WASHINGTON America's top general in Afghanistan was ousted Monday, a casualty of President Barack Obama's massive expansion of the war that will surge tens of thousands of troops into Taliban-infested areas in southern Afghanistan, where Canadians have been fighting and dying for years.
The forced ouster of Lieutenant-General David McKiernan and his replacement by Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal, a commander with a controversial background in clandestine warfare and special operations, spearheads a new counter-insurgency strategy.
Fighting the raging Taliban insurgency that threatens Afghanistan “requires new thinking and new approaches by our military leaders,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday
The move comes as Washington takes even greater control of the flagging NATO effort to shore up a shaky government in Kabul, stem the flow of insurgents and weapons streaming back and forth across the border with Pakistan and avert a Taliban renaissance.
Gen. McChrystal has played a role in crafting the more aggressive and wide-ranging Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy for the new president. For the past year, he has served as deputy to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. But his background includes previous combat commands in both Afghanistan and Iraq, including a key role the in beating back the insurgency that nearly defeated U.S. forces in Iraq.
The so-called Iraq surge – the deployment of more then 30,000 extra U.S. troops in and around Baghdad – attracted most of the attention. But Gen. McChrystal's Joint Special Operations Command conducted a secretive and effective campaign of identifying, tracking, attacking and killing key insurgency leaders.
After its most singular success, the killing of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Zarqawi, then-president George W. Bush publicly congratulated Gen. McChrystal's special forces and identified him as their commander, revealing a tightly held secret. An embarrassed military spokesman said: “If the president of the United States said it was, then I'm sure it was.”
Soldiers involved in the JSOC have been repeatedly linked to detainee-abuse allegations, but Gen. McChrystal, a fast-rising star in the U.S. army, has not been tainted by those charges.
He has, however, been linked to the now-discredited damage-control effort conducted by the Pentagon after the killing of Corporal Pat Tillman, a football star who joined the military and became an instant hero when he was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. Gen. McChrystal warned other senior officers not to repeat the claims that Cpl. Tillman had died a heroic death saving his comrades in arms when, in fact, he was killed in a friendly-fire accident. Cpl. Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star medal for bravery and touted as a national hero.
Mr. Obama made getting out of Iraq and winning the war in Afghanistan a central plank in his election campaign. Monday's announcement, following the president's commitment of tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan that will push the number of foreign forces over the 100,000 mark, reinforces the new commitment to crushing the Taliban.
“We have a new policy set by our new president,” Mr. Gates said. “We have a new strategy, a new mission, and a new ambassador. I believe that new military leadership also is needed.”
Mr. Gates also confirmed what had long been expected, that Canada will not get another crack at running regional command south – which includes the Taliban and opium-growing heartlands of Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
“The Dutch are in command now. They will be replaced for – at the end of a year by the British, who will be in command for a year, and then we will take command in 2010,” Mr. Gates said. With Ottawa pledged to quit combat operations in 2011, Canada will no longer be in the command rotation.
Canadian forces in Afghanistan are currently commanded by Brigadier-General Jon Vance, who reports to Dutch Major-General Mart de Kruif, who will now report to Gen. McChrystal.
Mr. Gates also announced that a second four-star general, Lt.-Gen. David Rodriguez, also a veteran of Afghanistan who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in the eastern region, will be returning to Kabul as Gen. McChrystal's deputy.
Mr. Obama's Af-Pak strategy (treating the Islamic threat to governments in both Kabul and Islamabad as a single conflict with multiple fronts) is already under a severe test. In Pakistan, an uncertain new civilian government is pushing a recalcitrant military to make combatting the internal threat from Islamic militants the top priority. Meanwhile U.S. missile strikes from unmanned drones continue to be deeply resented as violations of Pakistan sovereignty.
With elections only three months away in Afghanistan, meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai's angry denunciations of civilian casualties caused by Western warplanes have made relations with Washington tense.
Mr. Karzai, who was in Washington last week for talks with Mr. Obama, has publicly demanded an end to air strikes and nighttime raids in an effort to limit civilian casualties.
Scores of innocent Afghans were killed earlier this month in the most recent in a long series of air strikes gone wrong, but the U.S.-led counter-insurgency effort relies on both night-time operations and air power for its combat efforts against the Taliban.
“We can't fight with one hand tied behind our back,” Mr. Obama's national security adviser, retired general James Jones, said in rejecting Mr. Karzai's demands.
Although replacing Gen. McKiernan was clearly planned before the latest outrage over air strikes, the naming of Gen. McChrystal may defuse some of the anger that had hundreds of Afghan students chanting “Death to America” at Kabul's university campus Monday.
Mr. Gates insisted that every effort was and will continue to be made to keep civilian deaths to a minimum.
“The fact of the matter is, civilian casualties since January in Afghanistan are down 40 per cent over a year ago during the same period. And U.S., Afghan, and ISAF casualties are up 75 per cent during the same period,” he said.