WASHINGTON -- In the fall of 2009, as President Barack Obama and his relatively new national security team deliberated a troop surge in Afghanistan, someone leaked a secret internal report by the top general in charge of the war. The report, written by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said the president, focused on finding a way to bring the war to a close, was thinking too small. To be effective, McChrystal believed, the surge had to be overwhelming.
The leak was interpreted inside the White House as a calculated move by the military brass to make a public case that would leave Obama "boxed in" to the strategy preferred by advocates of troop-heavy counterinsurgency, including McChrystal and then-Gen. David Petraeus, the regional commander.
"McChrystal: More Forces or 'Mission Failure,'" read the headline in Bob Woodward's article describing the leaked report.
"Obama and his White House aides fumed," wrote New York Times reporter David Sanger in his recent book on the administration's foreign policy. "If Obama chose another path, his opponents were now armed with the evidence that a young president, in his first major military decision, had overruled a commander who had warned of 'mission failure' if he didn't get a large infusion of new troops."
In the end, Obama met the generals near the middle, granting them a 40,000-person surge, but with a hard, three-year time limit, succeed or fail.
Three years later, with the troop surge over and the end of combat operations in Afghanistan nearing, the generals who once sought to box in Obama find themselves marginalized by scandal.
McChrystal lost his job in 2010 after a devastating Rolling Stone article caught him badmouthing the commander in chief. Petraeus, who retired last year to head the CIA, was felled last week after he admitted an affair with his biographer. (A third general, John Allen, who has led Obama's war in Afghanistan for the past year, was set to step down in the spring. He also has been implicated in the widening sex scandal.)
The sex scandal has created a public relations headache for the freshly reelected White House. But it also demonstrates a reversal in the balance of power between the president and the military he oversees.
Instead of the scandal causing a major upheaval in Obama's Afghanistan strategy, analysts said the removal of his spy chief and the possible disgraced exit of his Afghanistan commander is unlikely to change much in the president's hard-won plan.
"It's very unlikely that it's going to have a major impact," said Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "For one thing, this whole issue of what U.S. forces should be in Afghanistan, the level of forces, has now been debated for half-a-year. It was debated long before this incident."
The scandals may even reinforce Obama's public strength on military matters, experts said. Now, should the military brass seek to reverse course in Afghanistan or other hotspots with the kind of public pressure that proved so effective in 2009, their actions would carry far less weight.
"Substantively, it doesn't change much, but perhaps from a public relations standpoint it does," said Richard H. Kohn, a University of North Carolina expert on civilian-military relations. "It reminds the public that as successful and important and accomplished as these people are, they are still humans."
Indeed, by the time Allen took over in Afghanistan, U.S. course was largely set. The plan was to expedite the training of Afghan troops, and aim for a firm departure date in late-2014. Allen was who the president wanted to oversee it.
“John Allen is my man,” Obama once said, according to The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a rare display of affection and endorsement after so many years of clashing with his Afghanistan commanders.
No evidence has emerged to directly link Allen to any improprieties, and the White House has continued to publicly support him.