War Stories

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. 

Gen. Stanley McChrystal

Is Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, about to get fired? Should he be?

As everyone now knows, freelance (and former Newsweek) reporter Michael Hastings has an article in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, quoting McChrystal and his staff officers talking dirt about their civilian superiors from President Barack Obama on down.

One aide calls Gen. Jim Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, a “clown” who’s “stuck in 1985.” Another makes a word play on “Biden” and “bite me.” Another says that “the Boss” (i.e., McChrystal) was “pretty disappointed” by his first meeting with the president. McChrystal himself moans when he gets an e-mail from Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and doesn’t even bother reading its contents.

Three points need to be made here.

First, this is not MacArthur vs. Truman. (President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, at the time the wildly popular U.S. commander in Korea, for defying his orders to refrain from attacking China.) It’s not even Fallon vs. Bush. (President George W. Bush fired Adm. William “Fox” Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, for publicly advocating a speedier pullout from Iraq than Bush had already ordered.)

In fact, nowhere in the article is McChrystal or any of his aides quoted as disagreeing with Obama’s policy on Afghanistan. It would be a big surprise if they were, as Obama’s strategic decision in December 2009—to send 30,000 more troops and to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy—was essentially an endorsement of McChrystal’s recommendation. (It should be noted that the article’s subheadline—which says that McChrystal “has seized control of the war” because he sees “the real enemy” as “the wimps in the White House”—is grossly distorting and may be responsible for some of the early misreporting before the actual article went online. Hastings said in an interview with NPR that he did not write the headline.)

Second, with one exception, none of the trash talk in the article comes from McChrystal. It all comes from his aides. The one exception is the Holbrooke e-mail diss, and it’s farfetched to regard that as crossing some red line of civilian control.

It’s also worth noting that Obama is barely criticized by anyone. Hastings quotes an aide as saying that McChrystal regarded his first one-on-one meeting with the president as “a 10-minute photo-op” and that he was “pretty disappointed” because the president “clearly didn’t know anything about him” or “who he was.”

The same aide says that McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” at his first meeting with the brass early on in his presidency. (For what it’s worth, shortly after that meeting I talked with two officials who were there; both were deeply impressed with Obama and surprised at his ease of command.)

It’s unclear whether all this reflects the general’s egomania, his staff’s slavishness, or (most likely) both. In any case, it doesn’t quite amount to insubordination.

Nonetheless, and this is the damning third point, the fact that it’s “just staff officers” talking like this doesn’t let McChrystal off the hook. In fact, the story suggests that, on some level (and how serious a level is something for Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to find out), McChrystal’s operation is out of control.

McChrystal is clearly a charismatic commander: ascetic, tough as nails, strategically smart, and as demanding of himself as he is of those around him. These sorts of commanders inspire deep loyalty from their inner circle, especially in wartime. In McChrystal’s case, it has inspired idolatry. It’s been widely observed that his aides see themselves not merely as aides but as disciples to a warrior-god.

If McChrystal’s aides diss the vice president and shake their heads about the president (outraged that Obama didn’t seem to know who Stanley McChrystal was!), it’s a fair bet (though not a certainty) that they’ve heard the man himself make similar remarks.

In some scenes in the Rolling Stone story, aides make jabs at civilian authority in McChrystal’s presence—with, apparently, no approbation or dissent on the general’s part. (In a statement issued this morning, McChrystal didn’t deny any part of the story; instead, he apologized and expressed “enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team.”)

What seems clear is that McChrystal has sown, or in any case tolerates, an atmosphere of disrespect for the civilian chain of command. And the fact that his entourage feels free to talk like this in front of not just him but a reporter—much less a reporter from Rolling Stone—speaks volumes about how far they’ve burrowed into their cocoon.

The whole business reflects something else at least as serious—the fractured state of this war and the utter disunity of command. The tension between McChrystal and Gen. Karl Eikenberry, once his rival and now the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, continues to seethe months after it should have been tamped down or one of them should have been let go. Holbrooke’s role as envoy has been unclear ever since Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared, after getting yelled at one time too many, that he never wanted to meet with him again. And the International Security Assistance Force, the multinational alliance that runs the “coalition” headquarters in Kabul, is widely regarded as a fig leaf and a dysfunctional one at that.

When command lines are less than straight, and when a war is going less than well (it was McChrystal who called the campaign in Helmand province a “bleeding ulcer”), backbiting often ensues.

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.

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?

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate  and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.