NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The firing of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, was preceded by a short political death watch among senior military brass.
President Obama accepted his resignation Wednesday after Gen. McChrystal and his aides were quoted in a magazine article criticizing perceived weakness and indecision by top administration officials regarding the war in Afghanistan.
His replacement is current U.S. Central Command commander and Gen. McChrystal’s boss, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who will be heading to Afghanistan.
Gen. Petraeus is the main proponent of the Army’s counterinsurgency strategy that is being adapted from Iraq to Afghanistan with limited results so far. He also has the backing of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and his selection is expected to patch over the political battles between Gen. McChrystal and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, Mrs. Clinton’s point man in Kabul.
The appointment prompted one national security wag to say: “This is an internal war in the Clinton-Obama sphere.”
Before Gen. Petraeus was chosen Tuesday evening, the short list of replacements included Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, current commander of U.S. forces in Iraq; and Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, current director of the Joint Staff and a former commander in Iraq.
Others in the mix were Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, current commander of the Joint Forces Command in southern Virginia and former Iraq commander; and Army Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, current commander of International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan and the general in charge of day-to-day military operations.
Gen. Mattis is said to be a candidate to replace Gen. Petraeus at Central Command, currently the military’s most important war-fighting command.
Gen. McChrystal had one thing going for him that apparently was not enough to salvage his career: He had voted for Mr. Obama for president, making him part of a minority of military leaders who do not lean conservative or, at least, Republican.
The points against him were many. They included his comment to a television interviewer in September that he had had only one meeting with the president, making it appear that Mr. Obama was not interested in the Afghanistan war or had handed it off to subordinates. He also clashed with Mr. Eikenberry.
Gen. McChrystal also had powerful allies among the Washington inner circle until the Rolling Stone magazine article, chief among them being Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Mr. Gates had been a big supporter of Gen. McChrystal because of his special operations background and successes in killing and capturing terrorists in Iraq.
But Mr. Gates ended up having an influential role in providing advice to the president on his decision to let Gen. McChrystal resign. Mr. Gates’ statement Tuesday night signaled that he no longer supported the general, noting that the general was guilty of “a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment in this case.”
Gen. Petraeus’ willingness to take the Afghanistan commander’s mission was said to be a key factor in Mr. Obama’s advisers supporting the decision to replace Gen. McChrystal.
The chief concern among McChrystal supporters before the dismisal was that changing commanders in Afghanistan now would upset the tight deadline set by the White House and Pentagon for completing the 30,000-troop surge, which is set to end in July 2011.
The president’s advisers, however, wanted a show of presidential force and won out when he accepted Gen. McChrystal’s resignation. They are said to include Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who took the biggest hit in the magazine article when his name was jokingly referred to as “bite me.”
These advisers argued that ousting Gen. McChrystal was needed as part of recent efforts to make the president look tougher, as when he mentioned recently that he was looking for someone’s rear end to kick over the mishandling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Missile deal update
President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will discuss plans for a joint missile defense agreement when they meet Thursday. The agreement has been the focus of talks over the past several months between Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov.
“We expect the presidents to talk about this … and it will be reflected in whatever public statements are released,” said a State Deparment official familiar with the agenda.
U.S. officials close to the talks said the State Department recently presented the Russians with a secret draft agreement on missile defense cooperation that pro-missile defense officials fear will lead to restrictions on U.S. missile defenses.
The deal was first disclosed in this column last week and prompted a harsh reaction from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who denied during a Senate hearing that there is anything secret about the missile defense talks, despite the fact that all documents, discussions and drafts shared by Mrs. Tauscher and Mr. Rybakov remain stamped “secret” or “top secret.”
Addressing the Inside the Ring report, Mrs. Clinton said, “I want to be as clear as I possibly can.
“No. 1, there is no secret deal,” she said. “No. 2, there is no plan to limit U.S. missile defenses, either in this treaty or in any other way. And No. 3, on that score, the story is dead wrong, and I want to be very clear about that because I don’t want anyone using what is yet again another inaccurate story to argue against this treaty.”
However, Mrs. Clinton went on to say that “we will continue to explore missile defense cooperation with Russia, but the talks are not secret and there is nothing on the table or even in the wildest contemplation that would involve any limits on our missile defense.”
“Instead, we’re seeking to see whether they can be expanded with additional capabilities for our system,” she said.
At the same hearing, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the Russians “hate” missile defenses, prompting missile defense officials to question whether Russian cooperation with the United States can produce anything but restrictions on U.S. defenses.
The Foreign Policy magazine blog “The Cable” reported June 17 that the U.S. and Russia are working on a framework or draft agreement on missile defense cooperation that includes data sharing, joint radar systems and similar efforts covering future cooperation.
The commander of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command was in Washington recently and told a Capitol Hill gathering of defense specialists the Navy’s current SM-3 anti-missile interceptor, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s regional missile defense plan, is being souped up so that it can eventually knock out a long-range missile.
Army Lt. Gen. Kevin T. Campbell, the commander, was asked to compare the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, with the Navy’s SM-3 missile interceptor, which has greater range and can hit targets in space.
“Now there’s probably greater potential in the SM-3 missile for some follow-on work that the Missile Defense Agency is planning, so that that missile may become in the deeper future an anti-ICBM capable missile,” Gen. Campbell said, adding that the THAAD is designed to provide defenses against missiles at a lower level of their flight.
Asked whether the Pentagon would ever deploy interceptors in space, Gen. Campbell said: “I don’t think the country is ready to go there, personally. But yeah, I would think in the future, if we had to get to that point because we found that our terrestrial systems were so limited, I suppose that would be assessed again and a determination made.”
Gen. Campbell said new sensors are being developed as part of the administration’s shift toward regional missile defenses and away from systems that can knock out long-range ICBMs. The plan, he said, calls for putting infrared sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles that can be used to detect missile launches and transmit the data to missile interceptors and other defense systems that would knock them out.
Additionally, the Pentagon recently put in orbit two new satellites that are the first step in an advanced missile launch detection system, he said at a June 17 breakfast meeting sponsored by the National Defense University Foundation and National Defense Industrial Association.
“What is proposed is that we have an infrared capability on an unmanned aerial vehicle, and that that would be a sensor suite that would be employed to support a regional architecture,” Gen. Campbell said.
The new system would allow missile defenses to plug in more sensors or missile interceptors or other “shooters,” he said. The space and airborne systems would augment ground-based sensor systems currently in place and add to the capabilities of the system.
Inside the Ring reported last week that Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, had decided not to try to filibuster the defense budget bill, which contains a repeal of the military’s gay ban.
“Sen. McCain is not filibustering the bill,” his spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, told special correspondent Rowan Scarborough.
Hours after the column appeared, Ms. Buchanan e-mailed a follow-up statement:
“I saw your story in the paper this morning and wanted to let you know that I was wrong. Sen. McCain believes a filibuster is still on the table on the pending defense authorization bill. But with that said it’s [a] bit premature to discuss floor strategy weeks before the bill hits the floor.”
The House has passed its version of the gay-ban repeal, a major campaign promise by President Obama. The Senate committee approved a repeal on generally a party line vote. It came despite strongly worded pleas from the chiefs of the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps that a vote be put off until a Pentagon study is completed.