Following the bloodiest month for Australian, NATO and US troop deaths, the top military commander in Afghanistan has been replaced with a general on record supporting a surge and rapid withdrawal.
President Barack Obama fired General Stanley McChyrstal today for comments in a controversial Rolling Stone magazine profile and nominated General David Petraeus to lead troops in a 2011 withdrawal deadline.
It comes as Australian Defence Minister John Faulkner yesterday indicated Australian troops could be ready to hand over local security responsibilities “within two to four years”, far exceeding the timeframe Obama is attempting.
“This is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy,” Obama said today in a press conference, flanked by Petraeus and all the top Pentagon leaders. “I don’t make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy. Nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult.”
Obama was left with no choice but to fire McChrystal, who was recalled from Kandahar this week, after Rolling Stone quoted the general and his top advisors mocking their civilian leaders, including Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, and dismissive of Obama’s advisors.
McChyrstal had been publicly loyal to Obama’s plan to exit the increasingly unpopular war as soon as possible, but after he did not get all the troops he requested last year was undercut by insider leaks suggesting the withdrawal deadline was not achievable with current troop numbers and dwindling commitment from international allies.
That scuttlebutt — from military and civilian advisors — could turn around now, as many US security commentators were quick to recognise Obama will find a philosophical ally in Petraeus, known as the warrior-scholar of the Pentagon and greatly admired on Capitol Hill. His confirmation by the US Senate is expected to be quick and bipartisan.
Petraeus himself authored the surge counter-insurgency policy Obama is pining his Afghanistan withdrawal plans on. However, Petraeus told a Senate hearing last week he would recommend extending the deadline if the situation on the ground required it.
US security commentators today said Petraeus may be in a position, having helped the president, of being able to demand more troops.
“Petraeus buys into the idea we can get in and get out in a year. Told ‘out by 2011’, he replied ‘yes sir, I agree’,” Jonathan Alder, author of The Promise about Obama’s 1st year, said.
US generals do operate under the same civilian leadership and chain of command rules as their Australian counterparts, but at top levels are seen unofficially as political figures in their own right, and surround themselves with personal supporters much like a government minister. Firing a four-star general for public comments has occurred as recently as 2008 under President George W Bush.
Petraeus has been widely assumed to desire a post-military political career, even as lofty as the presidency. Crikey watched as he collapsed dramatically last week during Senate questioning on Afghanistan, and was assisted in leaving the room for a 30-minute break, later explaining he was dehydrated.
Earlier this week Crikey reported most Australians now want troops out of Afghanistan. Support for the war had dropped to single digits and opposition was as high as 60%. Australia has suffered 16 deaths in Afghanistan, including three in this week’s NATO helicopter crash.