Troops Surprised About Gen. McChrystal's Ouster

Gen. Stanley McChrystal is being replaced as commander of forces in Afghanistan by the former top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who is in Kandahar province, tells Michele Norris troops did not expect McChrystal to be fired.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now, reaction from the troops in Afghanistan. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is there with U.S. forces in Kandahar. And Tom watched President Obama's speech with a small number of soldiers. He joins us now.

Tom, what was the reaction to the announcement that General McChrystal is out as commander of troops in Afghanistan?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Michele, we talked to a handful of soldiers, and watched the announcement on TV with a few more. I think the sense was - among soldiers - that this was not a firing offense, that McChrystal would likely get, you know, harshly criticized, taken to the woodshed in Washington, and then returned to Kabul to run the war.

And some of the people we talked with said, you know, most of these comments were made by his aides; they were not made by McChrystal. So I think the sense was that he would've survived this Rolling Stone article. But of course, in the end, he was fired by President Obama.

NORRIS: Do you have the sense that the soldiers there actually had access to that Rolling Stone article? Had they had a chance to read it?

BOWMAN: Yes. Throughout the day, the article was being passed all around the space here in Kandahar City, and everyone was reading it. It was the talk of the entire base. So even the lowest-ranking soldiers knew exactly what General McChrystal said about Vice President Biden and some other members of the national security team. So again, it was really the talk of this base here today.

NORRIS: Now, that was only part of the news today. What was the reaction to the news that General David Petraeus would replace General McChrystal?

BOWMAN: I think everybody is pretty surprised that General David Petraeus will come here and run the Afghanistan war. The sense was, I think, that General McChrystal's deputy, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, would likely take over. But when you think about it, Petraeus does make sense. Of course, he's well-known for turning around the Iraq War, with the surge of forces there two years ago.

Also, he heads Central Command, the military command that includes Iraq and Afghanistan. So he has close relationships with President Hamid Karzai and also, officials across the border in Pakistan. Now, also, Petraeus is well- known for writing the Army's counterinsurgency manual in the theory - the focus in this kind of war should be on protecting the population, and not in killing Taliban. So for all those reasons it makes sense but clearly, many people were really surprised by the choice of Petraeus.

NORRIS: Since Petraeus wrote the Army doctrine on counterinsurgency, does this strike you as a strong commitment by President Obama to continue that counterinsurgency strategy there?

BOWMAN: Yeah, I think so. And of course, the president himself said that there are no policy differences between him and General McChrystal. It was all a question of conduct, and what General McChrystal said in that Rolling Stone article. And the president, of course, said that those comments undercut civilian control of the military. So it really came down, again, to a question of judgment and a question of conduct, and not really a question of policy here.

NORRIS: Tom, I want to ask you about something specific in the Rolling Stone article. There were comments in that article that some soldiers are unhappy with the rules of engagement established by General McChrystal, that the mission to protect Afghan civilians means putting American troops at risk. Have you heard those complaints?

BOWMAN: Yes, I have heard those complaints, particularly with Marines out in the western part of where we are now, in Helmand province. They complained that they think the rules of engagement are too restrictive and they can't really go after the Taliban now because they have to be so concerned about killing innocent civilians.

Now, clearly, you know, they don't want to kill innocent civilians, but they believe their hands are tied in going after the Taliban. There's a lot of concern about that.

NORRIS: Tom, thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Michele.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He was speaking to us from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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