McChrystal was abruptly recalled from Afghanistan to Washington on Tuesday [AFP]
General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, will travel to the White House on Wednesday for what is sure to be a tense meeting with US president Barack Obama.
McChrystal was summoned to Washington to explain remarks he made in a Rolling Stone profile due to be published on Friday.
McChrystal mocked Joseph Biden, the US vice-president, and Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan. Members of his staff also criticised Obama and his strategy in Afghanistan.
The administration has said nothing about how it plans to respond - and whether McChrystal will leave Washington with his job intact.
Case of insubordination?
McChrystal's remarks were certainly ill-considered - the general himself admitted as much - but do they constitute insubordination, a criminal offence for military personnel?
Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the foundation of US military law, defines "contempt towards officials" as follows:
Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
Eikenberry, the US ambassador in Afghanistan, received some of the sharpest criticism [AFP]
Most of McChrystal's comments are about officials - Eikenberry, for example, or Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy - who are not covered by that definition.
But at one point in the article he does seem to mock Biden, whose proposed counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan he publicly dismissed last year.
"Are you asking about Vice-President Biden?" McChrystal says with a laugh. "Who's that?"
"Biden?" suggests a top adviser. "Did you say: Bite Me?"
Michelle Lindo McCluer, director of the National Institute of Military Justice at American University Washington College of Law, said those comments, while disrespectful and ill-advised, did not qualify as "contempuous".
"The most inflammatory part of the Biden comment comes from an adviser, not Gen McChrystal," she said. "I'm hard-pressed to say that [McChrystal] violated article 88."
McCluer said that even the harsher comments made by McChrystal's aides do not qualify as insubordination.
Eugene Fidell, a military justice expert and professor at Yale University, agrees with McCluer's assessment.
Too late for a shake-up?
Questions of policy and politics will also weigh on Obama's decision, and there are arguments both for and against sacking McChrystal.
The argument against holds that this is simply the wrong time for a high-level shake-up.
Recent news from Afghanistan has not been encouraging: Nato and Afghan forces have delayed a much-hyped summer offensive in Kandahar province; the relationship between Nato and the Afghan government is strained; and June proved to be one of the deadliest months for foreign forces, with more than 60 Nato soldiers killed.
McChrystal spoke to Al Jazeera in December about the US strategy in Afghanistan
Beyond that, the White House is scheduled to review the war strategy in six months, and Obama plans to begin withdrawing troops next summer.
Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a member of the team that conducted McChrystal's strategy review last year, said those deadlines might weigh on Obama's decision.
If this were, say, the mission in Kosovo, McChrystal would already be packing his bags. But the war in Afghanistan is a different beast, and [Obama] may decide he can't switch commanders 12 months out from his June 2011 deadline for beginning a withdrawal.
That said, McChrystal is hardly the only high-level officer to support the current counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which has widespread backing at the Pentagon.
Elements of his strategy actually began last year, under his predecessor, General David McKiernan, who requested more troops for the war and tightened the rules of engagement to limit civilian casualties. McChrystal is not irreplaceable, in other words.
And critics of McChrystal's strategy have argued that the current crop of bad news makes this the ideal time to replace him, though the White House has suggested that the strategy will remain largely unchanged regardless of who's in charge.
Obama may also calculate that he needs to assert himself in order to preserve his July 2011 deadline for beginning to withdraw US troops.
The White House insisted last week that the deadline is "firm", but military officers have begun to hint at a delay. An unnamed officer quoted by Rolling Stone said commanders might even ask for an escalation, rather than a drawdown.
Obama's administration has long been plagued by divisions over Afghan strategy [AFP]
"There's a possibility we could ask for another surge of US forces next summer if we see success here," a senior military official in Kabul tells me.
McChrystal has been rebuked before for undermining the White House on policy.
In an October speech at London's Institute for Strategic Studies, he said Biden's proposed counterterrorism strategy would turn Afghanistan into "Chaosistan" and ultimately result in failure.
That rebuke, coupled with the summertime leak of McChrystal's strategic review, helped to build the case for a counterinsurgency strategy.
Critics at the time argued that the military had pushed Obama into a corner - so Obama might decide to cashier McChrystal because he feels he is once again being manipulated.
The legal argument for sacking McChrystal is thin. So Obama will ultimately have to weigh the merits reaffirming civilian control over the military against the potential impact on the war in Afghanistan.
Source: Al Jazeera