Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, in Kandahar earlier this week.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, in Kandahar earlier this week. David Gilkey/NPR
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has been summoned to Washington to explain himself and derisive comments about top officials in the Obama administration, including the president and the vice president.
The comments by McChrystal and members of his staff were reported in Rolling Stone magazine, and have raised serious questions about whether the administration's pick to turn around the war in Afghanistan may end up losing his job.
McChrystal has been ordered to attend the monthly White House meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan in person Wednesday.
In a statement released Tuesday in Kabul, McChrystal, 55, apologized for what he called a mistake reflecting poor judgment. "I extend my sincerest apology for this profile," the statement said. "It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened."
But it may be too late.
At the White House on Tuesday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wouldn't guarantee that McChrystal's job is safe.
"Let's be clear, Gen. McChrystal has fought bravely of behalf of this country for a long time," Gibbs said. "No one could or should take that away from him. And nobody will. But there has clearly been an enormous mistake in judgment to which he's going to have to answer to."
McChrystal is quoted poking fun at Vice President Joe Biden and deriding the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, as someone who "covers his flank for the history books."
The statements reflect a tension between the military and the administration that came to a head last fall during a long debate over what strategy to take in Afghanistan. Obama agreed to dispatch an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan after months of contemplating the next steps in the war.
Biden was pushing for fewer troops, while McChrystal wanted more and he talked publicly about the difference of opinion.
"I discount immediately anyone who simplifies the problem or offers a solution or says they raise one finger and say this is what you've got to do," McChrystal said in a speech in London last October. "Because they absolutely have no clue about the complexity we're dealing with."
That speech was seen as a dig at Biden and triggered a personal reprimand from Obama.
Now it's happening again.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that McChrystal has made a "significant mistake" and "exercised poor judgment."
"I frankly think that Secretary Gates has fired people for offenses that are no greater than this," says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "I also think he's never needed someone as much as he needs McChrystal for a war that is crucial and that has not yet turned the corner."
McChrystal has admitted that a key military operation under way in Kandahar is going to take longer than expected. And U.S. forces are still weighed down in the southern Afghan area of Marjah, where American commanders say they made mistakes.
Still, until now, the administration has publicly supported McChrystal and his counterinsurgency strategy. McChrystal was named to the job soon after Obama took office in 2009, replacing Gen. David McKiernan on grounds that the military needed a new approach to the war in Afghanistan.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the McChrystal comments present a dilemma.
"If you are going to ask Gen. McChrystal to resign, and if allied forces or countries or people at a political level react too much, the president will have little choice. But if he has that discretion, who would do as well or better?" Cordesman says.
That's a question no one in the administration expected to have to ask — especially now — as U.S. forces face what could be the most crucial 12 months in the war to date.