McChrystal out; Gen. Petraeus picked to take reins of war effort in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama relieved Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his command Wednesday and tapped the general’s boss to replace him as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Obama said his decision to accept McChrystal’s resignation was not related to policy disagreements or any “personal insult,” but noted the inflammatory remarks in Rolling Stone magazine do “not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general.”

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Gen. David Petraeus, McChrystal’s media-savvy commanding officer who oversaw the successful troop surge in Iraq, was asked to take over in another troubled war zone. Obama called on the Senate to confirm Petraeus “as swiftly as possible.”

Obama made the announcement in the Rose Garden on Wednesday and, in a strong show of military support, was surrounded by Petraeus, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden.

In his remarks, he repeatedly and harshly faulted McChrystal for breaking the chain of command.

“The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general,” Obama said. “It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.”

McChrystal was subject to a firestorm of controversy  Tuesday after Rolling Stone posted its profile of the general, which contained several derogatory comments about Obama’s national security team. He was recalled to Washington to discuss the situation and met with Obama for 30 minutes in the Oval Office on Wednesday morning.

Obama’s decision to replace him with Petraeus was met with nearly universal approval from congressional Republicans, and one former Bush National Security Council (NSC) staffer called it a “brilliant tactical move by President Obama.”

The president said he discussed “the way forward” with Petraeus on Wednesday morning, and noted the new commander does not represent any break from the administration’s policy in Afghanistan.

“Let me say to the American people, this is a change in personnel,” Obama said. “It is not a change in policy.”

Obama lauded McChrystal’s service to the country, saying “it saddens me to lose the service of a soldier I’ve come to respect and admire.”

The president used the occasion to call for unity on his national security team.

“Now is the time for all of us to come together. Doing so is not an option but an obligation,” Obama said. “I welcome debate among my team, but I won’t tolerate division.

“We need to remember what this is about,” he said. “Our nation is at war.”

By nominating Petraeus, someone well-liked in both parties on Capitol Hill and who has a recent history of successful warfare, Obama assured the general will receive full backing in the Senate for his confirmation.

But Petraeus will also face a barrage of questions from Democrats and Republicans who have voiced strong concern over the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The Army general will be put on the spot regarding a July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Both Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and his GOP counterpart, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), on Wednesday indicated they fully support the president’s decision to nominate Petraeus.

“Petraeus’s appointment is a strong appointment and makes it clear there is no gap” in terms of command, Levin said. Levin added that Petraeus would not have agreed to take on the Afghanistan post “if he felt he wasn’t up to the challenge.”

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McCain said that he applauded the appointment, but added it was important to have a hearing with Petraeus “to get an answer on [whether] the situation with regards to withdrawal in the middle of 2011 is condition-based or an arbitrary date.”

But he noted Petraeus would have “the quickest confirmation in the history of the Senate.” There were reports the confirmation hearing could begin as early as Friday; Levin said they would begin as late as Tuesday.

Obama informed key foreign and domestic leaders about his decision by phone, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Levin, McCain and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), according to one official.

The official added that National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones called his counterparts in NATO countries to tell them.

Last week, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Petraeus faced intense grilling from senators on the July 2011 date Obama set to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

At the time, Petraeus emphasized that Obama sought to convey two messages with the July 2011 timeline: one of an “enormous additional commitment” of troops and other resources, and one “for urgency.”

Petraeus said July 2011 is the beginning of a process for transition that is “conditions-based.”

And he created some suspense when he paused for what seemed a fairly long time after Levin asked him whether his statement of continued support for Obama’s policy represented his best “personal” and “professional judgment.”

“In a perfect world, Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful with timelines,” Petraeus eventually hedged.

“There was a nuance to what the president said that was very important, that did not imply a race for the exits.”
Petraeus characterized his answer as a “qualified yes.”

The four-star general, who is now the head of Central Command, would essentially take a step down from his current perch to become the Afghanistan commander. As the combatant commander in charge of military operations in a region that includes Afghanistan and Iraq, Petraeus was McChrystal’s commanding officer.

By appointing Petraeus, the White House made it clear that it was not stepping away from support for the counterinsurgency tactics implemented by McChrystal. Petraeus has been a backer of those tactics as well.
Petraeus, 57, is considered very adept politically and successful at managing his image. The Army general, who enjoyed a close relationship with former president George W. Bush, was propelled into the spotlight for overseeing the troop surge in Iraq almost two years ago.

His popularity during the Iraq troop surge also earned him an infamous attack from the liberal group MoveOn.org, which referred to Petraeus as “Gen. Betray Us.” There also has been talk he’s a future presidential candidate — a rumor he has shot down.


J. Taylor Rushing and Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.

This story was originally posted at 2:06 p.m. and updated at 8:56 p.m.