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Indiscretion mars career marked by discipline and intellect

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-06-23

The extent of General Stanley McChrystal’s interview indiscretion may well signal a turning point in the career of an experienced, widely admired four-star military officer. FRANCE24 looks back on the general's rapid rise up the ranks.

US General Stanley McChrystal is known for sleeping four hours a night, running several miles every morning, and eating just one meal a day.

But the General’s well-documented discipline failed him during an interview with American magazine Rolling Stone, in which he and his aides made derogatory comments about US President Barack Obama’s national security team.

Now McChrystal, who has been leading NATO operations in Afghanistan for the past year, finds his reputation tarnished and his professional status uncertain as Obama ponders whether or not to accept the resignation that the general has submitted.

The extent of McChrystal’s indiscretion comes as a surprise in the career of a committed four-star military officer widely admired for his sharp intellect and unflinching yet humane assessments of wartime realities.

A steady rise, with one blemish

Born in 1954 into a family with military roots, McChrystal graduated from the highly prestigious West Point US military academy in 1976. After steadily rising up the ranks, he took on the position of Commanding General of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in 2003, where he was responsible for mapping out US military special operations targeting terrorists abroad. McChrystal was credited with various successes, most notably the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the killing of al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.

But McChrystal’s professional history has not been completely spotless. One controversy erupted in 2007, when he was accused of giving false information when recommending football-star-turned-corporal Pat Tillman for a posthumous medal. Reports said Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, but McChrystal allegedly implied in a report that Tillman had been killed by the enemy. The army, however, did not punish him.

In 2008 McChrystal was nominated by former President George W. Bush to act as Director of the Joint Staff, where his role was to help Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen to direct a unified strategy for US armed forces engaged in conflict.

New strategy and style on Afghanistan

Arguably the biggest challenge of McChrystal's career landed in his hands during Obama’s first few months as president, when Defence Secretary Robert Gates appointed McChrystal as commander of US forces in Afghanistan.

McChrystal began his assignment by sending Obama a stark report in which he detailed the situation in Afghanistan, making an urgent case for more troops, and intensifying training for Afghan security forces. The alternative, he argued, was failure.

Following several months of national security meetings, Obama decided to give McChrystal 30,000 extra US troops, but stipulated that he would begin withdrawal in July 2011.

As a general, McChrystal sought to break with the image of aloof, macho military chiefs, making himself accessible to journalists and bringing an awareness of the nuances of Afghan politics and society to his efforts to hatch a revised US strategy. McChrystal proposed a revitalised incursion into Taliban strongholds in the south while thinning troop levels in other areas, and urged a simultaneous focus on reaching out to Afghan moderates.

Perhaps most notable of all was his emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties. He limited the use of airstrikes, and issued direct apologies to Afghans when women and children were killed.

McChrystal also tried to engage an increasingly skeptical US public in the war effort, announcing military operations in advance and explaining his tactical thinking to the press.

The major NATO-Afghan joint offensive in Marja in February, known as Operation Moshtarak, was viewed as a test of McChrystal’s new strategy. The sweeping operation was initially hailed as a success when Taliban insurgents were forced to retreat, but problems on the ground since then – continued Taliban presence and shaky local administrations – have cast a shadow over the early results.

In any event, if Obama chooses to usher in a new commander and provide McChrystal with an unwelcome ending to this tumultous chapter in his long career, the uncertainty hovering over the US-led effort in Afghanistan is only likely to grow.

Date created : 2010-06-23

  • AFGHANISTAN

    McChrystal's job in balance over critical remarks

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  • USA

    Obama holds talks with McChrystal over critical remarks

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