WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said he would decide whether to fire the top U.S. general in Afghanistan after they meet on Wednesday, citing Stanley McChrystal’s “poor judgment” in an article that mocked Obama’s senior advisers.
The decision is fraught with risk for Obama, who faces the difficult choice of shaking up command of an unpopular and costly war just six months after ordering 30,000 more troops into the fight against the Taliban.
McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan and architect of Obama’s war strategy, was summoned back to Washington to explain his “enormous mistake” to the president, the White House said.
Obama’s spokesman said “all options were on the table” but the president stressed he wanted to speak to McChrystal first.
“I think it is clear that the article in which he and his team appear showed poor judgment ... but I also want to make sure I talk to him directly before I make any final decision,” said Obama, speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting.
U.S. officials said they expected McChrystal to offer his resignation and allow Obama to decide whether to accept it.
The 55-year-old commander has apologized for the article in Rolling Stone magazine, which quotes his aides calling one top Obama official a “clown” and another a “wounded animal.”
In the article "The Runaway General" -- here -- McChrystal himself makes belittling remarks about Vice President Joe Biden and the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.
McChrystal’s departure would add to already growing uncertainty about the course of the nine-year-war just one year after his predecessor, General David McKiernan, was pushed out of the same job.
The controversy could also weaken Obama, either making him look soft on insubordination if he lets McChrystal stay or potentially irresponsible if he fires the top general leading an already difficult war effort.
“The White House has to make it pretty tough on (McChrystal) because he was clearly insubordinate. Then they have to decide what to do with him,” said a senior Obama administration official. “It’s a real dilemma.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama became “angry” when he saw the article, due to be published in Rolling Stone on Friday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said McChrystal had “made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment.” Admiral Mike Mullen, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the top U.S. military officer, expressed his “deep disappointment.”
McChrystal, in an apparent attempt to save his job, reached out to Gates and other officials to say he was sorry.
“It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened,” McChrystal said in a statement.
Lawmakers were split over whether he might have to go, with most leaving the decision to Obama.
“Everyone needs to take a deep breath and give the president and his national security team the space to decide what is in the best interest of our mission,” said Senator John Kerry, a leading Democrat who is close to Obama.
Defense officials say they have confidence that a suitable replacement could be found for McChrystal if he is fired.
Possible successors include Lieutenant-General David Rodriguez, who is now McChrystal’s No. 2; Lieutenant-General William Caldwell, who runs the NATO training mission for Afghan forces; and General James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai fully backed McChrystal and “believes he is the best commander the United States has sent to Afghanistan over the last nine years,” a spokesman said.
The Rolling Stone article, which quoted several McChrystal aides anonymously, portrays a split between the U.S. military and Obama’s advisers at an extremely sensitive moment for the Pentagon, which is fending off criticism of its strategy to turn around the Afghan war.
“It certainly isn’t going to help relations between the White House and this building,” one defense official said.
The article quotes a member of McChrystal’s team making jokes about Biden, who was seen as critical of the general’s efforts to escalate the conflict and who had favored a more limited counter-terrorism approach.
“Biden?” the aide was quoted as saying. “Did you say: Bite me?”
McChrystal himself quipped: “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?”
“Who’s that?” he asked.
He also belittled Holbrooke. One aide said McChrystal had compared the special envoy to a “wounded animal.”
“Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,” McChrystal groaned while checking his BlackBerry during a trip to Paris, according to the magazine. “I don’t even want to open it.”
One of McChrystal’s aides called White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a retired four-star general, a “clown” who was “stuck in 1985.”
The article also quoted an adviser to McChrystal dismissing an early meeting with Obama as a “10-minute photo op.”
“Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his (expletive) war, but he didn’t seem very engaged,” the adviser told the magazine. “The boss was pretty disappointed.”
The White House, asked about whether Obama was in fact disengaged, said McChrystal would have Obama’s undivided attention on Wednesday.
“I think anybody that reads that article understands ... what an enormous mistake this was, given the fact that mothers and fathers all over this country are sending their children halfway across the world to participate in this,” Gibbs said.
He added that parents of troops needed to know their military was “capable and mature enough.”
“I think that is one of the things that the president will look to discuss tomorrow,” he said.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull, Will Dunham, Matt Spetalnick, Jeff Mason, Susan Cornwell and Deborah Charles in Washington, David Fox and Jonathon Burch in Kabul; Editing by Patricia Wilson and John O'Callaghan