No more discord in the Afghanistan war command, President Barack Obama vows. With Gen. David Petraeus in charge, the president said Thursday he's assembled the team that will take the U.S. through the months ahead — by all expectations the make-or-break stage of the conflict.
"I am going to be insisting on a unity of purpose on the part of all branches of the U.S. government," the president said. "Our team is going to be moving forward in synch."
Obama said he does not anticipate further firings beyond Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top war commander hired a year ago to turn around a war then sliding into quagmire. He was fired Wednesday for sniping at civilian war bosses in a magazine article.
"I'm paying very close attention," Obama said of his war council. "And I will be insisting on extraordinary performance moving forward."
The Taliban-led insurgency has dug in for a long fight in crucial southern Afghan provinces where McChrystal focused the conflict. Petraeus is expected to continue that campaign, but he will have flexibility to make changes as he sees fit, his civilian and military bosses said Thursday.
"When he gets on the ground, he will assess the situation for himself, and at some point he will make recommendations to the president," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. "At the end of the day, the president will decide whether changes are to be made in the strategy."
Both in Washington and Kabul, U.S. officials tried to stay on-message, insisting that the sudden sacking of McChrystal does not reveal a crisis of confidence in a war that Gates asserted is no longer a stalemate.
"I do not believe we are bogged down," Gates said. "I believe we are making some progress. It is slower and harder than we anticipated."
Obama and his top security advisers also underscored that U.S. forces will begin to come home from Afghanistan next summer, and that the commander taking over for the disgraced McChrystal is pledged to that timetable.
Petraeus told Congress last week that he would recommend delaying the start of a withdrawal planned to begin in July 2011 if conditions in Afghanistan warranted it. He also said then that he supports the pullout plan.
"Gen. Petraeus understands that strategy because he helped shape it," Obama said Thursday. "We will not miss a beat because of the change in command in the Afghan theater."
Obama added that the July 2011 date is the start of the withdrawal, not a moment that the U.S. quits the country entirely.
"We didn't say we'd be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us," Obama said.
The date has always left some wiggle room. The administration says the scope of the drawdown will be determined by how safe Afghanistan is, and how capable the government.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seconded the vote of confidence for Petraeus, who will go before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a hasty confirmation hearing Tuesday.
"He is completely familiar with all of the plans that have been put forth," she said of Petraeus. "And he is going to provide the kind of continuity of leadership that this mission needs and deserves."
Americans are increasingly impatient with the course of the nearly nine-year war. June is the deadliest month of the war so far, with 80 foreign troops killed, of whom 46 were Americans.
Gates said it was Obama who suggested asking Petraeus to take the job, which is technically a demotion from his current post as head of U.S. Central Command.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he takes responsibility for hand-picking McChrystal, but he and Gates said the general's intemperate remarks in Rolling Stone magazine were an aberration.
But McChrystal's team did have run-ins with civilian overlords seen as meddlesome or out of touch. Civilian leaders, for their part, have sometimes struggled to find footing in a war plan that stresses development and civilian input but is almost entirely staffed and financed by the military.
"We clearly are at an enormously difficult time in the execution of the strategy," Mullen said.
He travels Thursday to Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a message that the United States is holding steady.
"In any operation, you make adjustments," Mullen said, adding that he thinks it will be the end of this year before it's clear whether the effort to pacify Kandahar is working.
Mullen, sounding dejected, said McChrystal rightly took the blame for the challenge to civilian authority posed by the remarks he and his aides made in Rolling Stone.
"Honestly, when I first read it, I was nearly sick," Mullen said. "Literally, physically, I couldn't believe it. So I was stunned."
A full Senate vote on Petraeus could follow later next week.
Republicans and Democrats alike have praised the appointment of Petraeus. He was the architect of a troop buildup in Iraq in 2007 that helped turn the war around and is an expert at counterinsurgency operations.
The Taliban seems to be his only detractors. In a taunting statement issued on Thursday, as translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, a Taliban spokesman said Petraeus' "physical competence and his courage" were in question after the four-star general collapsed briefly at a Senate hearing last week.
Petraeus later said he had been dehydrated, but was fine.
Associated Press writers Anne Flaherty, Ben Feller and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
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