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Obama says he's 'confident' in war leadership

Washington Post: President Obama says there will be no additional changes for now in his leadership team on Afghanistan.
General Petraeus Visits JSS Army Outpost
General David Petraeus, the commander of multi national forces in Iraq at the time, walks down a street in Baghdad's Ghazaliya neighborhood in 2007.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

President Obama said Thursday that there will be no additional changes for now in his leadership team on Afghanistan, but that he will be "insisting on unity of purpose" and "paying very close attention" to its performance.

"I'm confident that we've got a team in place that can execute," Obama said.

His comments came as senior Republicans called on Obama to replace the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and the State Department diplomat working most closely on the issue. Both were disparaged by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his aides in published remarks that led Obama to relieve McChrystal of the Afghanistan war command this week.

At the State Department, a spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she has "full confidence" in Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and in Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Eikenberry, in Kabul, acknowledged "vigorous debates" between the embassy and the military but said their effort was unified.

As the dust began to settle around Obama's appointment of Gen. David H. Petraeus as McChrystal's replacement, the administration worked to convince allies, adversaries and the public that the change in leadership did not mean a change in strategy. Obama, speaking to reporters with visiting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, said that "we will not miss a beat."

Addressing reports of divisions between the military -- including Petraeus -- and the White House on the significance of a strategy review in December and the president's pledge to begin drawing down U.S. troop levels in July 2011, Obama said that when he announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops late last year, he never intended to "suddenly" withdraw coalition forces after 18 months.

"We didn't say that we'd be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us," he said. "We said that we'd begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking on more and more responsibility."

Many Democrats have called for a significant turnover to struggling Afghan security forces even sooner; Republicans have said the timeline is unrealistic and undercuts the war effort. Both sides indicated they plan to press Petraeus on the withdrawal question during confirmation hearings on his new job scheduled for Tuesday.

The international effort in Afghanistan passed a grim milestone this week as June became the deadliest month for coalition forces since 2001, with at least 80 troops killed, 46 of them Americans. Most of the deaths were in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where U.S. troops are leading anti-Taliban offensives.

Secretary of State Robert M. Gates told reporters that operations in both provinces are moving forward but that "it is slower and harder than we anticipated."

In their first public statements since the leadership change, Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered their "full support" for the strategy and the command change. Gates said that other generals had been under discussion but that "it was the president who first raised Petraeus's name" with him during a private Oval Office meeting Tuesday afternoon.

"One of the central themes" of the conversation, Gates said, was his concern that "however we proceed, that we minimize the impact of any change on the conduct of the war." Obama's proposal to name Petraeus, he said, "immediately to me answered a lot of the concerns that I had."

Petraeus wrote the military's manual on counterinsurgency and implemented it as the U.S. commander in Iraq until early 2007. As current head of the military's Central Command, he participated in the White House review sessions last fall that approved the counterinsurgency strategy proposed by McChrystal for Afghanistan.

An administration official said Petraeus had not been discussed among Obama's senior advisers or the National Security Council until the president brought it up while meeting with Gates.

Gates and Mullen praised McChrystal's abilities, took responsibility for proposing him to Obama in the first place, and expressed sorrow at the way his 34-year military career has ended. But they said they agreed that his conduct was intolerable.

When he read the article quoting McChrystal and his aides in Rolling Stone magazine, Mullen said, "I was nearly sick. It made me, literally, physically, I couldn't believe it." In addition to Eikenberry and Holbrooke, the McChrystal team spoke disdainfully of Obama and the vice president, as well as national security adviser James L. Jones.

"I cannot excuse his lack of judgment, or a command climate he evidently permitted that was at best disrespectful of civilian authority," Mullen said. "We do not have that luxury, those of us in uniform. We do not have the right, nor should we ever assume the prerogative, to cast doubt upon the ability or mock the motives of our civilian leaders, elected or appointed."

Many of the quoted remarks came from McChrystal's aides rather than from the general, both within and outside his presence. But McChrystal "has every bit as much responsibility for what was in [the article] and what his people said as the individuals who said it," Mullen said. "It was clear that . . . in its totality, it challenged civilian control, which is a fundamental principle for us that is not challengeable."

Petraeus, with far more diplomatic and Washington experience than McChrystal and smoother relations with the civilian side of the Afghanistan team, also is said to have good relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani military leaders, coalition allies and regional players. But several senior military and defense officials, echoing in private what some lawmakers said publicly, insisted that the problem was with those who remain on the Afghanistan team, rather than with those who are leaving.

The assumption that "by replacing Stan, you're going to solve the divisions" was incorrect, said one official who, like others discussing the subject after Obama's warning about unity, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"The irony is you took out the best player," said a senior congressional staffer with lengthy time in Afghanistan. "The civilian side needs to be shaped up, and this takes pressure off that."

Asked Thursday on Fox News's "Fox and Friends" whether Eikenberry and Holbrooke should be ousted, and "a muzzle put on the vice president when it comes to this war," Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) said, "That would be a good start."

Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on the same network that Obama should tell Vice President Biden "to shut up." Biden was said to favor a lighter military footprint during the initial strategy discussions and was quoted in a recently released book as saying that "a whole lot" of U.S. forces would leave Iraq in July 2011.

Speaking on National Public Radio, Graham said he would "urge the president to look at this as a chance to put new people on the ground without old baggage, and if we don't change quickly we're going to lose a war we can't afford to lose."

Democrats largely refrained from criticizing the players but joined Republicans in expressing concern about elements of the strategy. "There is unease in our caucus . . . about the situation in Afghanistan," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in her weekly news conference. "I don't think that the change in command affects that."

Gates and Mullen said that Petraeus, as the new commanding officer, would be free to draw his own conclusions about tactics on the ground and to make changes, but they did not anticipate significant revisions. Some troops have said McChrystal's directives restricting air attacks and ground tactics to avoid civilian casualties have endangered U.S. forces. Petraeus, Mullen said, had approved the directives.

"We're not asking for victory by December or by July of 2011," Gates said of the administration. "We're not asking that Afghanistan be stabilized 13 months from now. What we are asking is that by December we have enough evidence to demonstrate, if you will, the proof of concept, that the approach that we're taking is showing progress and that we're headed in the right direction.

"The reality," Gates said, "is that at every step of the way, the military was deeply involved in the development of the president's strategy and signed on to the president's strategy."

Correspondents Ernesto Londoño and Keith B. Richburg in Kabul and staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.