WASHINGTON – The top US military officer was en route to Afghanistan Friday to explain the sacking of the allied commander in Kabul as the Obama administration insisted the United States was not "bogged down" in the fight against the Taliban.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, departed late Thursday for a tour of Afghanistan and Pakistan to reassure the region's leaders that the war effort would not be derailed by the departure of General Stanley McChrystal.
"My message will be clear. Nothing changes about our strategy. Nothing changes about the mission," said Mullen.
He spoke a day after McChrystal was forced to step down as commander of the NATO-led force over disparaging remarks about administration officials in a bombshell magazine article this week.
McChrystal's disrespectful display was "unacceptable" and President Barack Obama's choice as the new commander, General David Petraeus, was the "best possible outcome to an awful situation," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the same press conference.
Gates insisted there was forward movement in the Afghan war, in the latest bid by the administration to defend the mission in the face of troubling signs from the battlefront and a spike in allied and US troop casualties.
"I do not believe we are bogged down. I believe we are making some progress," Gates said.
"It is slower and harder than we anticipated."
The defense secretary said he fully supported the change in command and that allies or adversaries should not "misinterpret" the decision as a softening of Washington's commitment to the war.
Obama said Petraeus, revered in Washington for his role in turning around the Iraq war, would hit the ground running thanks to his work on Afghanistan as head of the regional Central Command, which oversees both war zones.
"Not only does he have extraordinary experience in Iraq, not only did he help write the manual for dealing with insurgencies, but he also is intimately familiar with the players," including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama said at press conference with his Russian counterpart.
Obama faced calls from some lawmakers to shake up the diplomatic team for Afghanistan, which they said was needed to repair strained military-civilian relations and bolster ties with Karzai's government.
But a State Department spokesman said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had full confidence in the diplomats carrying out policy on Afghanistan.
McChrystal's strategy entailed pouring tens of thousands of extra troops into Afghanistan to win over civilians and train local forces.
He won early praise for a drop in civilian casualties, for reaching out to Afghans and for working overtime to bring Karzai on board.
The dismissal of NATO commander General McChrystal was met with dismay in Kabul, where Afghans and foreign diplomats praised his bold efforts to change the course of the war.
The Afghan presidency credited McChrystal with helping to "increase the level of trust" with the Afghan people since he assumed command last year.
Karzai and Obama have endured months of discord and worsening relations, but made an effort to present a united front during the Afghan leader's last visit to Washington on May 12.
And as NATO passed a grim milestone with June becoming the deadliest month for its soldiers since the war began almost nine years ago, the Taliban professed indifference to which US general heads the military operation in Afghanistan.
"We don't care whether it's McChrystal or Petraeus," Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"We'll be fighting the invading forces until they leave."
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