In what is sure to be an awkward meeting, the top US commander in Afghanistan has been summoned from Kabul to meet with a “furious” President Barack Obama and his national security team.
The meeting was prompted by an article, to be published on Friday in Rolling Stone magazine, which profiled Stanley McChrystal. The interviews revealed some unguarded moments and produced candid words from the general and his staff about the civilian leadership, including Obama himself.
“The runaway general”, written by the freelance reporter Michael Hastings, contains several swipes at members of the Obama administration, including Vice-President Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke, special envoy, and the ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.
The piece gives the public a glimpse of the tensions that have been understood to exist, especially after the months of deliberation by Obama on increasing troop levels in Afghanistan in 2009.
Some of the highlights (or lowlights) of the comments by McChrystal and his staff include:
- “Are you asking about Vice-President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?” “Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite me?”
- “Oh, not another email from Holbrooke,” [McChrystal] groans. “I don’t even want to open it.”
- A McChrystal staffer called Jim Jones, national security adviser, a “clown” stuck in 1985.
- McChrystal voted for Obama in the presidential election, but members of the general’s staff said two men failed to connect in their first meeting together and that Obama seemed unprepared. After the meeting, McChrystal said Obama had looked “uncomfortable and intimidated”.
Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander-in-chief failed from the outset to connect . . . According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass.
McChrystal immediately issued an apology in a statement:
I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war, and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome.
So, is this different from any other workplace where office politics rule and people talk about the boss after work at the pub? Well, yes and no.
Differences between civilian and military leadership can be expected. But the people involved here are responsible for the lives of thousands soldiers and Afghans alike and for carrying out operations in a war that has gone on longer than the US war in Vietnam (starting from the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution). The public image of war depends on the trust given to the professionalism of civilian and military leaders.
Another question is whether the media and the public relations department of the Pentagon pulled back the curtain a bit too much on sensitive military and government affairs.
The answer is of course “No”, given that the details provided so far don’t compromise national security and, again, these are the people carrying on war in the name of US citizens. Also, the general ultimately agreed to the interview and allowed the reporter to follow the staff around.
Crucially, McChrystal was given the chance to read the article before publication, when he could have objected to it, according the Rolling Stone editor, Eric Bates.
Given these key pieces of information, why is the Pentagon PR flack who arranged the interview being asked to resign, as reported by NBC?
We will have to wait until after the president’s security briefing to see if McChrystal gets the same treatment.
UPDATE (6.55pm, 23 June): The New York Times reports McChrystal has been “relieved of his command” (ie, sacked).