Obama Says Afghan Policy Won’t Change After Dismissal

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WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday fired his top Afghanistan war commander after only a brief meeting in the Oval Office, replacing Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal with his boss and mentor, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and sending a clear signal that the current war strategy will continue despite setbacks and growing public doubts.

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Two hours later, an angry Mr. Obama privately reprimanded members of his bickering national security team, adopting a “stern” tone during a meeting in the Situation Room and ordering them to put aside “pettiness,” and not to put “personalities or reputation” ahead of American troops who have been put in harm’s way, administration officials said.

Speaking in the Rose Garden to reporters, Mr. Obama said he did not fire General McChrystal for critical comments about him and his staff in Rolling Stone magazine, nor “out of any sense of personal insult.” Rather, the president cited the need for his team to unite in pressing the war effort.

“I don’t think we can sustain that unity of effort and achieve our objectives in Afghanistan without making this change,” he said.

Even by the standards of a capital that has seen impeachment and scandals in recent years, the drama surrounding the firing of a wartime commander was palpable.

Generals have come and gone in disputes over policy and execution — indeed, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired General McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, just a year ago. But the removal of General McChrystal culminated a remarkable public waiting game, with White House and top military officials trying to guess what the president would do, and Mr. Obama keeping his cards close to his vest until the very end.

While publicly rebuking him Tuesday, Mr. Obama had said he would not decide the general’s fate until they met face to face. But as early as Monday night, officials said, when Mr. Obama first learned of the Rolling Stone article in which General McChrystal and his staff criticized administration officials, the president and his advisers were discussing the likelihood that the general would have to go.

“A lot of us were arguing that the message of letting McChrystal’s comments roll off our backs would be enormously harmful,” one administration official said.

By Tuesday, when the president met with the general’s biggest supporter and a powerful one, Secretary Gates, White House and Pentagon officials were already discussing General Petraeus as the most likely replacement.

It has been nearly 60 years since President Harry S. Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the midst of the Korean War, the last time a president directly stepped in to remove the senior commander in a war zone for disrespect toward the White House. For Mr. Obama, this was a MacArthur moment, a reassertion of civilian control.

The president also used the moment to emphasize that the policy in Afghanistan would not change, even as his own party and international allies display strong doubts about the way forward, including whether the United States can ever navigate a troubled relationship with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai.

General Petraeus is taking a step down. As head of United States Central Command, he has oversight for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and the entire region. He has supported General McChrystal’s point of view during internal administration strategy debates. His appointment is meant in part to calm the nerves of NATO allies and Mr. Karzai.

Mr. Obama called Mr. Karzai Wednesday to try to get the Afghan president on board — Mr. Karzai made a personal appeal to Mr. Obama on Tuesday night to keep General McChrystal — and Mr. Obama received at least an initial public statement that “President Karzai respects President Obama’s decision.”

Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, whom one of General McChrystal’s aides had dismissed in the article as a “clown,” called his counterparts in Europe to assure them that Mr. Obama was not abandoning his approach. He repeated Mr. Obama’s line that this was a change in personnel, not in policy.

The president chose General Petraeus, a media-savvy, ambitious officer, instead of lesser-known figures who might have had more trouble stepping in to such a volatile situation. “The one person you could have inserted in there to calm those nerves was Dave Petraeus,” said one senior administration official.

General Petraeus will have to relinquish the top job at Central Command to assume command in Afghanistan. White House officials said no decision had been made on who would succeed him.

Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.

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