The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, was forced out Monday in an abrupt shakeup intended to bring a more aggressive and innovative approach to a worsening seven-year-old war.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the decision in terse comments at the Pentagon, saying that “fresh eyes were needed” and that “a new approach was probably in our best interest.” When asked if the dismissal ended the general’s military career, Gates replied: “Probably.”
The move reflects a belief that the war in Afghanistan, waged against an increasingly strong Taliban and its supporters across a rugged, sprawling country, is growing ever more complex. Defense officials said that McKiernan, a respected career armor officer, had been removed primarily because he had brought too conventional an approach to the challenge.
He is to be replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal a former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command who served in Afghanistan as chief of staff of military operations in 2001 and 2002 and recently ran all commando operations in Iraq.
Forces under McChrystal’s command were credited with finding and capturing Saddam Hussein and with tracking and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. McChrystal’s success in using intelligence and firepower to track and kill insurgents, along with his training in unconventional warfare that emphasizes the need to protect the population, made him the best choice for the command in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials said.
At the same time, he will be confronted with deep tensions over the conduct of special operations forces in Afghanistan, whose aggressive tactics are seen by Afghan officials as directly responsible for many of the U.S. mistakes that have resulted in the deaths of Afghan civilians.
The announcement comes as Pentagon officials have begun to describe Afghanistan as the military’s top priority, even more important than the war in Iraq. President Barack Obama announced a major overhaul of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in March; planned troop levels of more than 60,000 Americans will be the highest than at any time since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban leadership in late 2001, a triumph that has given way to a protracted counterinsurgency campaign.
Pentagon officials said it appeared that McKiernan was the first general to be dismissed from command of a theater of combat since Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.
At a Pentagon news conference on Monday, Gates praised McKiernan for what he called his “long and distinguished” service, but said of Afghanistan: “Our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches by our military leaders.” McKiernan had served in his current command for only 11 months, about half the length of such tours.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Gates in making the announcement.