Stanley McChrystal, the general and chief architect of the counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, was relieved of his command on Wednesday, following a series of disparaging quotes that he and his aides made about the president and civilian leadership.
It was a remarkable conclusion to a frantic two-day period of frenzied coverage, climaxing with a Rose Garden appearance in which the president explained his rationale. In the end, it will remain a confounding episode for both historians and politicos alike. It was not McChrystal's connections to a scarring episode of detainee abuse and the cover-up of a revered soldier's death or his disparagement of the vice president's proposal for Afghanistan that did the general in. It was a series of interviews with Rolling Stone magazine, of all things.
"The conduct represented in the recently published article," said President Obama, "does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general."
Indeed, as Obama spoke in front of a throng of reporters at the Rose Garden, it seemed nearly surreal to imagine that a freelance reporter -- fortuitously embedded with McChrystal during an alcohol-filled bus trip from Paris to Berlin (the flight had been canceled due to volcanic activity in Iceland) -- had put the wheels in motion. McChrystal, after all, had made gaffes before, including publicly mocking Joe Biden's preference for a limited troop presence in Afghanistan ("Chaos-stan" he chided). More than that, he had been either intimately connected or directly tied to two very controversial episodes in recent military history. And no one seemed to notice.
McChrystal was the head of Special Operations command in Afghanistan when Army Ranger and former football star Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. He approved the paperwork awarding Tillman a Silver Star for dying in the line "of enemy fire" -- and he was "accountable for the inaccurate and misleading assertions" contained therein, according to an investigation -- despite knowing (or at least suspecting) that Tillman had died in an episode of fratricide. That episode barely registered with the public or, for that matter, Congress, when McChrystal went before the Senate Armed Services Committee waiting to take over control in Afghanistan. The one person who questioned whether more answers were needed was journalist Jon Krakauer who had just penned a book on Tillman's death and thought the general's explanations were "preposterous" and "unbelievable."
The second episode was even less well-known. Years after the Tillman death, McChrystal was mentioned several times in a report by Human Rights Watch which documented the abuse and torture of detained prisoners at Camp Nama in Iraq. A soldier, quoted anonymously in the findings, recalled seeing McChrystal at the facility "a couple of times." It was also reported that the general himself said there was no way that the Red Cross would ever be allowed through the door at Nama -- where treatment of detainees was so bad, it earned the nickname Nasty Ass Military Area.
"It is not easy to say what his role was accurately because the entire program of detention and interrogation going on there remains highly classified," said John Siston, an author of the Human Rights Watch report. "But HRW was able to learn enough to say that he was in the chain of command that oversaw the operations of that special task force and the interrogation unit that took care of the detainees that that special task force detained."
Nama, like Tillman, never played a role in McChrystal's quick ascendancy through the military ranks. Indeed, one of the most ignored nuggets in the Rolling Stone piece involved the general and his staff prepping for tough questioning on both of these topics, only to discover that Congress didn't care.
In May 2009, as McChrystal prepared for his confirmation hearings, his staff prepared him for hard questions about Camp Nama and the Tillman cover-up. But the scandals barely made a ripple in Congress, and McChrystal was soon on his way back to Kabul to run the war in Afghanistan.
Congress it seemed was more invested in moving forward than looking back. And so it was that McChrystal became embroiled in a career-threatening controversy only after the Rolling Stone piece raised questions as to whether his shaky relationship with civilian leadership would compromise the Afghan mission.
It wasn't an unworthy basis for the general's dismissal though it may have fallen a bit short of the official definition of insubordination (but not by much). But it was telling for some that after dodging several other bullets, it was an article in a music magazine (and not even a cover article at that) that did the trick.
"Given that there are a lot of unanswered questions about McChrystal's role in detainee abuse in Iraq," Stacy Sullivan, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch said hours before his resignation, "it would be ironic if a few careless comments to Rolling Stone magazine were to bring about his undoing."