Thursday, June 24, 2010

General You've Never Heard of Is Sacked for Dissing Ambassador You've Never Heard of Either

The news from the White House today is that President Barack Obama sacked General Stanley McChrystal, who had been leading American and other NATO troops in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The official story is that he was sacked for making comments disparaging the White House foreign policy team that were reported in an interview in Rolling Stone magazine. This included comments critical of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Vice President Joe Biden, and by implication President Obama. I suspect this is not quite true.

Gates is McChrystal's boss and Obama is his commander-in-chief. Yes, those remarks could be considered insubordinate, a firing offense in the military, but America has a long tradition that you can complain about your boss, as long as you do what your boss tells you to do. The right to complain about your boss, either behind his back or to his face, is deeply ingrained in American life. Whine about your boss all you want, no apology necessary. It's in the Constitution.

So wat was the real firing offense? I suspect that it was the remarks directed toward the State Department concerning Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. And, by extension, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

You can complain about your boss but don't dare complain about your coworkers, particularly if they work in another department. That's off limits. And it's how Secretary of State Colin Powell got pushed out of his job during the George W. Bush administration. That time it was State complaining about Defense, this time it is Defense complaining about State.

Interestingly, Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly came out in favor of keeping General McChrystal on the job. That's likely because the State Department wanted Karzai gone due to concerns about well-documented corruption in the Afghan government. The Obama Administration through the State Department all but openly supported Karzai's opponent Abdullah Abdullah in the Afghan presidential election last year. And they'd like nothing better than to write Karzai out of the post-war picture.

So to the extent there was friction as to goals between Ambassador Eikenberry and General McChrystal, Karzai seems to have allied himself with McChrystal, who had the thankless job of fighting a war against insurgents in a country whose elected leader the U.S. does not fully support. Nor should we fully support Karzai, from what I've seen. Now that balancing act goes to General David Petraeus, hero of the 2003 Iraq liberation and the 2007 Iraq surge who has been called down from his CENTCOM command to take up the fight in Afghanistan.

I have to say that I thought General Petraeus was already in charge of the Afghan war from his CENTCOM perch. A main force for the push this summer is the 101st Airborne Division, which Petraeus himself commanded back in 2003.

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