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Pentagon Replaces Top Afghanistan Commander

  • Heather Maher

U.S. Army General David McKiernan

U.S. Army General David McKiernan

WASHINGTON - The United States replaced its top general in Afghanistan on Monday, saying “fresh thinking” on the seven-year old stalled war is needed.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the announcement at the Pentagon, saying, “After consultation with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the commander of Central Command, and with the approval of the president, I have asked for the resignation of General David McKiernan.”

The decision comes as 21,000 additional U.S. troops are starting to deploy to Afghanistan -- part of President Barack Obama’s new strategy to confront the Taliban more forcefully.

By the end of the year, Obama plans to have 68,000 U.S. troops in place - twice the number that were there when he came into office in January. About 130,000 U.S. troops are currently serving in Iraq.

Special Operations

As McKiernan’s replacement, Gates has recommended Lieutenant Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of the U.S. military’s top-secret Joint Special Operations Command, which was responsible for tracking down top Al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal
Gates praised McChrystal’s deep counterinsurgency experience and said he will bring “fresh thinking” to the battle front.

McKiernan has been commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan for about 11 months. A typical posting runs two years.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States couldn’t wait until 2010 to make a change in military leadership.

Gates, who visited Afghanistan last week to monitor preparations for the White House’s new counter-insurgency strategy, said he had decided to ask for McKiernan’s resignation after seeking the advice of others.

“I made these decisions only after careful consideration of a great number of factors, including the advice of Admiral Mullen and [head U.S. Central Command] General [David] Petraeus," said Gates.

He added, "In the end I believe my decisions are in the best interest of our national security and the success of our mission in Afghanistan.”

A Fresh Approach

McKiernan took command of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan in the summer of 2008, under President George Bush. During his tenure, he pressed the Pentagon for additional forces to combat rising violence and the growing Taliban insurgency. He also worked to reduce Afghan civilian deaths, without much success.

Last week, a U.S. air strike killed several dozen civilians, triggering angry criticism from Afghan officials.

Gates denied that McKiernan had done anything specific to lose his command.

“Nothing went wrong and there was nothing specific. It simply was my conviction, based on my consultations with Admiral Mullin and General Petraeus, that a fresh approach, a fresh look, in the context of the new strategy, probably was in our best interest,” he said.

“The New York Times” quoted defense officials as saying that McKiernan was being replaced because he took a “conventional approach to what has become one of the most complicated military challenges in American history.”

When asked if McKiernan's resignation ends his military career, Gates replied, "Probably."