The future of the top U.S. general in Afghanistan hung in the balance on Tuesday as the White House summoned him back to Washington to explain remarks critical of President Barack Obama and his top advisors.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said General Stanley McChrystal had "made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment" after a magazine article in which aides called one top Obama official a "clown" and another a "wounded animal" and the general himself made disparaging remarks about officials.
But Gates offered no clue as to whether McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, would stay in his job.
"Gen. McChrystal has apologized to me and is similarly reaching out to others named in this article to apologize to them as well," Gates said in a statment. The article is to be published in Rolling Stone magazine on Friday.
Comments in the article included McChrystal's own belittling of Vice President Joe Biden and the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. Aides offered more biting views of Obama administration officials, with one calling White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones a "clown" who was "stuck in 1985."
Senior U.S. officials did not rule out that McChrystal could offer his resignation, but said it was still unclear whether Obama would accept it.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that McChrystal's critical comments were "in no way helpful" to the broader coalition war effort in Afghanistan.
Still, other officials expressed guarded optimism that McChrystal would survive in his job because his comments -- while embarrassing -- did not challenge Obama's policies.
"There's only one person who can answer that question -- the commander-in-chief," a defense official said.
Admiral Mike Mullen, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the top U.S. military officer, expressed in a call to McChrystal his "deep disappointment" with the article "and with the comments expressed therein," a spokesman said.
An Obama administration official said McChrystal had been directed to appear in person at Wednesday's Afghanistan meeting at the White House "to explain to the Pentagon and the commander-in-chief his quotes in the piece about his colleagues."
"I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened," McChrystal said in a statement on Monday.
In a meeting with his Afghan war team on Wednesday, Obama will urge them to put aside disagreements, the White House spokesman said.
"I'm sure that the president will say tomorrow that it is time for everybody to put aside their petty disagreements, put aside their egos and get to work," Gibbs said.
Just six months ago, Obama backed McChrystal's request for more troops, escalating an unpopular conflict in which costs and casualties are rising.
The Rolling Stone article portrays a split between the U.S. military and Obama's advisers at an extremely sensitive moment for the Pentagon, which is fending off criticism of its strategy to turn around the Afghanistan war.
McChrystal took command of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in June 2009 after his predecessor, General David McKiernan, was removed for what most experts interpreted as a sign Washington was losing patience with conventional tactics that failed to quell mounting violence.
Obama is already dealing with the huge BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, trying to get financial industry reform legislation through Congress and hoping to prevent Republicans from taking back control of Congress from his fellow Democrats in November elections.
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