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Washington Weighs Gen. McChrystal Replacement

4 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
Two Marine generals, John Allen and Jim Mattis, are on the list of potential replacements for Gen. Stanley McChrystal as he flies to Washington for a grim meeting Wednesday with President Barack Obama.

McChrystal, the hard-charging top combat commander in Afghanistan, was abruptly recalled to Washington on Tuesday, hours after White House officials read the critical comments and crude remarks the four-star general and his staff had made to a magazine journalist about administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden.

McChrystal reportedly submitted his resignation Tuesday.

President Obama said McChrystal had "showed poor judgment'' in his comments reported by Rolling Stone, but added he would make no decisions about the general's future until he met with him at the White House.

The firestorm over McChrystal's remarks could not have come at a worse time for the Obama White House. Six months into a new strategy and with fresh troops pouring into the country, battle casualties are rising, the war seems stalemated, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai appears to be more and more unsuited to the task of leading Afghanistan into a stable future. Obama's gamble -- that dispatching 30,000 more troops for a year would turn the situation around -- seemed to rest almost entirely on McChrystal's shoulders.

Until now.

Officials in Washington are scrambling to scrub potential replacements should McChrystal's command prove unsalvageable. Apart from Mattis and Allen, attention has focused on Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who currently runs day-to-day combat operations in Afghanistan while McChrystal focuses on strategic military-political issues.

Selecting Rodriguez, officials pointed out, would enable a seamless transition of command, while it would take either Mattis or Allen some months to settle in with their own battle staffs.

More Stanley McChrystal Coverage:

- McChrystal Relieved of Duty; Petraeus to Take Command in Afghanistan
- Transcript of President Obama's Remarks on Gen. Stanley McChrystal
- David Wood: Combat Troops Rally Behind McChrystal
- Walter Shapiro: McChrystal, Afghanistan, and the Era of Foreign Policy Austerity
- David Corn: Will a McChrystal Dismissal Be Bad News for War Critics?

Mattis, who commanded combat troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is due to leave his job as the head of Joint Forces Command at the end of the summer. He was passed over when President Obama nominated Gen. James F. Amos as the next commandant of the Marine Corps.

Allen, who commanded a Marine brigade in Iraq, is deputy commander of U.S. Central Command under Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees all military operations in the Middle East region.

The controversial comments by McChrystal and his top aides were made over the course of a month during which freelance journalist Michael Hastings had apparently unfettered access to McChrystal's staff in Kabul. Hastings' subsequent article in Rolling Stone reflected some of the hubris and coarse humor common to combat commands in the stress of wartime.

McChrystal's personal staff at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the multinational military force in Afghanistan, is a tight-knit group of highly accomplished combat officers and senior enlisted soldiers and Marines. In common with other wartime commands, many of them feel they understand the fight better than anyone on the outside -- especially members of Congress and White House officials, who drop in for a quick visit and go on to pontificate on the Sunday TV talk shows. In particular, some of his staff have voiced disdain for junior (but powerful) White House aides who, as one dusty, combat-decorated officer put it, were "carrying suitcases for candidate Obama only a few months ago.''

The most damaging remark attributed directly to McChrystal in the Rolling Stone piece involved poking fun at Biden, who had been critical of the counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal had proposed last summer. Imagining themselves dismissing Biden as irrelevant, McChrystal joked "...Biden? Who's that?'' A senior aide chimed in: "Biden? Did you say 'Bite me?'''

So what? That question consumed political and military circles Tuesday. The consensus seemed to swing against McChrystal, an acknowledged counterinsurgency expert who has spent most of his career in the uncompromisingly rough world of special operations. But even some fellow officers faulted him for allowing the coarse locker room horseplay common to commando platoons and companies to seep into the higher echelons of command.

And for allowing a reporter to witness it.

"Commanders who indulge in sloppy, tough guy, cowboy lingo -- 'smack-down, scumbags,' etc. -- tend to run sloppy, tough guy, cowboy operations,'' said an experienced combat commander. "Units, and especially staffs, tend to adopt the language and demeanor of their commander. ... Applause lines in the testosterone-driven subculture of combat units are not likely to play well on CNN.''

Said another soldier, a retired officer: "This was an incredibly dumb thing to do and probably has compromised, to some degree, his ability to command. Again, this reminds us that you can have great doctrine and the world's best-trained soldiers, but if the people on top are flawed, then your war isn't going to go well.''

U.S. constitutional law and the strong tradition of the U.S. military officer corps draw a razor-sharp distinction between the military and its civilian commanders.

Indeed, military law -- Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) -- requires that "any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department'' and on through a long list of public officials "...shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.''

Few are demanding that McChrystal be court-martialed. But the disappointment in McChrystal, who is widely admired in Washington and elsewhere as an upright professional soldier and one who might be able to win in Afghanistan, was resounding on Tuesday.

"I was disappointed ...'' began a statement issued by the staunchly pro-military Ike Skelton, the crusty Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. Notably, Skelton's statement did not say McChrystal should be kept on in command, only that the chairman hopes "we will be able to sort this out soon and move forward so we can get back to winning the war. Nothing,'' Skelton added, "is more important than defeating the terrorists.''

In a similar fashion, a statement by three reliably pro-military senators, Joe Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, said McChrystal's comments were "inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between commander-in-chief and the military.''

The three did not call for the general to be kept in place, but merely noted that that decision was "to be made by the president.''

The general is scheduled to meet with Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has already issued a scathing statement calling McChrystal's behavior a "distraction'' from war-fighting. That's bad enough. But recall that Gates has a bright history of abruptly firing senior officials and general officers who don't measure up to his standards.

Just ask former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Gen. Michael Moseley, former Air Force chief of staff, who were fired two years ago for poor performance (among other problems, the Air Force had lost track of several nuclear weapons).

Indeed, McChrystal got his job just over 13 months ago because Gates abruptly fired his predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, for lackluster battlefield performance.

At the time, Gates explained, in words that seem to resonate today: "We can and must do better.''

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