The United States has announced the replacement of its top general in Afghanistan, a few weeks after U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a new strategy aimed at ending the nearly eight-year conflict.
With U.S. and Afghan forces continuing to battle Taliban insurgents, the newly appointed American commander, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, and his deputy, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, will face major obstacles in Afghanistan after they are confirmed into their new positions by Congress.
McChrystal replaces General David McKiernan, who has been commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan for only 11 months, although a typical posting lasts two years.
On May 11, the White House issued a statement that President Obama was “grateful for and impressed by the leadership that General McKiernan demonstrated in calling for additional resources for the fight in Afghanistan.”
But at a Pentagon press briefing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said McKiernan was being replaced to make way for “new thinking.” Explaining his decision to ask McKiernan for his resignation, Gates said: “With agreement on a new strategy and a new mission, and a new national approach and international approach in Afghanistan, that if there were to be a change, this is the right time to make the change, at a time when we are at the beginning of the implementation of a new strategy.”
“It is in that context that I emphasize that the focus here is simply on getting fresh thinking, fresh eyes on the problem, and how we implement the strategy and the mission going forward,” Gates said.
The change in command comes as 21,000 additional U.S. troops are starting to deploy to Afghanistan -- part of President Obama’s new strategy to improve security and stability. The U.S. president plans to double the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the end of this year.
Gates, who visited Afghanistan last week to monitor preparations for the White House’s new counterinsurgency strategy, said he had decided to ask for McKiernan’s resignation after seeking the advice of top U.S military commanders Admiral Mike Mullen and General David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. central command who leads the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.
McChrystal, a former commander of the U.S. military’s top-secret Joint Special Operations Command, is known for his deep counterinsurgency experience. He headed U.S. military operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.
McChrystal is credited with successfully dismantling Al-Qaeda’s leadership in Iraq, culminating with the killing of the network’s leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in April 2006. His deputy Rodriguez has also led U.S. forces is eastern Afghanistan.
Experts say that Gates’ praise of the counterinsurgency skills of the new military leaders in Afghanistan also hints at the likely shape of military efforts on the ground.
“I would simply say that both General McChrystal and General Rodriguez bring a unique skill set in counterinsurgency to these issues,” Gates said. “And I think that they will provide the kind of new leadership and fresh thinking that the admiral and I have been talking about.”
Speaking in February just after the announcement of fresh U.S. troop deployments to Afghanistan, General McKiernan had called the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency “very resilient,” and termed the conflict in Afghanistan a “stalemate.”
Julian Lindley-French, a professor of military operational science at the Royal Military Academy of the Netherlands, told RFE/RL the Pentagon clearly hopes McChrystal’s leadership will help break that impasse.
“If one might see a difference with McChrystal, it will be the drive [for] much better intelligence. It means human intelligence. Building relationships with key local leaders, in a way that hasn’t been done up till now,” Lindley-French said.
“Often the interface between people who know their community and coalition forces has been clumsy,” Lindley-French continued. “And I am sure that McChrystal, with his background, will try to ensure that that interface, particularly as he is going to embed American and coalition units with every Afghan army unit, will be come much more accurate. There will be much more sensitivity shown. And airpower of the kind we have seen that has caused these casualties will be used on a much more judicious basis.”
Lindley-French said that the next two years will be the most critical phase of the Afghan campaign, and that winning the trust and cooperation of the Afghan population now amounts to success for the international stabilization effort in Afghanistan.
But events in neighboring Pakistan are just as likely to determine McChrystal’s eventual success or failure. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has termed a fresh military campaign against the Taliban as a fight “for the survival of the country.”
In the latest violence to strike Afghanistan, at least six Afghan soldiers and three civilians were killed in multiple suicide attacks on government buildings in the southeastern city of Khost, according to Radio Free Afghanistan’s correspondent in the region.
Afghan security forces claim that at least 10 suicide bombers who launched the attacks have died. Media reports suggest that three American soldiers were also wounded in the efforts to confront the militants.
In another part of the country, nearly 90 young girls were taken to hospital after a suspected gas attack at their school in Kapisa Province, the third in a series of such incidents north of Kabul.