WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama ousted his top commander in Afghanistan on Wednesday after officials determined that comments he and his staff made in a Rolling Stone magazine article amounted to insubordination.
Obama said he accepted Gen. Stanley McChrystal's resignation and, in an equally stunning move, said he had appointed Army Gen. David Petraeus, who currently heads U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
"War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president," Obama said. "As difficult as it is to lose Gen. McChrystal, I believe it is the right decision for our national security."
Officials concluded that keeping McChrystal in his job was not a viable option after he and his staff were quoted making comments that disparaged U.S. civilian leaders who oversee the war effort.
In his remarks, Obama emphasized several times that removing McChrystal was necessary to preserve civilian control of the military and to ensure that the national security team was working together.
"I welcome debate," Obama said, "but I won't tolerate division."
By choosing Petraeus, Obama ensures continuity in the war effort. Petraeus, 57, is popular on Capitol Hill, and his nomination is likely to face little in the way of opposition. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he plans to hold Petraeus' confirmation hearing no later than Tuesday.
As U.S. commander in Iraq, Petraeus implemented the troop "surge" that helped change the course of the war there. He has endorsed the plan that Obama approved after the three-month Afghan strategy review last fall.
The president emphasized Petraeus' involvement in crafting the current war strategy.
"This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy," Obama said.
The announcement came as June became the deadliest month for the U.S.-dominated international coalition in Afghanistan. NATO announced eight more international troop deaths Wednesday for a total of 76 this month, one more than in the deadliest month previously, in July 2009. Forty-six of those killed this month were Americans. The U.S. has 90,800 troops in Afghanistan.
McChrystal, 55, crafted the counter-insurgency plan adopted by Obama that entailed a sharp increase in troops and shift in strategy to emphasize the goal of protecting the Afghan public and improving the Afghan government's performance.
But some officials in the administration, most notably Vice President Joe Biden, have advocated different approaches, preferring a strategy that requires fewer troops while emphasizing the elimination of militant leaders and ensuring Afghanistan does not fall under insurgent control.
As the new Afghanistan commander, Petraeus faces a difficult task to mark progress under the strict timeline laid out by the White House. A planned U.S. troop reduction is scheduled to begin in little more than a year.
The move also comes at a time when the war is widely perceived as going badly. The military has struggled to create a viable local government following an offensive in the southern Afghanistan village of Marjah. And the timeline for the next offensive in Kandahar has been prolonged because of skepticism from local officials. McChrystal has served as top commander for only a year, replacing Gen. David McKiernan, who was fired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
By ousting his Afghanistan commander for insubordination, the clash between Obama and McChrystal becomes the most high profile firing since President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was leading international forces in the Korean War.
McChrystal arrived in Washington off the long flight from Kabul early Wednesday morning and went first to the Pentagon to see top brass. Then came his half hour alone with the president. McChrystal left after the meeting and returned to his military quarters at Washington's Fort McNair. His military future was unclear Wednesday, though Obama's remarks indicated it is probably over.
The U.S. military command issued an apology on McChrystal's behalf from Kabul. In the statement, McChrystal said he was committed to the allied forces and that he supported Obama's strategy.
"It was out of respect for this commitment — and a desire to see the mission succeed — that I tendered my resignation," McChrystal said.
Obama huddled afterward with Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a few others to plot the next step. The group settled on Petraeus. Obama and Petraeus met privately for 40 minutes. The president asked him to step down as head of CentCom, in charge of South Asia and the Middle East, and take over day-to-day control of the Afghan war. The job is actually a step down from his current post but one that filled Obama's pre-eminent need.
Petraeus agreed to do so, but it was clear to Obama, the Washington Post reported, that it came at some great personal sacrifice. The Post quoted a senior administration official asked to describe it as saying: "Tampa to Kabul."
Information from Tribune Washington bureau, Associated Press and the Washington Post was included in this report.