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Obama confronts McChrystal over Afghan row

By Felicity Spector

Updated on 23 June 2010

As questions loom over whether the top US commander in Afghanistan will lose his job due to remarks made about the White House, Asia Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh analyses the choices facing President Obama.

General Stanley McChrystal (Getty)

For a four star general, this is a four star mess. America's top commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal has offered his resignation to President Obama after an article in Rolling Stone magazine, where his aides poured scorn on the "wimps" in the White House.

McChrystal, who is 55, has been in the job just over a year after being appointed to replace General David McKiernan who had been demanding more troops. Obama, and most of the Democrats in Congress, were anxious to avoid any escalation in the war.

But relations with the new commander have not turned out to be much smoother, even though Obama ended up largely endorsing the McChrystal strategy.

Afghanistan and the McChrystal row: Obama’s political anvil
For President Obama, Afghanistan began as a choice of what was morally or practically right and is fast becoming a case of what is politically expedient, writes Asia Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh.

A longer and messier war is not what any Democrat incumbent would choose to get into, but at the same time, no US president could get out of Kabul without facing accusations he'd let go of the frontline in the war on terror.

With General McChrystal's recent bumbling, that choice between the politically and practically expedient will again come to the fore. It is politically expedient to fire McChrystal immediately: putting the personal sniping aside, the special forces veteran has clearly expressed in his Rolling Stone profile a clear vote of no confidence in most of Obama's national security team and appeared to doubt the commitment and understanding of the commander in chief himself.

Practically, however, firing McChrystal would be tantamount to accepting defeat in Afghanistan. America knows that Afghan President Karzai is a spent force and an unsuitable partner for their grand schemes, but the short timetable they're on means they put up with his alleged corruption and the rigging of an election, and just played the hand they have. They had no choice.

With McChrystal, they do have a choice about whether or not he stays, but face an even tighter timetable if they try to bring in a replacement. He is, essentially, the counterinsurgency strategy.

His relationship with Karzai is much heralded - indeed he is the only senior American to remain on good terms with the Kabul chief. He's the one putting emphasis on a drop in civilian casualties, and on governance.

These ideas are not his alone - but part of a broader strategic rethink. But he is the man who's had to put them into play and put into place subordinates who can get it right. Changing him means rethinking the chain of command in the field at an absolutely vital time: the offensive to retake Kandahar should have already started and is imminent. They've got six months to show progress.

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Back in the autumn the general was upbraided after he writing a report secretly requesting 40,000 more troops to fight the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. A warning that the entire mission could fail if he did not get them did not go down well either, nor a comment he made in London that the counter-terrorism strategy favoured by Vice President Biden would lead to "Chaos-istan".

When the troop request leaked out the White House was forced into a decision it had not wanted to make; either ignore their commander in the field, or send in the reinforcements. In the end, Obama agreed to deploy an extra 30,000 troops, although he pledged to begin withdrawing them by July 2011.

Another hallmark of McChrystal's strategy were new rules of engagement designed to reduce the number of civilian casualties. That has proved one his main achievements, with deaths down by 44 per cent so far this year.

But the other key plank of his surge strategy appears to be faltering: the massive offensive to drive out the Taliban from its strongholds in southern Afghanistan was supposed to "turn the tide" against the insurgents. But it is going more slowly than planned with almost daily firefights and no great breakthrough following the surge.

US military casualties are rising passing the milestone of 1,000 dead earlier this month. Even more problematic, there's no sign whether Obama will be able to start pulling out US troops by his deadline in July of next year.

According to Rolling Stone's executive editor Eric Bates there is a bigger issue looming behind McChrystal's comments in the magazine: "There is a war within the administration over the war, there has been from the get-go. And what these comments really underscore is that the diplomatic, political and military sides are not acting in concert."

More from Channel 4 News
- McChrystal summoned to White House over Rolling Stone article
- Analysis: McChrystal row threatens Afghan strategy

McChrystal has now arrived at the White House for face to face talks with the president. Obama has been anxious to show he will not act out of anger, but in the best interests of the military situation on the ground.

His decision, he said, would be "determined on how I can make sure we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice that these men and women are making over there, and that ultimately makes this country safe".

And, just in case, the names of possible replacements are already being mooted: top of the list, the outgoing head of US Joint Forces Command, General James Marris. Lieutenant General William Caldwell, commander of Nato's training mission in Afghanistan, is another possible contender.

But experts are warning this is not a good time to change the officer in charge: US forces are on the brink of a major new push into Kandahar and summer usually brings the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan. Add to that the simmering war of words with President Karzai's regime and the reports of burgeoning differences over tactics within the Obama administration itself.

Either way, there is no easy outcome from today's White House meeting. As today's edition of military newspaper Stars and Stripes puts it:  "President Obama faces two grim McChrystal and risk looking like he's lost control of the war in Afghanistan. Or keep him and risk looking like he's lost control of his generals."

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