Afghan leaders saddened by McChrystal departure, optimistic on Petraeus

By Ernesto Londoño and Karin Brulliard
Thursday, June 24, 2010

KABUL -- Afghan officials said they were saddened and disappointed by the dismissal Wednesday of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, but they expressed high hopes for his replacement.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai had personally lobbied President Obama on Tuesday night to keep McChrystal, who was seen by Afghan leaders as a trustworthy general with a deep and nuanced understanding of their country. Among the cadre of Obama administration officials involved in Afghanistan policy, he had arguably the strongest relationship with, and the most influence over, Karzai and his security chiefs.

"General McChrystal has been a very important partner," said Waheed Omer, a spokesman for Karzai. "We're sad to see him go, but we respect this decision by the U.S. commander in chief."

Omer said the Afghan government is encouraged by the nomination of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and head of the U.S. Central Command, to replace McChrystal, saying it "shows the commitment of the United States to Afghanistan."

Karzai and Afghan security officials had expressed hope that McChrystal would weather the scandal unleashed by a magazine profile that portrayed him and his staff as dismissive and critical of top administration officials.

The Afghan leaders had particularly welcomed guidelines McChrystal issued to limit the use of lethal force in an effort to reduce the number of civilian casualties. He also worked closely with the Afghan government at the national and provincial levels in an effort to strengthen a state many Afghans view as weak and corrupt.

"They're very concerned," said a senior U.S. military official who works closely with Afghan commanders, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. "They think McChrystal is the right guy at the right time. For the first time, what they're trying to do and what we're trying to do is in sync, and that's directly attributable to the guy who's in command."

Khalid Pashtoon, a member of parliament who serves as deputy chairman of the Internal Security Committee, called McChrystal's departure a big loss. "He was very bright and smart and a very active person," said Pashtoon, who recently traveled with McChrystal to the southern province of Kandahar, where a major NATO military operation is underway. "He always called us, sat with us and listened to us."

Petraeus's appointment as the new commander in Afghanistan is likely to be viewed as the best-case scenario in Pakistan, where McChrystal had established a remarkable level of trust.

Although his duties officially ended at the Afghan border, McChrystal focused on building a strong rapport with Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. Pakistani officials said that through monthly meetings and helicopter tours of areas where Pakistani troops were battling insurgents, McChrystal and Kiyani had developed a common understanding. McChrystal also played a key role in improving Kabul's rocky relationship with Islamabad.

Yet Petraeus probably has as much, if not more, clout in Islamabad. He was an early proponent of a regional strategy that prioritized improving relations with Pakistan in hopes of persuading it to target the Afghan Taliban fighters who use Pakistani hideouts to plot attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Petraeus has visited Pakistan numerous times, delivering assurances that the U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan would not spill over into Pakistan, visiting Pakistani paramilitary forces in the northwestern city of Peshawar and regularly praising Pakistan's fight against its domestic Taliban.

"There's a complete understanding of each other's situation," a senior Pakistani military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He's not a stranger."

In Iraq, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called Petraeus the architect of the turnaround in the war there. Violence has dropped significantly since the height of the conflict, and many attribute that to Petraeus, who implemented a surge of U.S. troops and paid former insurgents to battle al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Still, Zebari cautioned, "the situation in Iraq and in Afghanistan is really different."

Brulliard reported from Islamabad. Correspondent Leila Fadel in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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