WASHINGTON – No more discord in the Afghanistan war command, President Barack Obama vows. With Gen. David Petraeus in charge, the president said Thursday he’s assembled the team that will take the U.S. through the months ahead – by all expectations the make-or-break stage of the conflict.
“I am going to be insisting on a unity of purpose on the part of all branches of the U.S. government,” the president said. “Our team is going to be moving forward in synch.”
Obama said he does not anticipate further firings beyond Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top war commander hired a year ago to turn around a war then sliding into quagmire. He was fired Wednesday for sniping at civilian war bosses in a magazine article.
“I’m paying very close attention,” Obama said of his war council. “And I will be insisting on extraordinary performance moving forward.”
The Taliban-led insurgency has dug in for a long fight in crucial southern Afghan provinces where McChrystal focused the conflict. Petraeus is expected to continue that campaign, but he will have flexibility to make changes as he sees fit, his civilian and military bosses said Thursday.
“When he gets on the ground, he will assess the situation for himself, and at some point he will make recommendations to the president,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. “At the end of the day, the president will decide whether changes are to be made in the strategy.”
Both in Washington and Kabul, U.S. officials tried to stay on message, insisting that the sudden sacking of McChrystal does not reveal a crisis of confidence in a war that Gates asserted is no longer a stalemate.
“I do not believe we are bogged down,” Gates said. “I believe we are making some progress. It is slower and harder than we anticipated.”
Obama and his top security advisers also underscored that U.S. forces will begin to come home from Afghanistan next summer, and that the commander taking over for the disgraced McChrystal is pledged to that timetable.
Petraeus told Congress last week that he would recommend delaying the start of a withdrawal planned to begin in July 2011 if conditions in Afghanistan warranted it. He also said then that he supports the pullout plan.
A full Senate vote on Petraeus could follow later next week.
In a taunting statement issued on Thursday, translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, a Taliban spokesman said Petraeus’ “physical competence and his courage” were in question after the four-star general collapsed briefly at a Senate hearing last week.
Petraeus later said he had been dehydrated but was fine.