Top U.S. General Out As Afghan Commander

The Pentagon is replacing its top commander in Afghanistan. General David McKiernan has been in charge of the mission there and had pushed for big troop increases for months. The Obama administration is sending more troops, but has decided it wants new leadership, too. McKiernan is to be replaced by Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A new American general has been selected to take command in Afghanistan. He's a Green Beret, and that could be a clue as to why he was picked. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about what Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal would bring to the counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Tom, General McChrystal, he's served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. What would you say he's known for?

BOWMAN: Well, he's known for being, of course, a Green Beret. And those are highly skilled soldiers that are adept with working with local forces and governments going after insurgents. He spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and Iraq as head of what's called the Joint Special Operations command. That's a secretive and elite counterterrorism force. They were helpful in getting Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was head al-Qaida in Iraq. And Gates pointed to those - what he called - unique skills were important in McChrystal's selection.

But he also has somewhat of a blemish on his record, too. He was involved in the case involving Army Ranger Pat Tillman. He was a former professional football player who was killed in Afghanistan. And McChrystal approved a Silver Star medal for Tillman, and in that award, it said he was killed, basically, in the line of enemy fire. Now, behind the scenes, McChrystal was telling government officials go easy what you say publicly about how he died, because he suspected friendly fire, and that's, in fact, what happened, that Tillman was killed by his own troops. And McChrystal was one of eight officers recommended for disciplinary action in the Pentagon investigation, but the Army took no action against him.

MONTAGNE: In light of that, what was it about other aspects of his service that has gotten him this appointment?

BOWMAN: Well, I think recently, as he was director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, he was heavily involved in the new Afghan strategy, sending in more troops, more civilian experts, working much more with local leaders rather than just President Hamid Karzai. So he really has been seen as a key player over the past - at least the past year on the Afghanistan issue. So that's clearly an issue that brings him to the fore and makes him what the Pentagon officials say is a right choice for the job.

MONTAGNE: And General McChrystal is replacing General David McKiernan in Afghanistan, who was only commander there for 11 months. I mean, is he viewed as having done something wrong?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, Gates didn't say - and he was pressed on this point repeatedly yesterday by reporters. But those at the Pentagon and elsewhere say that McKiernan was maybe too conventional, not really adept at this kind of counterinsurgency warfare. He led the ground war in Iraq in 2003. They considered him too, what they call, old Army.

And someone who was recently in Afghanistan said McKiernan kept talking about going after the insurgents. He really wasn't focused on, they said, on protecting the population, which is the key thing in insurgencies like this. But McKiernan supporters say, you know, he did understand counterinsurgency, but he never got the help he needed.

He repeatedly, over the past year, has asked for a lot more troops, and he only recently received those additional troops - 21,000 U.S. forces are going to be heading over. And also, McKiernan was pressing to create more local forces, and they point to that as another way that he was really dealing with the counterinsurgency and trying to protect the local folks.

MONTAGNE: So is General McChrystal expected to come up, in a sense, with a new plan? You've mentioned a number of aspects of how this fight is presumably going to be fought. Is he going to do that much better than his predecessor?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, that's a really good question, you know, and nobody really knows at this point. Counterinsurgencies generally last a decade or more. They've already been fighting in Afghanistan, of course, for eight years now, and they're only just getting the added troops and the civilian experts that they need to help rebuild the country.

So the hope there is after maybe three or five more years in Afghanistan, you can build up the Afghan police and army forces, and then you can start pulling back U.S. forces at that time. But still, you're in for quite a few more years there.

MONTAGNE: Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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