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Top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan to step down

Army Gen. David McKiernan will be replaced by Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded special operation forces in Iraq.

May 12, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — In ousting his top commander in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates agreed Monday with growing criticism in military circles that the U.S. war effort has been suffering from stale ideas and inadequate innovation.

A critical failure of Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, replaced as the commander in charge of U.S. and NATO forces, was the lack of bold, new operational plans and a reluctance to adapt successful strategies from Iraq, according to officers and Defense officials.

By contrast, the officer Gates has nominated to take his place, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is regarded as a nimble thinker who is expected to more aggressively work to improve Afghan forces, overhaul military intelligence collection and institute organizational changes that McKiernan resisted.

Under the outgoing commander, military officers in Washington complained privately for months about the U.S. command in Afghanistan. Although few blamed McKiernan by name, Gates made it plain Monday that he had heard their complaints.

"Our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches from our military leaders," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference. "Today we have a new policy set by our new president. We have a new strategy, a new mission and a new ambassador. I believe that new military leadership also is needed."

Gates has ousted a succession of top military officials since becoming Defense secretary, firing the Army secretary and top leaders of the Air Force as well as accepting the resignation of the former head of U.S. forces in the Middle East. But McKiernan is the first ground commander fired by Gates. McKiernan, who has been in command for 11 months, was originally supposed to serve for up to two years.

Although officials praised McKiernan, who also helped lead U.S. ground forces during the Iraq invasion, Gates acknowledged Monday that the move would end the 58-year-old general's military career.

The step was yet another signal of growing U.S. apprehension over the war in Afghanistan, compounded by concerns in neighboring Pakistan.

Gates said he consulted top military officials on the change, including Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, chief of the U.S. Central Command. Military officials said it was Mullen who pushed the hardest for a change, concerned that otherwise the U.S. could muddle through the next year.

Gates also obtained approval from President Obama, who in outlining a new strategy six weeks ago said Afghanistan was becoming "increasingly perilous." Obama, who has ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, agreed that the new strategy "called for new military leadership," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Top Defense officials were disappointed that McKiernan did not quickly lay out a detailed campaign plan in the days following the announcement of a new strategy.

"Gen. McKiernan is a good man," said Jack Keane, a retired Army general who advised the Bush administration on the 2007 troop buildup in Iraq. "But he was the wrong man at the wrong time. What the war needs is a new strategy and a new plan."

Several senior military officials pointed to the example of Petraeus in underscoring the importance of carrying out a new presidential strategy. When nominated by President Bush to take charge in Baghdad, Petraeus shelved his predecessor's plans and outlined a broad array of new initiatives: walling off Baghdad neighborhoods to protect them from attack and setting up joint U.S.-Iraqi outposts across the country.

In Afghanistan, McKiernan has resisted overhauling his operations, sticking with a NATO campaign plan that critics consider outdated and ineffective. McKiernan did not want to alienate NATO allies by changing the organizational structure of the command or altering agreed-upon operational plans, military analysts said.

Current and former officials have also criticized McKiernan and his command for failing to move quickly enough to adapt some of the strategies that worked during the Iraq troop buildup.

"We need to apply what we know works," said a senior military official. "You have to secure the population, you have to help them help themselves and you have to make them believe their future is in their hands."

Critical to success in Iraq was the rapid expansion of the local security forces. In 2007, Iraq added more than 100,000 forces. During the 11 months McKiernan has headed the Afghan mission, the country's army has grown from about 60,000 to about 83,000.

"The growth of the Afghan national security forces has been much too slow. And we have been unwilling to overcome some of the obstacles," said a former Defense official, discussing internal views on condition of anonymity. "But Gen. McChrystal will jump all over that."

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