U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday his ouster of the top commander in Afghanistan would not disrupt strategy in a war that his defense chief acknowledged was progressing more slowly than expected.
Obama, seeking to reassure allies in the region after the biggest military shake-up of his presidency, stressed that the start of a troop withdrawal in July 2011 did not mean the United States would be "switching off the lights" on the unpopular, nine-year-old war.
Obama fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal Wednesday for remarks he and his aides made in an explosive article in Rolling Stone magazine that disparaged the president and other civilian leaders.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates described Obama's decision to name General David Petraeus, widely credited with salvaging the war in Iraq, to replace McChrystal as "the best possible outcome to an awful situation."
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he felt physically sick after reading the Rolling Stone piece, which put a spotlight on tensions within Obama's war cabinet.
Petraeus, now head of the U.S. military's Central Command, will face a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
'Will not miss a beat'
Gates said Petraeus will have the authority to adjust war plans and military tactics once he gets to Kabul but that he was committed to the current counterinsurgency strategy.
"General Petraeus understands that strategy because he helped shape it," Obama said at a joint news conference with visiting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
"And my expectation is that he will be outstanding in implementing it and we will not miss a beat because of the change in command in the Afghan theater."
The war in Afghanistan has reached a critical stage despite the presence of about 140,000 foreign troops, with the Taliban at its strongest since the Islamist movement was overthrown in 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion.
June already has been the deadliest month for foreign forces, with 79 troops killed.
More than 300 foreign troops have died in Afghanistan this year, compared with 521 for all of last year, according to icasualties.org. Far more insurgents have been killed but hundreds of civilians also have died, most in Taliban bombings but many in crossfire or misdirected air strikes.
'Harder than we anticipated'
"I do not believe we are bogged down," Gates said in a briefing at the Pentagon. "I believe we are making some progress. It is slower and harder than we anticipated."
McChrystal was the second senior commander in Afghanistan ousted by the Obama administration in a year, after General David McKiernan was pulled out in June 2009 after just one year on the job.
But U.S. officials insisted the latest shake-up was not a sign that Washington's commitment to the war was wobbling.
"I don't think there's disarray in the United States armed forces. And the Taliban would be making a very serious mistake if they thought that, if they drew that conclusion form this," Gates said.
The Taliban said Obama fired McChrystal to shift blame for policy mistakes and called his strategy a "failure."
Obama was "tricky by washing his hands on McChrystal in order to maintain his own image and that of his party in America and the world," a Taliban spokesman said in a statement.
Much of the debate in the United States about Obama's Afghanistan strategy is centering on the timeline to start a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops in July 2011, conditions permitting.
Obama stressed that July 2011 was only the start of a gradual process.
"We did not say that, starting July 2011, suddenly there would be no troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan," Obama said. "We didn't say we'd be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us."
Gates said Petraeus and the military as a whole supported the timeline for the gradual withdrawal. But Mullen noted that July 2011 was still more than a year off, adding "we don't know the pace and we don't know the place."
McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy aims to take on the Taliban where it is strongest -- in its Kandahar spiritual homeland in the south -- and boost security simultaneously with a push for improved civilian governance and development.
Mullen said he expected a long slog. Securing Kandahar, the linchpin of Obama's war effort, would be "an extraordinarily complex challenge."