President Obama said Wednesday he had accepted the resignation of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, bringing to an ignominious end the storied but sometimes controversial career of one of the country’s top soldiers.
Mr. Obama, who angrily summoned Gen. McChrystal to Washington after the general and several aides disparaged senior members of the administration in a series of interviews with Rolling Stone magazine, said he had accepted the resignation “with considerable regret, but also with certainty that it is the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military and for our country.”
The president said he was nominating Gen. David H. Petraeus, the current head of U.S. Central Command, to take over from Gen. McChrystal “which will allow us to maintain the momentum and leadership that we need to succeed.”
A White House official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that Gen. Petraeus, to whom Gen. McChrystal reported as U.S. Afghan commander, would step down as head of Centcom to take on his new role, but denied that the move was a demotion.
“He certainly doesn’t see it like that,” the official said of Gen. Petraeus, considered one of the nation’s foremost military experts on counterinsurgency and the man credited with turning around the U.S. military’s performance in Iraq. “It’s exactly where the biggest stakes are in national security right now, and he is exactly the right man for the job.”
It was not clear whether Gen. McChrystal’s military career is officially over, but Mr. Obama spoke in valedictory terms about the general’s military service, saying “all Americans should be grateful for General McChrystal’s remarkable career in uniform.”
Gen. McChrystal released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying that he stepped down out of “a desire to see the mission succeed” and that he had faith in the Afghanistan mission and his successors.
The president’s Rose Garden announcement capped a day of frenzied speculation about the fallout from the profanity-laced Rolling Stone article, in which Gen. McChrystal accused Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, of “cover[ing] his flank for the history books,” and his aides called National Security Adviser James L. Jones, a retired Marine general, “a clown” and compared special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke to “a wounded animal.”
“In private,” says the piece, headlined “The Runaway General,” “Team McChrystal likes to talk [s—t] about many of Obama’s top people.” Discussing possible press questions he might get about some recent criticisms he had made of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., McChrystal reportedly joked “Biden? Who’s that?”
Flanked by Gen. Petraeus, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and a sour-faced Mr. Biden, the president said he had not acted “based on any difference in policy with Gen. McChrystal,” or “out of any sense of personal insult.”
“The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general,” Mr. Obama added. “It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.”
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, Gen. McChrystal’s British deputy would temporarily be taking over Gen. McChrystal’s role as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan “pending Gen. Petraeus’s confirmation by Congress.”
The White House official said Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, Gen. McChrystal’s U.S. deputy would remain in day-to-day charge of U.S. forces. He said no decision had yet been made about a successor for Gen. Petraeus as Centcom commander.
Bernard Finel, director of research at the American Security Project, a bipartisan think tank headed by former Sen. Gary Hart, Colorado Democrat, said that the front-runner appeared to be Adm. James G. Stavridis, the commander of U.S. European Command.
Officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue said they expected a swift and trouble-free confirmation for Gen. Petraeus, who had been asked to take the job in a 40-minute meeting with Mr. Obama shortly after the president accepted Gen. McChrystal’s resignation.
“I am extraordinarily grateful that he has agreed to serve in this new capacity,” said Mr. Obama, adding he was doing so “at great personal sacrifice to himself and to his family,” and was “setting an extraordinary example of service and patriotism by assuming this difficult post.”
Senate hearings have been scheduled for next Tuesday.
The Petraeus nomination was “a politically very savvy move,” Mr. Finel said, because “it should neutralize any criticism from the right. He is the master of counterinsurgency.”
Nonetheless, while personally praising Gen. Petraeus, some Republicans voiced their anxiety about the task he was taking on, given the escalating violence in Afghanistan and what some regard as an arbitrary and dangerous deadline set by the president to begin withdrawing U.S. troops next summer.
“General Petraeus is an outstanding military leader,” said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican and the ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “but even he can’t win in Afghanistan if the president continues to insist on an arbitrary withdrawal date — a fact our enemies are counting on and our allies fear.”
Mr. Finel said the timeline the president demanded would be “easy to fudge.”
“You send one brigade home, but you extend a couple of others and before you know it, you have as many troops there as ever,” he said.
He added that, having been asked by the president to take what is in many ways a step down, Gen. Petraeus would have “tremendous leverage.”
“It will be very, very hard to refuse him anything he asks,” Mr. Finel said, adding that he expected a “shake up of senior people in Kabul, with a number of people who were close to McChrystal [leaving.]”
Though his words were far more politic than Gen. McChrystal’s, Gen. Petraeus told Congress at a hearing last week that Mr. Obama’s July 2011 target date to start pulling U.S. forces from Afghanistan should be put off until the security situation in Afghanistan was ready to handle such a pullout.