WASHINGTON - Even before General Stanley McChrystal and his staff insulted most of their White House bosses in remarks to Rolling Stone magazine, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan had made missteps that raised questions about his judgment.
McChrystal, a former chief of the U.S. military's secretive special forces, has had difficulty coping with the glare of the spotlight since Defense Secretary Robert Gates abruptly dismissed General David McKiernan as head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in May 2009 and named McChrystal, 55, to replace him.
The general tangled publicly with Vice President Joe Biden over Afghan war strategy last October, dismissing Biden's idea of a narrow counterterrorism approach as "short-sighted."
During an autumn review of Afghan strategy, McChrystal issued a dire warning that the mission would fail without thousands of additional troops. His classified assessment was leaked to the media, raising pressure on the White House before President Barack Obama had decided on a new strategy.
Before taking command in Afghanistan, McChrystal was involved in the posthumous awarding of a Silver Star to Pat Tillman, who had given up his career as a star football player to join the military and was killed in Afghanistan.
Tillman's death was initially portrayed as the result of enemy fire but in fact he was accidentally shot by fellow troops. Although cleared of wrongdoing in the awarding of the medal, McChrystal acknowledged approving the citation even though he suspected "friendly fire" killed Tillman.
The Rolling Stone profile is the most public misstep so far, portraying the general and his staff as profane, unimpressed with Obama's grasp of the war, dismissive of Biden and insulting of national security adviser Jim Jones, a former four-star general who one McChrystal aide labeled a "clown."
Now McChrystal's 34-year career hangs in the balance as the White House tries to determine whether the relationship between Obama's national security team and the general has been irreparably damaged.
CAREER IN THE BALANCE
His departure, which was sought by at least one high-ranking Democratic lawmaker, would result in the loss of a leading expert in the counterinsurgency strategy being pursued by the White House in Afghanistan and someone who has the respect of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
McChrystal has made headway in implementing the U.S. war plan.
He has improved military-civilian coordination, convinced Afghans he wants to build their military as a partner force and made a real effort to reduce civilian casualties, said Anthony Cordesman, a military strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
His departure could also disrupt a war being fought with an eye on a July 2011 deadline for beginning U.S. troop withdrawals.
"You don't have an obvious successor and we've already set an impossible schedule and then used up months of it in the president's strategic review and in a much more destructive way in the whole controversy over Karzai's election," Cordesman said.
McChrystal's experience would be difficult to replace.
A 1976 graduate of the U.S. military academy at West Point, McChrystal comes from a military family. His father was Major General Herbert McChrystal Jr., who served in Germany during the American occupation after World War Two, and his siblings all served in the military or married service members.
After graduating from West Point, McChrystal spent three decades rising through the ranks of the Special Operations Command, including tours with the elite Green Berets and Army Rangers.
He served from 2003 to 2008 as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, in charge of hunting down and sometimes killing so-called "high value targets" in Iraq and Afghanistan, including people like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an insurgent leader in Iraq slain in a 2006 U.S. air strike.
McChrystal, who is married and has an adult son, is a workaholic who lives a Spartan lifestyle, eating infrequently and sleeping only four to five hours a night. A New York Times profile last year said he liked to run to and from work while listening to audio books on his iPod.
He hates fancy restaurants, likes Bud Light Lime beer and dislikes being in the public eye, Rolling Stone said.
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