The end of Team McChrystal

By Lyse Doucet
BBC News

Image caption,
Gen McChrystal with Lyse Doucet, paying more attention to "outside messaging". Photo: US Navy Petty Officer First Class Mark O'Donald

A year and a week since he took command of the conflict some call "Obama's war", Gen Stanley McChrystal's star has fallen - fast.

Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama's decision to relieve the general of his duties after a controversial article in Rolling Stone magazine sends a strong signal about his approach to a war that has run into trouble on almost every front.

In dismissing Gen McChrystal, the president made it clear this war was much bigger than any individual, even one as valuable as his commanding officer.

When I first spoke to Gen McChrystal a year ago in Kabul, I asked how he would deal with the pressure of being the "poster boy" for what had become America's most crucial war.

He replied: "I've brought a lot of good people with me."

Team McChrystal, or Team America as some called it, was fiercely loyal, dedicated, confident and full of the soldiers and advisers who had worked closely with him in Iraq or studied with him years ago at the West Point military academy.

They worked hard with a commander legendary for his ascetic lifestyle and punishing work ethic.

But with their unguarded remarks, reported in Rolling Stone, expressing contempt for civilian members of Team Obama, they may bring their boss Gen McChrystal crashing down just when the Afghan campaign is running into trouble.

'Cult of McChrystal'

The Rolling Stone article highlights how President Obama has long had an even bigger decision to make. His Afghan team is widely regarded as dysfunctional. There is an astonishing web of animosities and rivalries between key civilian and military players.

One of Gen McChrystal's aides said he had not shown anger when he was informed of the article's contents and had taken full responsibility for the error in judgement.

And then, also true to form, he went back to work the next morning, focusing on the Afghan campaign, before he flew to Washington for what is certain to be the most important White House visit of his career.

A senior British military source said he heard rumblings a few weeks ago about Washington's unhappiness with how the war was being too closely identified with this hard-driving, charismatic general.

You hear talk of the "cult of McChrystal".

For his team, he was the man to get the job done and they wanted the world to know it.

Civilian adviser Duncan Boothby, who played a key role in arranging and overseeing the Rolling Stone article, spent time forging good working relationships with the media, including the BBC. He submitted his resignation soon after the story made headlines around the world.

When the annals of this year's volcanic ash cloud crisis are written, this article may count as another consequence of the Icelandic eruption: the writer, Michael Hastings, ended up spending more time than expected with the general and his closest aides. They were stuck in Paris when flights were grounded for several days.

Image caption,
McChrystal with Karl Eikenberry, one of the subjects of his criticisms

As news of this story broke, some senior civilian and military officials, speaking off the record, spoke of the general's naivety when it came to the tricky world of media and politics.

And yet, on the day Gen McChrystal took command in June last year it was noticeable how he immediately engaged with the press - following a predecessor who did not regard it as a key component of his job.

In an interview in late April in Kabul I also noticed how Gen McChrystal had started to pay more attention to what he called "outside messaging". He had clearly begun to worry about how the campaign and its progress was being represented to an outside world, where criticism and scepticism were mounting.

He expressed anger that a much-quoted phrase - "a bleeding ulcer" - he had used on a visit to Marjah in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan had been misrepresented.

There was joshing among his aides about who had come up with the "government in a box" phrase, meant to refer to a quick and effective transition to Afghan government control after the Taliban were pushed back in key areas.

The reality had turned out to be much slower, much messier.

One Western military officer who served in Afghanistan insisted there were many other generals who could take command if Gen McChrystal had to go.

Some have pointed out that his much-vaunted counter-insurgency approach had started under his predecessor, Gen David McKiernan, who had been summarily sacked by President Obama.

But Gen McChrystal put his own stamp on the current strategy, including key aspects such as the need to "protect the population" and avoid civilian casualties.

It is a policy that has been criticised by some of his own troops on the ground but has earned him much praise from Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai.

On the ground, Gen McChrystal had the most effective working relationship of any foreigner with an Afghan leader who can be unpredictable and suspicious of the Nato-led war effort.

The general did more than any other Western official, either civilian or military, to try to turn President Karzai into a more effective commander-in-chief. President Karzai has travelled more across Afghanistan in the past year than he has in the nine years since he first took charge in late 2001.

When I last saw the general, he had a lot on his mind and it showed.

He did not rise to the kind of ringing statements on the decisive campaign in Kandahar province he had used only a month before. But he still insisted he believed they could win.

I once asked Afghan Defence Minister Gen Rahim Wardak what he thought of the general. He replied that he believed Gen McChrystal was the first US commander since 2001 to put his own career on the line in his Afghan campaign.

Today, more than any other day, he did exactly that.

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