What Will Determine McChrystal's Fate?

It's already being described as President Obama's "MacArthur" moment -- the commander in chief calls his top general to the carpet for rank insubordination. Though McChrystal himself did not disregard any order or publicly differ about strategy, the optics are certainly similar: the White House is letting it be known that McChrystal has been summoned to the White House situation room to give an in-person account of his thinking. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be there, in person. (McChrystal has already apologized via telephone to Vice President Biden, an aide said.)

White House officials are seething. They're very angry at McChrystal and their rage at his staff, particularly his senior military assistant, Col. Charles Flynn, and his director of operations, Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, is beyond words. The notion that the White House isn't fully supportive of the strategy bewilders them. Obama, in their estimation, went out of his way to give McChrystal everything he asked for and has backed him by adjusting his diplomatic efforts to accommodate the vacillations of the Karzai government. Indeed, McChrystal is viewed with affection by some of Obama's top aides, though not by others, who remain wary about his past affiliations.

The anger seems to be tempered with an acknowledgment that McChrystal's fate is intertwined with Obama's. Replacing him in midstream is unlikely, even though the Pentagon has dismissed flag officers for lesser offences. It is possible, though not likely, that McChrystal will resign. The reaction from members of Congress is likely to be furious.

Another issue that will surely be on the table: the denigration of Vice President Biden. It's one thing for late night comedians to make jokes about Biden's penchant for saying what he thinks; it's another to have that impression endorsed to a worldwide audience by a top American military commander. (Make no mistake: every word of the profile, no matter who uttered it, is being attributed to McChrystal by the White House).

Tomorrow's pre-planned meeting of Obama's Afghanistan war cabinet comes amid a growing cloud of doubts about McChrystal's strategy. It is not clear whether this occasion will be used to clear the decks before December's planned review of the overall concept of operations. This concept consists of an extended 18-month deployment that would begin to scale down in July of 2011. It includes a heavy focus on counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques matched with a large footprint of special operations (SOF) forces. 

In another interview published yesterday, the Commander of the Special Operations Command, Adm. Eric Olson, expressed frustration at the mentality that COIN ought to be the warfighting strategy across theaters. It's not clear whether his comments were meant to be a knock at McChrystal, who has been deploying a heavy complement of Olson's task forces, or at Centcom commander David Petraeus, who has been given authority by the President to create and task special operations missions throughout the region. (Olson, as SOCOM's commander in chief, would normally have that authority.)

McChrystal and his team spoke to Rolling Stone in April, but they only received a copy of the article mere days ago. It is not clear when the White House was first alerted. A crisis that began with a PR decision by Duncan Boothby, the hired Pentagon consultant who helps with "strategic communications," will end with one by the White House: how will the President convey his disappointment without harming the Afghanistan strategy?  
Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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