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Military Shake-up in Afghanistan Signals New Strategy Push

May 11, 2009 at 6:00 PM EST
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates tapped Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the new top commander in Afghanistan, replacing Gen. David McKiernan. Time magazine's Pentagon reporter Mark Thompson examines the move.
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JIM LEHRER: The U.S. military leadership in Afghanistan got a shake-up today. Defense Secretary Gates brought in a new overall commander as the war with the Taliban escalates.

Gates asked Army General David McKiernan to step down after less than a year on the job. His replacement is Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. Army Lieutenant General David Rodriguez was named deputy commander for Afghanistan. Both changes are subject to Senate confirmation.

Secretary Gates announced them at a briefing with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

ROBERT GATES, secretary of Defense: We have not been able to fully resource our military effort in Afghanistan in recent years. But I believe, resources or no, that our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches from our military leaders.

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.

After consultation with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of Central Command, and with the approval of the president, I have asked for the resignation of General David McKiernan.

Let none of this detract from, nor cause us ever to forget General McKiernan’s long and distinguished career of military service. For decades, in peace and war, Dave McKiernan has led hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform with conviction, integrity and courage.

BARBARA STARR, CNN Pentagon correspondent: So what specifically was he not doing that he — you said you wanted fresh thinking, fresh eyes. Did he resist your ideas? Did he resist change? Was he uncooperative with the new thinking, the new way forward? What went wrong here?

ROBERT GATES: Nothing went wrong, and there was nothing specific. It is — it simply was my conviction, based on my consultations with Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus, that a fresh approach, a fresh look in the context of the new strategy probably was in our best interest.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: I have said that we must focus all of our effort in terms of making Afghanistan better. There probably is no more critical ingredient than that than leadership. And, again, along with all the other changes, it’s time now. And that’s why I made that recommendation.

ROBERT GATES: I would simply say that both General McChrystal and General Rodriguez bring a unique skill set in counterinsurgency to these issues. And I think that they will provide the kind of new leadership and fresh thinking that the admiral and I have been talking about.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner continues our lead story report.

Replacement brings a change of pace

Mark Thompson
Time magazine
It's been 58 years and one month to the day since President Truman fired General MacArthur. We're replacing a wartime commander in the middle of a war. It's extraordinary.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the shake-up, we turn to Mark Thompson, Pentagon correspondent for Time magazine.

Mark, let's pick up where the reporters in the briefing room left off. What have you learned was behind this decision, this really rather dramatic shake-up?

MARK THOMPSON, Time magazine: Yes, it is rather dramatic, Margaret. I mean, it's been 58 years and one month to the day since President Truman fired General MacArthur. We're replacing a wartime commander in the middle of a war. It's extraordinary.

General McChrystal -- I had him described to me today as a bull dog, a bull terrier, and a bulldozer. He is not a passive person. He's got the Joint Staff going to work earlier in the morning since he's become director of operations. He's a real go-getter. He will take what he needs to win the war, fellow officers are telling me.

General McKiernan, for his good 37 years of service, was far more of an old-school Army officer. He was an armor officer. He fought in Desert Storm, you know, a generation ago. And he was relatively passive. He waited for the system to bring him what he needed.

General Gates was in Afghanistan last week and expressed great discomfort over the fact that some U.S. soldiers there did not have the stuff they needed. And Gates contended that they should have had it and they didn't. And he was upset. But this plainly was in train long before last week.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, General McKiernan, though, is the one who pushed for additional forces in Afghanistan hard in the first place, and it's going to double over the course of this year. He even had wanted more forces. Was that a factor at all? Was there any friction over that?

MARK THOMPSON: Secretary Gates says no, but the fact of the matter is, the Obama administration has come in somewhat similar to LBJ coming in, in 1963, '64, when we were just on the cusp of massive escalation in Vietnam. They do not want to go down this road.

Secretary Gates has made it very clear he does not want a big American footprint. Basically, they put on hold the request for 10,000 more troops in 2010 to see if they can get by with less, instead of asking for all that McKiernan was seeking this year.

'Fresh ideas, fresh thinking'

Mark Thompson
Time magazine
Plainly, Afghanistan is not Iraq. The trouble we now face in Afghanistan isn't from the population as a whole; rather, it's from al-Qaida and Taliban that is salted around.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when they kept saying fresh ideas, fresh thinking, fresh leadership, what does that mean in the Afghanistan context? What are they looking for?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, basically what they are looking for is someone who's willing to challenge authority, even back here at home in Washington. When McChrystal was in Iraq going after al-Qaida, you know, he got Zarqawi. He got some of these bad guys. He merged...

MARGARET WARNER: He got Saddam Hussein.

