurgents instead of friendly fire.

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The key question—and it's one that nobody outside the Oval Office can answer—is whether President Obama feels that he can still trust McChrystal. When President Bill Clinton fired Les Aspin as his first secretary of defense, a case could have been made that Aspin was the fall guy for a misjudgment made by the entire military command, in that case about the troop deployments in Somalia. But it didn't matter; if Clinton no longer trusted him, for whatever reason, Aspin had to go. The same is true here. If Obama is simply fed up with McChrystal, and especially if Gates (McChrystal's patron and Obama's most trusted Cabinet officer) agrees with the assessment, then the general has to go.

There are other risks, though. If McChrystal is pushed out, and if the war continues to go badly, many will blame Obama for this decision; they'll say his ego got in the way of the war effort. One can imagine McChrystal's pals, or the man himself, encouraging what-if games from the sidelines.

If, on the other hand, McChrystal is kept on, Obama may well wind up in firmer control than before. McChrystal is no MacArthur; a few hours of sweating, a stern lecture, and a new series of commands may be all it takes to snap him to. He'll also have to clean house of all but the most essential toadies in his midst; he fired his press secretary, who let the Rolling Stone reporter in the door, but that's the flimsiest of gestures.

Then there's another factor: McChrystal created the war strategy; it's his in much the same way that the surge in Iraq belonged to Gen. David Petraeus. Obama would have to calculate whether the strategy could continue in the absence of McChrystal. This isn't an abstract question: McChrystal is highly respected in the field; he's also one of the few Americans in Afghanistan with whom President Karzai feels comfortable. These are no small considerations amid a war where morale—both inside the Afghan government and among U.S. troops—is critical and in jeopardy.

Nobody, of course, is indispensable. Petraeus could step down from his regional post as head of U.S. Central Command to run the Afghanistan war more directly. Gen. James Mattis, another strategically minded officer who's been head of U.S. Joint Forces Command, was recently passed over to be the next Marine commandant and thus is headed for retirement—unless he takes over Afghanistan instead.

But all this is complicated, and it comes at the worst possible time, as the war enters a new phase and just six months before the strategic assessment that will determine how much longer, and how many, U.S. forces will stay in the Afghanistan.

As I write this, Time reporter Joe Klein is saying on CNN that he's heard McChrystal has tendered his resignation. Even if this is true, Obama could refuse to accept it.

And now, Obama himself, coming out of a Cabinet meeting, is telling reporters that he'll decide what to do after talking with the general on Wednesday.

I hate to make predictions (because they're often wrong), but I would guess that, unless relations are too far gone to repair, Obama will stick with the horse he's got and considerably tighten the reins.

AP Video: Will Obama Fire McChrystal?

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