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Obama Changes Commanders in Afghanistan, But Strategy Remains the Same

The change of commanders in Afghanistan announced by President Barack Obama Wednesday is in some ways a stunning development. But analysts say it will not result in any change in the strategy that U.S. and other international forces have been pursuing. Indeed, there was some relief in Washington at the surprising news that General David Petraeus will be the new Afghanistan commander.

This was something that has not happened for a long time - an American president removing a senior general from a war time command. The last time was when President Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur from command of U.S. and allied forces in Korea in 1951.

But that was a dispute over policy. This was a president disciplining a general, Stanley McChrystal, for showing disrespect to civilian authorities, and allowing a culture of such disrespect to fester among his top staff members.

"Even though the man has changed, the strategy hasn't," says Heritage Foundation analyst Sally McNamara, who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan. She calls McChrystal a "massive figure" of "almost mythical status." She says he made a mistake and showed poor judgment, resulting in what she calls "a grossly unfortunate incident." But McNamara says the counterinsurgency policy McChrystal helped develop and President Obama adopted last December is not in dispute and will not change.

"The strategy will survive, I think," she says. "Petraeus, of course, will have his own style. But he's hugely respected and even though he's got [large] boots to fill, I think he's more than capable of doing the job."

That was a fairly widespread reaction among Washington politicians and experts. There was little surprise that the president fired General McChrystal, but there was considerable surprise, and some relief, that he named General Petraeus to replace him. The Afghanistan strategy has been under siege in Washington in recent weeks, with slower than expected progress in southern Afghanistan, complaints from some U.S. troops about not being able to attack insurgents for fear of hurting civilians, and continuing problems with the development of the Afghan security forces and with corruption among Afghan officials.

Many experts had been concerned that any relatively unknown officer would not have the personal stature to see the strategy through the current difficult months, and to deal effectively with Afghan leaders.

In fact, General McChrystal was one of the relatively few U.S. officials to develop a good relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Presient Karzai issued an endorsement of McChrystal while President Obama was considering the general's fate.

Former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali says McChrystal "will be missed" in Kabul, but calls the selection of Petraeus to succeed him "brilliant."

"General McChrystal had a very close relationship with the Afghan leadership," he said. "And actually President Karzai thought that McChrystal understands the sensitivity of the Afghan situation and Afghan culture. And he was very happy to see that General McChrystal took measures in order to reduce civilian casualties and midnight air raids and midnight searches of houses. However at the same time, I think General Petraeus also is on good terms with the Afghan leadership."

General Petraeus' success in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 made him the most famous general in America, maybe in the world. And as McChrystal's boss for the last year he has been intimately involved in developing the new Afghanistan approach and approving the implementation plan.

Indeed, Petraeus was the driving force behind the development of the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in 2006, just before he was sent to Baghdad to implement it. That strategy calls for protecting civilians by establishing security in cities and towns, even if it means more danger for coalition troops, training host-country security forces and building the capacity of the local government, while also fighting insurgents when necessary.

Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman, a former Democrat, welcomed Petraeus' selection, and said it makes him more confident of success in the difficult and complex Afghanistan campaign.

"It was important to hear the president restate his commitment to that strategy of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and to success in that strategy. And I think we have a high possibility, I think a probability now with Dave Petraeus in charge, of achieving that."

That kind of feeling about General Petraeus is easing the potentially disruptive shock of firing General McChrystal just as the 30,000 additional U.S. forces are flowing into Afghanistan and key operations in the South are encountering difficulties.

At the Heritage Foundation, Sally McNamara acknowledges Petraeus comes with high expectations, but she says that's a good thing.

"I have no doubt Petraeus will do a great job," she says. "Certainly he's a man who inspires confidence. He inspires trust. And we have to look at these as good things. We are setting the bar very high, but I have no doubt that our men and women in uniform can pull this off."

McNamara warns this will not be easy, but she believes that three years from now, as happened with Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan will be much more stable, and people will wonder why they ever doubted the counterinsurgency approach. Even with General Petraeus' appointment, that level of confidence is hard to find in Washington these days.