MARK THOMPSON: He got Saddam Hussein. On the Joint Staff and on Joint Special Operations Command, he was arguing that we, American soldiers, should be willing to go into Pakistan and do stuff. That caused a big stink, but it shows the sort of engaged, forward-pushing fellow he is.

Plainly, Afghanistan is not Iraq. The trouble we now face in Afghanistan isn't from the population as a whole; rather, it's from al-Qaida and Taliban that is salted around. And there is a sense in the military today that special operators are far more able to go in and take out these bad guys than some sort of large U.S. military presence.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you mentioned Pakistan. In fact, does the commander in Afghanistan not only command Afghanistan forces, but also whatever we do in Pakistan, for example, the drone attacks that are going on there now?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, the drone attacks that are purportedly going on are done by the CIA and are not under the Pentagon's umbrella. But, plainly, we currently can go into Pakistan in terms of hot pursuit after bad guys, but we aren't going any further than that after the screw-up last September that generated such ire in Pakistan.

It's going to be very -- I mean, I talked to some top people at the Pentagon today, and I said, "Well, what's going to be different?" And their explanation was, "Listen, Gates wants to win. He's picked the people who are going to let him win."

He doesn't know precisely what they're going to do, but I think what you're going to see is more nimbleness, more agility, and doing it with a relatively smaller footprint.

Lessons for the new team

Mark Thompson
Time magazine
Now, when the Pentagon wanted to promote colonels to become brigadier general last year, Gates brought back Petraeus to sit on that promotion board. He also brought back McChrystal. They think alike.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Admiral Mullen has said -- and so has Secretary Gates -- that there's not just a military solution here, that there has to be a sort of governance piece. They're not walking away from that, are they?

MARK THOMPSON: No, I mean, I think General McKiernan, as an old-school Army officer, was very much one to stick inside his lane. He was military-centric. He was not in the Dave Petraeus mold.

Now, when the Pentagon wanted to promote colonels to become brigadier general last year, Gates brought back Petraeus to sit on that promotion board. He also brought back McChrystal. They think alike. As military men, they realize their charter is much broader than guns.

And I think, you know, when was the last time people who pay attention to what's happening out of Afghanistan saw General McKiernan? Well, he's sort of been radio silent since he's been there. I think it will be much different with Stan McChrystal.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, are there lessons that -- McChrystal and Rodriguez, also, have both been to Afghanistan before. They've both, I think, been in Iraq?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And they're both pretty close to Petraeus.

MARK THOMPSON: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: So are there additional lessons from Iraq that you think now, with this new team, will be applied in Afghanistan?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, but I think it is important to realize that the two contingencies are markedly different and there is no one-size-fits-all. Plainly, McChrystal was able to go after the bad guys in Iraq in a way that I don't think we've really seen yet in Afghanistan. And I think that will be the thing for the folks on the outside to look at and see what's different in six or eight months.

Rethinking Afghan strategy

Mark Thompson
Time magazine
We at least need to have a presence there, and we need to learn from our mistakes. And the way to do that is to keep the flow of forces going back and forth all the time.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, didn't McChrystal also head this task force that was quietly under Gates -- no, under Mullen, actually working on how Afghan strategy could be improved and the way troops are deployed?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, he's arguing, as much was done with special operators when he commanded them in Iraq, that you should think of it as a clothesline if you're a military officer engaged in Afghanistan.

You're either in Afghanistan or you're back in Washington working Afghanistan. And then you go back to Afghanistan. You're not going to go to Fort Benning, Fort Stewart, or Kosovo, or some other place. You're going to concentrate on Afghanistan, because the Taliban has been there for centuries.

We at least need to have a presence there, and we need to learn from our mistakes. And the way to do that is to keep the flow of forces going back and forth all the time.

Also, he believes, McChrystal does, that the deployment cycle should be much shorter. You want people to leave saying, "Gee, if I'd been there a little longer, I could have done this," and that they'll be hungry to go back again after they've come back home, spent some time with their family, worked the issue hard here from the theoretical scholarly point of view, and then head back.

And I think that's what you'll see happening there soon.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly -- and I'm sorry to make this brief -- but, of course, the civilian casualties issue. President Karzai arrived here last week right after a horrific attack where scores, at least, were killed in one of the provinces in Afghanistan. Was that at all a factor here?

MARK THOMPSON: No. I mean, as Secretary Gates pointed out today, the civilian casualties in Afghanistan this year are 40 percent lower than they were at the same time last year.

So this was underway well before that. But this is a particularly thorny issue that more troops on the ground, especially special operators on the ground, may be able to ameliorate.

MARGARET WARNER: And fewer bombing raids.

MARK THOMPSON: Fewer bombing raids.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Thompson, Time magazine, thank you.

MARK THOMPSON: You, too, Margaret.