Afghans expect no change from shake-up

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Afghanistan expressed regret on Thursday at the removal of the US commander credited with reducing civilian casualties in the war against the Taliban but said it did not expect his replacement to change strategy.
US President Barack Obama recalled General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, and replaced him on Wednesday with his boss, General David Petraeus, architect of the Iraq war turnaround.
McCrystal resigned after comments, mostly attributable to aides, appeared in a magazine article that criticised some of Obama’s closest advisors.
The article portrayed McChrystal as a daring soldier sometimes exasperated by politicians.
“We wish he hadn’t gone, but this is America’s internal issue,” said General Zaher Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry.
“We expect him to follow McChrystal’s assessment, which has reduced civilian casualties, brought down arrests and house searches and involved coordination on operations,” he said.
The war has reached a critical stage in Afghanistan, despite the presence of around 150 000 foreign troops, with the Taliban at their strongest since being overthrown in 2001.
June has already been the costliest month in casualties for foreign forces, with the deaths of four service members in a vehicle accident late on Wednesday bringing the toll to 79.
More than 300 foreign troops have died in Afghanistan this year, compared with 521 for all of last year, according to icasualties.org. Scores more insurgents have died, but hundreds of civilians have also been killed — most in Taliban bombings, but many too in crossfire or misdirected air strikes.
The Taliban said Obama had sacked McChrystal in order to shift blame for policy failures.
“Obama’s strategy is a failure but he is tricky by washing his hands on McChrystal in order to maintain his own image and that of his party in American and the world,” a spokesman said, adding that Afghanistan’s conflict can not be resolved by a shake-up of generals.
A Taliban statement said Petraeus was not as smart as McChrystal and questioned his physical strength, noting his collapse during a congressional hearing last week.
McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy aims to take on the Taliban where they are strongest, in their Kandahar spiritual homeland, and boost security simultaneously with a push for improved civilian governance and development.
Petraeus, as commander of US forces in Iraq, was widely credited with turning the tide there with a similar strategy when sectarian violence there verged on civil war.
While he has a strong following on Capitol Hill, a key first task will be forging a good relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. —Reuters
Since McChrystal took over as commander in June last year, he has formed a strong relationship with Karzai, accompanying him on several tours of the country in a bid to show support for the government.
The Afghan president expressed regret at McChrystal’s departure, a spokesman said.
“We had hoped this would not have happened, but the decision has been made and we respect it,” said spokesman Waheed Omer. “He looks forward to working with his replacement.”
Obama said McChrystal’s dismissal was needed to safeguard the unity of the war effort but insisted the switch in generals was a “change in personnel but it is not a change in policy.”
There have been increasing doubts among U.S. lawmakers about Obama’s six-month-old troop buildup strategy against the resurgent Taliban, and some critics are skeptical of Obama’s pledge to start bringing U.S. forces home by July 2011.
In the field, some U.S. troops said they expected business as usual.
“General Petraeus is of the mind if something is not broken don’t fix it,” said First Sergeant Todd Sullivan in a mess hall at a camp in Gurgan, Kandahar.

Other soldiers were concerned that change at the top may be risky during a critical period and could undermine McChrystal’s strategy of winning hearts and minds.
“I am shocked. I thought this policy is what President Obama was praising him for,” said Elias Rodriguez, 18, from New Mexico.