WASHINGTON — Army Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is being removed to bring in "new leadership" and "fresh thinking" in the war against the Taliban-led insurgency, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Monday.
McKiernan's successor is Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a veteran counterinsurgency expert. He will take charge as the administration begins to implement its new strategy for the worsening conflict in Afghanistan and a growing insurgency in neighboring nuclear-armed Pakistan by allies of al Qaida and the Afghan Taliban.
The administration also is trying to contain a furor in Afghanistan over the killings of civilians by U.S. bombs in western Farah Province, although a senior U.S. defense official, who asked not to be further identified, said Gates had requested McKiernan's resignation before last week's incident.
There are more than 75,000 U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan. Another 21,000 American soldiers are due to deploy this year, including 17,000 destined for southern Afghanistan, the Taliban heartland and opium production center.
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President Barack Obama has called Afghanistan the central front in the fight against al Qaida. In a startling admission, Gates told a news conference he didn't know what new strategy and tactics would be adopted with the arrival of the new U.S. troops in the south, where violence is at the highest levels since the 2001 U.S.-led intervention.
"The challenge that we give the new leadership (is) how do we do better? What ideas do you have? What fresh thinking do you have? Are there different ways of accomplishing our goals? How can we be more effective?" said Gates, who recently returned from Afghanistan.
"In some ways we are learning as we go," added Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said he hoped that McKiernan's successor, McChrystal, would "make some recommendations about how to move forward as rapidly as possible."
Obama issued a statement saying he "agreed with the recommendation of the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the implementation of a new strategy in Afghanistan called for new military leadership."
Gates said that Army Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who has extensive experience in Afghanistan, would return there as McChrystal's deputy.
U.S. defense officials, who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly, said that McKiernan, an armor officer by background, is being replaced because he's been too conventional in his approach to a conflict that requires greater counterinsurgency skills.
McChrystal, who requires Senate confirmation, is a former U.S. Special Forces commander with an extensive background in counter-insurgency that better fits with Obama's new strategy. He currently works on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
While authorizing more U.S. troops to improve security, the Obama strategy calls for greater emphasis on nonmilitary assistance programs such as road-building, education and improved governance that would be boosted through a "surge" of civilian experts.
"With agreement on a new strategy, and a new mission, and a new national approach and international approach in Afghanistan . . . this is the right time to make the change," Gates said. "It's time for new leadership and fresh eyes."
The Pentagon adviser said that the new approach in Afghanistan wasn't coming naturally" to McKiernan, 60, whose specialty in the military was armor.
Gates noted that McKiernan had expected to serve 18 to 24 months, and that his removal would "probably" mean the end of his military career.
Gates' announcement came days after talks in Washington between Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai that were marked by tensions over the battle in Farah between the Taliban and U.S. and Afghan forces.
Afghan officials said that up to 147 civilians were killed in U.S. airstrikes, a figure disputed as exaggerated by U.S. officials, who blamed many deaths on the Taliban.
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