While the generals commanding the U.S. led war in Afghanistan might have changed, the strategy and the campaign plan remain the same, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters today.
Gates said his single biggest concern with President Obama’s abrupt dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal was to not allow it to negatively impact the Afghan war effort. Putting Gen. David Petraeus in charge, who he called “one of the great battle captains in American military history,” was the best possible outcome to an “awful situation.”
Obama first suggested Petraeus as a potential replacement for McChrystal, and Gates said it was obvious he was the officer who could move into that position “with hardly a missed beat and continue this campaign.” He emphasized that Petraeus agrees both with the strategy Obama laid out last year and the planned July 2011 drawdown, “which is conditions based,” he added.
He pushed back against reporter’s suggestions that the war in Afghanistan was bogged down or that McChrystal had ordered a delay in the offensive to eject the Taliban from Kandahar. “The Kandahar campaign has been underway for several weeks,” he said, although he acknowledged that the campaign in southern Afghanistan was unfolding more slowly and was more difficult than he anticipated.
On the issue of negotiating with reconcilable elements of the Taliban, Gates said they must suffer more battlefield reverses “before we can sit down with them.”
“Any commander has the flexibility to make changes as he sees fit,” said Joint Chiefs chair, Adm. Mike Mullen, but he did not expect Petraeus to make any significant changes to the campaign plan. “Our focus must be on succeeding in this mission and continuing our efforts in Kandahar.”
On the much discussed and often contentious rules of engagement McChrystal put in place restricting the use of airpower and artillery, Petraeus had approved McChrystal’s various directives intended to reduce civilian casualties, Mullen said. Most of the last 10,000 U.S. troops to arrive as part of the surge over the next few weeks will go to Kandahar.
Mullen said that when he first read the Rolling Stone article that he was nearly physically sick. It was clear from listening to both Gates and Mullen today that the top uniformed leader was the more upset by the disparaging remarks about the Obama administration’s nationals security team by McChrystal and his entourage.
There must be no question about the neutrality of the military, its apolitical aspect or civilian control of the military, Mullen said. “We are and must remain a neutral instrument of the state.”