x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Petraeus to head US military in Afghan war as McChrystal goes

Obama dismisses commander after magazine gaffe, then replaces him with his mentor and superior officer.

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama yesterday sacked his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, and unexpectedly replaced him with his superior and mentor, Gen David Petraeus. The US president said he believed the decision to relieve Gen McChrystal was the "right decision for national security" prompted by a sense of duty to US soldiers serving abroad. In a sign of how contentious the war in Afghanistan has become in Washington, it was the second change in US military leadership there in 15 months.

Gen McChrystal's position became untenable after a profile of him was published this week in Rolling Stone magazine in which he and his staff spoke critically and contemptuously about senior US officials. The remarks were viewed by many military observers as insubordination and a violation of the military code of conduct. Many former officers had called for Gen McChrystal's resignation. Mr Obama said his conduct did not "meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general". He added: "It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system, and it erodes the trust that is necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan. Our democracy depends on institutions that are stronger than individuals. That includes strict adherence to the military chain of command and respect for civilian control over that chain of command." "I have a responsibility to do whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan and in our broader effort to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qa'eda," the president said. "I believe that this mission demands unity of effort across our alliance and across our national security team. And I don't think that we can sustain that unity of effort and achieve our objective in Afghanistan without making this change."

The command shakeup comes as the US war effort enters a critical phase and as support for the war has eroded and casualties have mounted. The United States is preparing a major offensive in Kandahar province that Gen Petraeus told legislators last week is the most critical operation of the war. A recent military offensive in the town of Marja, meanwhile, has progressed more slowly than expected. The decision to appoint Gen Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, is seen as a politically safe move for Mr Obama, given the awkward situation he was put in by Gen McChrystal's comments, which left him a choice between two bad options: keeping the general and risking the perception that he did not have the support of his commanders and was weak, or firing him and risking the perception that war effort was off-track. Gen Petraeus orchestrated the US troop surge in Iraq that helped turn the tide in that war. He has the respect of many US legislators and is seen as far more media-savvy and politically adept than the loose-lipped Gen McChrystal, whose aides were quoted in the Rolling Stone article as saying Mr Obama appeared "uncomfortable and intimidated" during his first meeting with the general.

The appointment of Gen Petraeus is likely to stave off, at least for the moment, any perception that the military command is in disarray. Gen McChrystal becomes the second wartime commander to be removed in just over a year. In May 2009, Robert Gates, the defence secretary, fired Gen David McKiernan. On that occasion, it was the first time a top general had been sacked in wartime since President Harry Truman fired Gen Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. Mr Obama attempted to assuage any concerns that the change would be a setback for US troops. "This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy," he said, adding that Gen Petraeus "supported and helped design" the current US war strategy, which has included the addition of tens of thousands of US troops, many of whom have yet to arrive on the battlefield. "He has my full confidence," Mr Obama said.

However, politicians have been increasingly concerned about the direction of the war. Gen Petraeus and Robert Gates, the defence secretary, were summoned to Capitol Hill last week to answer pointed questions about continued Afghan corruption, increasing casualties and the overall prospect of success. The US military death toll in Afghanistan reached 1,000 last month. Mr Obama had vowed to begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan starting next summer and the administration and military commanders are eager to achieve some measurable success before then. He said the decision to relieve Gen McChrystal was not an easy one to make. "It saddens me to lose the service of a soldier who I've come to respect and admire," he said. Earlier, the president had met privately with the general at the White House for 30 minutes. The general was seen leaving the White House and did not return for a larger meeting on Afghanistan in the White House situation room with other top advisers.

The sentiment expressed in Rolling Stone by Gen McChrystal and his staff reveal deep divisions among some of Mr Obama's top officials in Afghanistan, including Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and the US ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eickenberry. Mr Obama called for an end to the infighting and for a new show of unity. "Now is the time for all of us to come together. Doing so is not an option, but an obligation," he said. "I welcome debate among my team but I won't tolerate division," Mr Obama said. "All of us have personal interests, all of us have opinions. Our politics often fuels conflict, but we have to renew our sense of common purpose. "We need to remember what this is all about," he said. "Our nation is at war." sstanek@thenational.ae