General McChrystal's Rolling Stone gaffe gets shrugs on front lines

General McChrystal's comments to Rolling Stone may be rocking Washington, but soldiers in Afghanistan downplay the impact.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
General McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry greet President Obama at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan in this March 28 photo. McChrystal has been summoned to Washington to explain derogatory comments about President Barack Obama and his colleagues, administration officials said Tuesday.

The top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has been recalled to Washington to explain controversial remarks he made about leading Obama administration figures. But those on the front lines of the war say that the political squabble and inevitable fallout to come means little for them or the mission ahead.

In a Rolling Stone profile titled “The Runaway General” that appeared online on Tuesday morning and will hit news stands on Friday, McChrystal and his aides are quoted making sarcastic or unfavorable remarks about Vice President Joe Biden, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry, and others.

The piece opens with McChrystal complaining about having to meet with a French minister -- the kind of care and feeding of allies crucial for holding together an increasingly shaky international coalition. As casualities increase in Afghanistan, NATO allies such as Canada and the Netherlands are preparing to withdraw their troops in a year.

IN PICTURES: US soldiers serving in Afghanistan

But Canadian soldiers stationed in Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban and currently home to the war’s most intense fighting, mostly shrugged off the political firestorm.

“Whatever happens, we just keep doing our job,” says Canadian Army Master Cpl. Mathieu Jacob of Cap-Pelé, Canada. “Our job is our job.”

The Canadians are no strangers to high-level drama in their ranks. In May, Canadian Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Ménard, formerly Canada’s top soldier in Kandahar and commander of Joint Task Force Kandahar was relieved of command for allegedly having an affair with a female soldier on his staff. Soldiers are forbidden from having personal relationships while deployed in a war zone.

Even though the situation resulted in a new commander, Canadian soldiers say such incidents have little affect on their day-to-day operations.

“In the Army things take a long time to change,” says Canadian Army Cpl. Natalie Saumur of Ottawa, Canada. “So far, I haven’t noticed anything.”

Additionally, most soldiers say they don’t have the time or the means to follow news about high-level controversies. At this tiny outpost in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar, most soldiers were unaware that of the Rolling Stone article or that their commanding general had come under fire for it.

“We only just got a [satellite] TV four or five days ago,” says Canadian Army Master Cpl. Eric Hunter from Victoria, Canada. The television in the base cafeteria broadcasts news and other programming designed for Canadian armed forces serving overseas.

“The pace is pretty frantic here,” adds Canadian Army Cpl. Steve Herlinger of Petawawa, Canada. “If I can find a free hour or two, it’s probably going to be spent working out or playing a video game.”

Most soldiers agree that the only way an incident like this would affect their daily life is if McChrystal is fired and replaced by a new commander who drastically changes the overall doctrine or strategy of the war. Even then, as combat soldiers they say it would be hard to alter their daily rhythm as their jobs are relatively straightforward, driving armored vehicles or manning gun turrets for example. Such changes are more likely to affect officers closer to the top of the chain of command, they say.

For those who have followed McChrystal’s latest clash with the commander in chief, there is some empathy for the general. In high stress situations like those found in Afghanistan, they say gaffes are bound to happen and they have little bearing on the general’s ability to lead.

“General McChrystal is an accomplished military officer who I have a great deal of respect for. Sometimes in the theater of operations words can be said in the heat of the moment that we don’t really mean,” says Canadian Army Lt. Will Lymer of Qualicum Beach, Canada. “These remarks in no way erode my confidence in him.”

Though McChrystal has issued an official apology for his remarks in the article, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recalled him to Washington to explain his comments. “I believe that Gen. McChrystal made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment in this case,” said Mr. Gates in a statement on Tuesday. “Going forward, we must pursue this mission with a unity of purpose. … [O]ur singular focus must be on supporting [our troops] and succeeding in Afghanistan without such distractions.”


IN PICTURES: US soldiers serving in Afghanistan

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