Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Robert M. Gates as secretary of state. He is secretary of defense.

Obama says he is 'confident' in war leadership

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen say they support President Barack Obama's decision to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus as the head of the Afghanistan war effort.
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010

President Obama said Thursday that there will be no additional changes for now in his leadership team on Afghanistan, but that he will be "insisting on unity of purpose" and "paying very close attention" to its performance.

"I'm confident that we've got a team in place that can execute," Obama said.

His comments came as senior Republicans called on Obama to replace the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and the State Department diplomat working most closely on the issue. Both were disparaged by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his aides in published remarks that led Obama to relieve McChrystal of the Afghanistan war command this week.

At the State Department, a spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she has "full confidence" in Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and in Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Eikenberry, in Kabul, acknowledged "vigorous debates" between the embassy and the military but said their effort was unified.

As the dust began to settle around Obama's appointment of Gen. David H. Petraeus as McChrystal's replacement, the administration worked to convince allies, adversaries and the public that the change in leadership did not mean a change in strategy. Obama, speaking to reporters with visiting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, said that "we will not miss a beat."

Addressing reports of divisions between the military -- including Petraeus -- and the White House on the significance of a strategy review in December and the president's pledge to begin drawing down U.S. troop levels in July 2011, Obama said that when he announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops late last year, he never intended to "suddenly" withdraw coalition forces after 18 months.

"We didn't say that we'd be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us," he said. "We said that we'd begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking on more and more responsibility."

Many Democrats have called for a significant turnover to struggling Afghan security forces even sooner; Republicans have said the timeline is unrealistic and undercuts the war effort. Both sides indicated they plan to press Petraeus on the withdrawal question during confirmation hearings on his new job scheduled for Tuesday.

The international effort in Afghanistan passed a grim milestone this week as June became the deadliest month for coalition forces since 2001, with at least 80 troops killed, 46 of them Americans. Most of the deaths were in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where U.S. troops are leading anti-Taliban offensives.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates told reporters that operations in both provinces are moving forward but that "it is slower and harder than we anticipated."

In their first public statements since the leadership change, Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered their "full support" for the strategy and the command change. Gates said that other generals had been under discussion but that "it was the president who first raised Petraeus's name" with him during a private Oval Office meeting Tuesday afternoon.

"One of the central themes" of the conversation, Gates said, was his concern that "however we proceed, that we minimize the impact of any change on the conduct of the war." Obama's proposal to name Petraeus, he said, "immediately to me answered a lot of the concerns that I had."

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