WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House summoned the top U.S. general in Afghanistan to Washington to explain remarks critical of the Obama administration, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, as speculation grew that he could be ousted.
The unusual move comes a day after General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, apologized for comments by his aides insulting some of President Barack Obama’s closest advisers in an article to be published in Rolling Stone magazine.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a hard-nosed manager who has proven his willingness to fire top Pentagon officials if needed, including McChrystal’s predecessor, spoke to McChrystal on Monday, a defense official said. But officials did not disclose details of those talks.
Asked whether McChrystal would be fired, a U.S. defense official said: “That’s a significant move, to pull a commander out of the field.”
“The president wants to have a conversation. We’ll see where it goes from there,” the official said, calling the incident an “unfortunate distraction at a critical time” in the nearly nine-year-old Afghan war.
Admiral Mike Mullen, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the top U.S. military officer, expressed in a call to McChrystal his “deep disappointment” with the article “and with the comments expressed therein,” a spokesman said.
The controversy comes at a difficult time for Obama, who already is dealing with the huge BP Plc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, trying to get financial industry reform legislation through Congress and hoping to prevent Republicans from taking back control of Congress from his fellow Democrats in November elections.
It also comes just six months after Obama backed McChrystal’s request for more troops, escalating an unpopular conflict in which costs and casualties are rising.
An Obama administration official said McChrystal had been directed to appear in person at Wednesday’s Afghanistan meeting at the White House “to explain to the Pentagon and the commander-in-chief his quotes in the piece about his colleagues.”
“I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened,” McChrystal said in a statement on Monday.
He was expected to leave Kabul in the coming hours but the timing of his departure was not immediately clear.
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 Afghanistan war.
It quotes a member of McChrystal’s team making jokes about Vice President Joe 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?”
Another aide called White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a retired four-star general, a “clown” who was “stuck in 1985.”
McChrystal was quoted as saying he felt “betrayed” by the leak of a classified cable from U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry last year. The cable raised doubts about sending more troops to shore up an Afghan government already lacking in credibility.
McChrystal took command of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in June 2009 after his predecessor General David McKiernan was removed for what most experts interpreted as a sign Washington was losing patience with conventional tactics that failed to quell mounting violence.
Gates said on Sunday that McChrystal and other military leaders are confident that the campaign against Taliban insurgents, particularly in southern Afghanistan, is moving in the right direction.
He also said it was too early to be able to say how many U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan and how quickly they would leave when a planned drawdown began in July 2011.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said over the weekend that the July 2011 drawdown date was “firm,” adding that Washington was seeing signs that the Afghan government was making headway on security.
Additional reporting by Will Dunham and Jeff Mason, editing by Patricia Wilson and Will Dunham