WASHINGTON – Afghanistan war commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal met privately with President Barack Obama at the White House Wednesday and then departed ahead of a scheduled war strategy session. There was no immediate word on whether Obama would fire him for his inflammatory remarks in a magazine interview.
Officials had initially indicated that McChrystal would attend the strategy session on Afghanistan to explain remarks he made in the interview with Rolling Stone magazine. But he was seen leaving the West Wing and climbing into a van after his nearly half-hour face-to-face meeting with the president. McChrystal had met earlier in the day with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.
Before the White House meeting, two military officials said McChrystal went in prepared to submit his resignation. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Obama was expected to make an announcement on McChrystal's future later Wednesday.
"I think it's clear that the article in which he and his team appeared ... showed poor judgment," Obama said Tuesday at the close of an unrelated Cabinet meeting. "But I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions."
Obama summoned McChrystal to Washington from Afghanistan after learning of his comments about administration officials. A White House rebuke of McChrystal suggested that it would be hard for him to save his job.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed his confidence in McChrystal during a video conference Tuesday night with Obama, Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said Wednesday in Kabul.
"We hope there is not a change of leadership of the international forces here in Afghanistan and that we continue to partner with Gen. McChrystal," Omar told reporters.
In the Rolling Stone article, McChrystal didn't criticize Obama himself but called the period last fall when the president was deciding whether to approve more troops "painful" and said Obama appeared ready to hand him an "unsellable" position.
McChrystal also said he was "betrayed" by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the man the White House chose to be his diplomatic partner in Afghanistan. He accused Eikenberry of raising doubts about Karzai only to give himself cover in case the U.S. effort failed. "Now, if we fail, they can say 'I told you so,'" McChrystal told the magazine. And he was quoted mocking Vice President Joe Biden.
If not insubordination, the remarks — as well as even sharper commentary about Obama and his White House from several in McChrystal's inner circle — were at least an indirect and extraordinary challenge and one that consumed Washington on Tuesday. The capital hasn't seen a similar public contretemps between a president and a top wartime commander since Harry Truman stripped Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his command more than a half-century ago after disagreements over Korean War strategy.
Notably, neither McChrystal nor his team questioned the accuracy of the story or the quotes in it. McChrystal issued an apology.
Military leaders rarely challenge their commanders in chief publicly. When they do, consequences tend to be more severe than a scolding.
Indeed, the presidential spokesman's prepared reaction to the article was remarkably revealing, even for the normally coded language of Washington. Press secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly declined to say McChrystal's job was safe, and questioned whether McChrystal is "capable and mature enough" to lead the war.
"Our efforts in Afghanistan are bigger than one person," Gibbs told reporters, a formulation typically used when one person is about to leave.
Gates said in a statement that McChrystal had made "a significant mistake."
A senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan told The Associated Press that McChrystal — who had not spoken with Obama on the matter before Wednesday — has been given no indication that he'll be fired but no assurance he won't be. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions between Washington and the general's office in Kabul.
Obama raised the issue of McChrystal's future in a phone call with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday night, Cameron's office said Wednesday without disclosing what was said. Britain has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, the largest international force after the United States.
McChrystal was viewed as a visionary with the guts and smarts to turn around the beleaguered, 8-year-old Afghanistan war when he was chosen to take over last year.
But despite his military achievements, he has a history of making waves. This is not his first brush with Obama's anger. Last fall, the president scolded McChrystal for speaking too bluntly about his desire for more troops.
Wisconsin Democratic Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called for McChrystal to resign. Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was among three prominent Republican senators to criticize the general and say a decision about his future should rest with Obama.
Several names circulated among Pentagon and Capitol Hill aides as potential successors, including Gen. James Mattis, Joint Forces Command chief; Lt. Gen. John Allen, the No. 2 at U.S. Central Command; Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, McChrystal's No. 2 in Afghanistan; Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command; and Adm. James Stavridis, the top NATO commander in Europe.
Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the White House meeting, said the administration had not reached out to possible successors but might do so Wednesday.