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U.S., Afghan Officials Say War Strategy on Track After Leadership Shakeup

June 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Reaction rolled in today after the abrupt change of U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. American and Afghan leaders promised the new commander, General David Petraeus, represents a change in personnel, not in war policy.

From the commander in chief on down, the refrain was the same. President Obama spoke after meeting with his Russian counterpart.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are in the midpoint of implementing the strategy that we came up with last year. We’ll do a review at the end of this year.

General Petraeus understands that strategy because he helped shape it. And my expectation is that he will be outstanding in implementing it, and we will not miss a beat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty-four hours earlier, Mr. Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal for publicly criticizing U.S. civilian leaders. But he suggested today the rest of his national security team is staying put.

BARACK OBAMA: I am confident that we have got a team in place that can execute

JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part, General Petraeus led the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. He currently commands all U.S. forces across the Middle East and Central Asia.

Pending Senate confirmation, he will inherit 120,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, where he visited last April.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, commander, U.S. Central Command: As we learned in Iraq, as we have relearned in Afghanistan, when you fight to take away the — the momentum in the sanctuaries and safe havens of the enemy, the enemy fights back. And that can be a difficult and tough fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At a Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the incoming commander has the latitude to revise the Afghan war plan.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. secretary of defense: The president has established the strategy, but from my perspective, General Petraeus will have the flexibility to look at the campaign plan and the approach and — and all manner of things when he gets to Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, had sharply disagreed with General McChrystal’s call for more troops last year. But today he told Afghan reporters — quote — “The United States cannot allow diversions to prevent us from carrying out our mission with unity of purpose.”

That mission has been especially costly this month, with 80 international troops killed, the most of any month in the eight-year war. But Secretary Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, defended the war effort.

ROBERT GATES: I do not believe we are bogged down. I believe we are making some progress. It is slower and harder than we anticipated. But for all the reasons the chairman just articulated, I think we are moving forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gates said Petraeus was the natural choice for Afghanistan because he already knows the players and the plan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had argued that the surest way to make progress was to keep General McChrystal on the job. But a Karzai spokesman today voiced confidence in Petraeus.

WAHEED OMAR, Afghan presidential spokesman: We hear from lots of sources so that he is one of the senior most generals in the U.S. Army, so it is a show of respect to what’s happening here in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Around Kabul, ordinary Afghans praised McChrystal for cutting civilian casualties.

MAN (through translator): When McChrystal wasn’t yet in Afghanistan, there were lots of civilian killings here. But after McChrystal came to Afghanistan, killings of civilians decreased.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Others said they knew little about the new American commander but they voiced hope.

MAN (through translator): We don’t have any information about Petraeus, but he may do a good job as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The general met today with senators at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. His confirmation hearing is set to begin next Tuesday.