Obama had no choice but to axe top general

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The Gazette, Saturday, June 26, 2010

Barack Obama had little choice but to fire General Stanley McChrystal as field commander in Afghanistan.

McChrystal's scornful and derisive comments about the president, Vice President Joe Biden, and the entire White House national security team, made in a remarkably reckless interview with Rolling Stone magazine, left Obama with little alternative.

In the U.S. chain of command, the president is the commander-in-chief, symbol izing civilian authority over the military. McChrystal's scathing comments, and those of his senior staff, constituted rank insubordination.

Moreover, McChrystal was openly scornful of the U.S. policy of a troop surge now with a drawdown beginning i-nJulyof nextyear. Thecom mander in theatre was openly skeptical of a strategy that he h-imself endorsedduringin tense consultations with the White House last fall.

The choice of General David Petraeus, McChrystal's boss, as his replacement, should sooth any concerns in the U.S. military and among N-ATOallies, includingCan ada. Petraeus is among the m-ostsuccessfulU. S. fieldcom manders since the Second World War, architect of the successful surge in Iraq, coauthor of the U.S. counterinsurgency manual, universally well regarded in U.S. and N-ATOcapitals, andextreme lysavvyinthewaysof the media. Now head of the U.S. C-entral Command, which in cludes Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus is taking a step d-ownfromacareerpathlead ing perhaps to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

What was McChrystal thinking of talking to Rolling Stone, the magazine of sex, drugs and rock & roll? If he w-antedtogiveamagazineac cess to himself and his staff, even Vanity Fair would have been a better vehicle than a magazine openly opposed to the mission he was leading.

In the Rolling Stone piece, titled The Runaway General, M-cChyrstalisquotedassay i-ng Obama seemed "uncom fortable and intimidated" at his first meeting with brass at the Pentagon following his inauguration last year." He mimicks Obama on his VP: "Are you asking about Vice President Biden, who's that?" On the three-month strategic review that resulted in the troop surge McChrystal said: "I found that time painful." M-oreover, itisclearthatMc Chrystal and his staff doubt the surge and drawdown can be implemented in the time-line to next July.

Not since Harry Truman relieved Douglas MacArthur of his command in Korea has a U.S. president directly fired a commander in the field (-though U.S. Defence Secre t-ary Robert Gates fired Mc Chrystal's predecessor with Obama's approval last year).

In other words, as Truman famously said, "the buck stops here."

In Obama's case, he an n-ouncedthesackingof Mc Chrystal in the Rose Garden o-f theWhiteHouse, accom panied by Biden, Gates, Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The clear v-isualmessagewasof auni f-ied government and mil itary command. But again, the buck stopped with the president, and the decision was his alone.

Petraeus will have an other opportunity to test his counterinsurgency manual i-n the field, in a country his torically inhospitable to foreign occupiers, with war l-ords ruling the roost, an il legal cash crop -poppy -that accounts for two-thirds of the economy, a government rife with corruption, a persistent insurgency on the ground, with neighbours shielding the enemy across the border. Nothing to it.

Under the troop surge recommended by Petraeus as head of CENTCOM, the U.S. has tripled its presence to 100,000 troops, making it O-bama's war. U.S. casual ties have also passed 1,000 soldiers killed, making their losses there almost proportionate to our own of nearly 150 deaths in Afghanistan.

In a speech to the Conference of Defence Associations in Ottawa in March, Petraeus acknowledged the Canadian contribution.

"Canadians have borne a considerable burden and made tremendous sacrifices in some very tough areas," he said. "Without any gaps since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Canadian forces have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other forces of the coalition on the ground in Afghanistan."

In the summer offensive that is about to begin, it is some comfort to know the Americans are sending their best leader, even if he is only stepping into the breach.

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