In shakeup, US names new commander for Afghan war

Defence Secretary Robert Gates announced a shakeup of the US military leadership in Afghanistan Monday, saying he had asked the top commander to step down to make way for “new thinking” at a pivotal moment in the war.
Gates, explaining his decision to replace General David McKiernan after less than a year on the job, said “that our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches from our military leaders.”
He said he had tapped Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, to replace McKiernan.
“Today, we have a new policy set by our new president. We have a new strategy, a new mission, and a new ambassador,” Gates told a news conference. “I believe that new military leadership also is needed.”
The change comes as President Barack Obama doubles the size of the US force in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the fall in a bid to stem a spreading Taliban insurgency. Along with the troop build-up, the new commander will inherit growing instability in neighbouring Pakistan and a public outcry among Afghans over rising civilian casualties from US air strikes.
President Hamid Karzai denounced the deaths of dozens of civilians in the latest such incident during a visit to Washington last week.
As part of the overhaul of the US command, the defence secretary also said he had named his military adviser, General David Rodriguez, to serve under McChrystal. He previously oversaw operations in eastern Afghanistan.
The new approach for the Afghan war places a heavy emphasis on the role of special forces, the secretive side of counter-insurgency warfare that McChrystal is steeped in, having served as a top commander over special operations since 2003.
McKiernan has had a more traditional career devoted to conventional warfare, overseeing the US-led ground attack that toppled Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“I would simply say that both General McChrystal and General Rodriguez bring a unique skill set in counterinsurgency to these issues,” Gates said.
Beyond the need for “fresh eyes,” Gates did not offer more details about why he had made the move, but said he had taken the decision after consulting with the president, the top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, and the head of US Central Command, General David Petraeus.
“Nothing went wrong and there was nothing specific,” he said.
“It simply was my conviction based on my consultations with Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus that a fresh approach, fresh look in the context of the new strategy probably was in our best interest.”
Gates, who was accompanied by Mullen at the press conference, said he had informed McKiernan of his decision during a visit to Afghanistan last week and praised the general’s military record.
The new commander, McChrystal, would likely be promoted to a four-star rank, officials said.
The outgoing commander has been at odds with the Kabul government over civilian casualties and had asked Washington for another 10,000 reinforcements in 2010.
Gates had expressed caution about sending more troops beyond those already approved by Obama for this year.
Attacks by the Taliban and allied insurgent groups have steadily increased, particularly in the south, and McKiernan and other military officers have described the conflict as a “stalemate.”
McKiernan had pushed for an additional 30,000 troops and expressed gratitude after Obama approved the deployment of two more combat brigades as well as 4,000 troops to train Afghan security forces.
McKiernan serves as both the head of US forces and the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which has grown to about 70,000 troops.
The United States has about 45,000 troops in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon, as thousands of US Marines have begun to arrive as part of the build-up.
The war has dragged on for more than seven years since the Taliban were driven from power in a US-led invasion in 2001, launched weeks after the regime refused to hand over its al Qaeda allies for the September 11 attacks.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2009