Reporting from Washington — The job of America's top commander in Afghanistan hung in the balance, White House officials said Tuesday, after published comments by the general and his staff shattered White House confidence in the command overseeing a war effort plagued by slow progress and increasing casualties.
Summoned to an unusual White House meeting with President Obama on Wednesday, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal will be asked to explain remarks that he and his advisors made in a magazine article this week in which they denigrated top civilian leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden.
Many Defense officials expect McChrystal to offer Obama his resignation when he arrives in Washington. But Obama, speaking to reporters Tuesday, said he wanted to talk to McChrystal before making a decision on his fate. The president added that the article, in Rolling Stone magazine, showed "poor judgment" on the general's part.
One McChrystal aide, strategic advisor Duncan Boothby, who helped arrange the article, resigned Tuesday.
The published comments clearly touched a nerve in the White House. The article came just months after Obama upbraided McChrystal for earlier criticism of Biden and at a time when administration officials have been displeased with statements by military leaders that appear to question the administration's timeline for beginning a drawdown in Afghanistan.
For Obama, firing McChrystal would be the surest way to address signs of insubordination from the military and public perceptions of White House weakness.
But removing McChrystal would force the administration to find another general to take charge of the problem-plagued war and could jeopardize the administration's timetable for showing progress in the field and reducing the size of Western forces.
The furor over the article by former Newsweek writer Michael Hastings represents the latest in a series of setbacks for the Afghan war effort that have fueled doubts in Congress about the current counterinsurgency strategy largely devised by McChrystal. U.S. and allied forces, for example, have encountered difficulty in establishing Afghan government control in the southern village of Marja, where the Taliban has long reigned, as well as delays in the start of a similar campaign in the much larger city of Kandahar.
Ten Western troops died Monday in separate incidents, the second day this month that the daily death toll reached into double digits. Two more NATO service members were killed Tuesday, and this month has already become one of the war's most lethal.
No senior Defense official has stepped forward to defend McChrystal or publicly offer support. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs left no doubt that McChrystal's comments could cost him his job, suggesting that the general might not be "capable and mature enough" to lead the war effort.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called McChrystal to the Pentagon to explain his comments. Gates offered no support and said McChrystal had made "a significant mistake."
One of the few expressions of support came from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who an aide said "expressed a strong wish" for McChrystal to remain in his post.
In the article, McChrystal made fun of Biden, made snide remarks about presidential envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, and criticized Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. McChrystal advisors ridiculed the vice president, insulted Holbrooke and called White House national security advisor James Jones a "clown."
The article said that McChrystal and his staff, while preparing for a question-and-answer session in Paris, thought of ways of dismissing the vice president "with a good one-liner."
"Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal said, according to the Rolling Stone story, trying out a possible answer. "Who's that?"
An aide then is reported as saying: "Biden? Did you say: 'Bite me'?"
McChrystal offered a public apology Tuesday. He also met with Karzai, Holbrooke and Eikenberry and privately apologized.
In a White House news briefing, Gibbs, normally circumspect on personnel matters, used forceful language regarding McChrystal. He said that when he showed Obama the magazine article Monday night, the president was angry.
How angry? "You would know it if you saw it," Gibbs said.
Asked at one point why Obama summoned the general to the White House, Gibbs said the president needed to ascertain "what in the world he was thinking."
Obama, who has not served in the military, has sought to solidify his status as commander in chief through frequent appearances with troops. Such appearances have sought to convey that he has the confidence of the American military.