WASHINGTON (AFP) – US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has sacked the top commander in Afghanistan to make way for “new thinking” in the seven-year-old war that has struggled to halt a widening Taliban insurgency.
Gates, explaining on Monday his decision to replace General David McKiernan after less than a year on the job as the US and NATO commander, 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 escalates the war against a spreading Taliban insurgency, approving deployments that will double the size of the US force in Afghanistan before he took office in January to 68,000 by the fall.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama “agreed” with the decision to replace McKiernan but “was grateful for and impressed by the leadership that General McKiernan demonstrated,” noting that the general had repeatedly pressed for a boost in troop numbers in Afghanistan.
The new commander will inherit growing instability in neighboring Pakistan and a public outcry among Afghans over rising civilian casualties from US air strikes.
A suspected US drone attack killed up to eight militants in the remote Pakistan tribal area of South Waziristan near the Afghan border Tuesday in the second such strike in days, according to security officials.
Since August 2008, there have been more than 40 such strikes, which have killed more than 390 people.
As part of the overhaul of the US command, Gates said he had named his military adviser, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, to serve under McChrystal in a newly created position. Rodriguez previously oversaw operations in eastern Afghanistan.
The new Afghan war strategy places a heavy emphasis on special forces, the secretive side of counter-insurgency warfare that McChrystal is steeped in, having served as a top special operations commander from 2003 to 2008.
McKiernan’s career, however, has been devoted to conventional warfare, including 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 his decision, which he said he took after consulting with the president, the top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, and the head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), General David Petraeus.
Gates and Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, viewed the decision as a logical step after the White House arrived at a new strategy, a defense official said.
The decision drew immediate support from key US lawmakers.
McChrystal and Rodriguez “will form a potent team to lead our efforts in Afghanistan,” said Representative John McHugh, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
The reshuffle was a rare rebuke of a top wartime commander. The last such high-profile move came when president Harry Truman removed General Douglas MacArthur in 1951.
Gates acknowledged that McKiernan’s military career was probably over.
McChrystal was “by all accounts a superstar” with a record of battlefield successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, said analyst Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
“So Gates is perhaps replacing a good general with a very good one,” he wrote on the think tank’s website.
McChrystal has been credited with targeted operations that hunted down and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2006 and of devising the still classified tactics used to smash Al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed cells in 2007 and 2008.
But special operators also have been accused of detainee abuses under his command. And McChrystal has been criticized for his handling of the “friendly fire” death in Afghanistan in 2004 of Army Ranger and former National Football League (NFL) player Pat Tillman.
The Afghan war has dragged on since the Taliban were driven from power in a US-led invasion in 2001, launched in the wake of the September 11 attacks.