Page last updated at 11:38 GMT, Saturday, 26 June 2010 12:38 UK

How did McChrystal lose his careful touch?

As the tough commander of the US war effort in Afghanistan is removed from his post, the BBC's Lyse Doucet remembers a previous meeting with the popular general, Stanley McChrystal, when considering how he slipped up.

Gen Stanley McCrystal arrives at the White House, 23 June
The general was fired over an article in Rolling Stone magazine

General McChrystal looked down at his boots.

He was strangely quiet, distant, as we sat facing each other on straight-backed chairs, waiting to start our interview.

I wondered what weighed so heavily on his mind.

He was usually so quick to smile and talk.

I knew he had just come from the presidential palace. Questions raced through my mind.

Had something gone wrong again with President Karzai? Or on the battlefield?

To break the silence, I simply said: "Tough job."

"Yes," he replied, "I just heard my college room-mate died. He's been ill."

"Oh, I'm sorry," I said. "Would you like more time?"

"No," the general insisted, visibly tightening his jaw and sitting up straight. "This is my job." And the general focused.

That was Gen McChrystal in the field, in his element, in command.

Secretive force

When I first met him in Kabul a year ago, just after he took up his post, I asked how he would cope with the pressure of being the face of what was being called "Obama's war".

He smiled with palpable confidence. "I've brought a lot of good people with me."

This was Team McChrystal, a tight-knit team of fiercely loyal advisors and aides.

There was much myth-making around the gaunt commander

Some had worked with him in Iraq, some belonged to his band of brothers - as soldiers say - from the elite West Point Military Academy.

They had graduated in 1976, in the shadow of the Vietnam war, amid deep anti-war sentiment. It took real courage and commitment to want to be a soldier then, one of his aides once told me.

That is the kind of reputation the general brought to Afghanistan. A soldier's soldier.

No-one talked much about what had really gone on when he headed what is called the most secretive force in the US military, the Special Operations unit hunting al-Qaeda militants in Iraq.

There was much myth-making around the gaunt commander who slept four hours a night, ate one meal a day, and removed cushions from office chairs so visitors would not stay too long.

Similar approaches

The same kind of tales had emerged about the man who now replaces him, the general who was the face of America's last big war, in Iraq.

Gen David Petraeus, Commander, US Central Command
Gen David Petraeus is is one of America's best-known military figures

Gen David Petraeus was also said to sleep little, run a lot, work all the time.

I once joked with Gen Petraeus that he had to spend more time in Afghanistan because he was being outdone in the image stakes by the other hard-charging general.

He laughed: "I know about Stan's one meal a day," he said. "He eats one meal a day, all day long."

The two men worked closely together.

Both said Afghanistan would be more difficult than Iraq. Both were poster boys for a new way of fighting wars. It is called counter-insurgency, or Coin.

But Gen McChrystal put his personal stamp all over it, emphasising the need to avoid civilian casualties, to protect the population.

It earned him rare praise and trust from a most reluctant commander-in-chief, President Hamid Karzai.

I saw how that relationship worked when I travelled with them to the southern city of Kandahar in April, at the very moment when relations between President Karzai and Washington were in deep crisis over the president's extraordinary outburst, accusing the Americans of perpetrating election fraud in Afghanistan.

There seemed to be two sides to this general

Would the trip have to be cancelled? No. The president, the general, and their aides huddled together in a special pod in the military plane that took us south.

And then they strode into a meeting to face hundreds of tough-minded, plain-speaking tribal elders.

The president told the tribesmen of his respect for a general who took responsibility when Afghan civilians were wrongly killed in battles against the Taliban.

He stabbed the air with his finger, and said: "When he admits his mistakes, we should forgive him."

There was a murmur from the floor at this public endorsement of the American general even though many of the elders had deep misgivings about his strategy.

Careful touch

Back in Washington, Gen McChrystal was praised as the man who knew how to deal with a difficult ally, unlike almost everyone else on Obama's Afghan team.

Gen McChrystal speaks to the BBC's Lyse Doucet
Gen McChrystal was adamant that US strategy was still working

So what happened to the general's careful touch when it came to dealing with his own president's team?

There seemed to be two sides to this general - a careful commander in the field and a coarser one that emerged in the magazine article that brought him down.

On that day in early June when we sat together on straight-backed chairs in Kabul he did not rise to the ringing phrases he had used only weeks before.

He rejected, again and again, reports from the south that his much-vaunted strategy was running into trouble, saying wars never go as planned.

On - and off - the record, he insisted: "I still believe we can win."

I walked with him to the door of his office. When we parted, I said: "I'm sorry about your college friend." No, its OK, he replied brusquely, I should not have said it.

Weeks later, that is what he is saying over and over again.

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SEE ALSO
Afghan strategy 'still on course'
26 Jun 10 |  Americas
Profile: Gen Stanley McChrystal
23 Jun 10 |  Americas
Profile: General David Petraeus
01 Jul 10 |  Americas


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