US seeks to reassure allies after sacking of commander

WASHINGTON, June 24, 2010 (AFP) - The top US military officer headed Thursday to Afghanistan 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 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.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates(L) listens to questions as US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Admiral Mike Mullen(R) responds regarding the resignation of US Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. AFP

"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.

Endorsing Obama's decision to relieve McChrystal, Mullen said the move was necessary to show the American military remained a "neutral" institution that answered to civilians.

"We are and must remain a neutral instrument of the state, accountable to and respectful of those leaders no matter which party holds sway or which person holds a given office," he said.

The four-star admiral said he felt physically ill when he first read the Rolling Stone profile of McChrystal, which depicted the commander and his aides mocking the vice-president, the national security adviser and the special envoy to the region.

"Honestly, when I first read it, I was nearly sick."

The firestorm over the magazine profile came as the Obama administration faced fresh doubts in Congress about the course of the unpopular war.

Skeptics point to disappointing results in an offensive in Helmand province, corruption plaguing the Kabul government and a delay in a much-touted operation around Kandahar city.

But Mullen said there were encouraging trends in Helmand while Gates sought to explain the delay in Kandahar.

"The Kandahar campaign has in fact been under way for several weeks," Gates said, referring to military operations.

But there was a need "to take more time to set the political framework around Kandahar before proceeding," he said.

In White House meetings to discuss McChrystal's fate, Gates said Obama was the first to propose replacing the general with Petraeus.

The new commander would have leeway to adjust tactics, said Gates, but the overall approach to the war would stay in place.

Key senators said they expected Petraeus to be swiftly confirmed after hearings set for Tuesday.

The uproar over McChrystal coincided with a grim landmark in Afghanistan.

More troop casualties made June the deadliest single month for US-led foreign forces in nearly nine years of conflict.

A total of 79 foreign troops have died so far this month in the war, according to an AFP tally based on the independent website.

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