WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sacked his loose-lipped Afghanistan commander Wednesday, a seismic shift for the military order in wartime, and chose the familiar, admired – and tightly disciplined – Gen. David Petraeus to replace him. Petraeus, architect of the Iraq war turnaround, was once again to take hands-on leadership of a troubled war effort.
Obama said bluntly that Gen. Stanley McChrystal's scornful remarks about administration officials in interviews for a magazine article represent conduct that "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system."
He fired the commander after summoning him from Afghanistan for a face to face meeting in the Oval Office and named Petraeus, the Central Command chief who was McChrystal's direct boss, to step in.
By pairing those announcements, Obama sought to move on from the firestorm that was renewing debate over his revamped Afghanistan policy. It was meant to assure Afghans, U.S. allies and a restive American electorate that a firm hand is running the war.
Expressing praise for McChrystal yet certainty he had to go, Obama said he did not make the decision over any disagreement in policy or "out of any sense of personal insult." Flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the Rose Garden, he said: "War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general, or a president."
He urged the Senate to confirm Petraeus swiftly and emphasized the Afghanistan strategy he announced in December was not shifting with McChrystal's departure.
"This is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy," Obama said. The president delivered the same message in a phone call to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the White House said, and Karzai told Obama he would work toward a smooth transition.
As Obama was speaking in the Rose Garden, McChrystal released a statement saying that he resigned out of "a desire to see the mission succeed" and expressing support for the war strategy.
With lawmakers of both parties praising the choice of Petraeus, the White House is confident he will be confirmed before Congress adjourns at the end of next week.
Obama hit several grace notes about McChrystal and his service after their meeting, saying he made the decision to sack him "with considerable regret." And yet, he said the job in Afghanistan cannot be done now under McChrystal's leadership, asserting that the critical remarks from the general and his inner circle in Rolling Stone displayed conduct that doesn't live up to the standards for a command-level officer.
"I welcome debate among my team, but I won't tolerate division," Obama said. He had delivered that same message – that there must be no more backbiting – to his full war cabinet in a Situation Room session, said a senior administration official.
The announcement came as June became the deadliest month for the U.S.-dominated international coalition in Afghanistan. NATO announced eight more international troop deaths Wednesday for a total of 76 this month, one more than in the deadliest month previously, in July 2009. Forty-six of those killed this month were Americans. The U.S. has 90,800 troops in Afghanistan.
Obama seemed to suggest that McChrystal's military career is over, saying the nation should be grateful "for his remarkable career in uniform" as if that has drawn to a close. McChrystal left the White House after the meeting and returned to his military quarters at Washington's Fort McNair.
Petraeus, who attended a formal Afghanistan war meeting at the White House on Wednesday, has had overarching responsibility for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq as head of Central Command. He was to vacate the Central Command post after his expected confirmation, giving Obama another key opening to fill. The Afghanistan job is actually a step down from his current post but one that filled Obama's pre-eminent need.
Petraeus is the nation's best-known military man, having risen to prominence as the commander who turned around the Iraq war in 2007, applying a counterinsurgency strategy that has been adapted for Afghanistan.
He has a reputation for rigorous discipline. He keeps a punishing pace – spending more than 300 days on the road last year. He briefly collapsed during Senate testimony last week, apparently from dehydration. It was a rare glimpse of weakness for a man known as among the military's most driven.
In the hearing last week, Petraeus told Congress he would recommend delaying Obama's prescribed pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011. He said security and political conditions in Afghanistan must be ready to handle a U.S. drawdown.
Waheed Omar, spokesman for Karzai, said Petraeus "will also be a trusted partner." Karzai had been a lonely voice in speaking out in support of McChrystal. But Omar said of Petraeus: "He is the most informed person and the most obvious choice for this job" now that McChrystal is out.
The day unfolded with a secretive series of meetings.
McChrystal arrived in Washington off the long flight from Kabul in the early morning and went first to the Pentagon to see top brass. Then came his half-hour alone with the president. Obama huddled afterward with Biden, Gates, Mullen and just a few others to plot the next step, and the group settled on Petraeus because he represents the "greatest continuity in operational understanding" and knows Afghanistan, said the senior administration official.
Obama then sat down with Petraeus to offer him the job.
Gates' advice on the matter wasn't disclosed. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said that Gates had talked extensively with Obama, including a 30-minute one-on-one meeting late Tuesday. But Morrell declined to say whether Gates suggested McChrystal should be fired.
In the magazine article, McChrystal called the period last fall when the president was deciding whether to approve more troops "painful" and said the president 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. And he was quoted mocking 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 the least an extraordinary challenge from a military leader.
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he expected to hold a hearing by Tuesday on Petraeus' confirmation.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Pauline Jelinek, Kimberly Dozier and Anne Flaherty in Washington and Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.