Top defense officials say they 'fully support' Obama on removing McChrystal

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 William Branigin and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010; 3:39 PM

The nation's two top defense officials said Thursday they "fully support" President Obama's decision to remove Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan after derogatory comments about civilian leaders. But they emphasized that U.S. policy and strategy in Afghanistan have not changed.

In a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the choice of Gen. David H. Petraeus to replace McChrystal would ensure a quick transition and continuity in the U.S.-led war effort.

Both praised McChrystal's three decades of service and his past accomplishments but denounced in strong terms what they described as his poor judgment in conveying the impression of contempt for civilian leadership in a Rolling Stone magazine profile published this week.

In a separate news conference at the White House with visiting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Obama said his decision to remove McChrystal represents "a change in personnel, not a change in policy," and he insisted that U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan would not "miss a beat" because of the move.

Explaining the significance of a July 2011 timetable to start withdrawing U.S. reinforcements from Afghanistan, Obama said the United States will not be "switching off the lights and closing the door behind us" at that time. Rather, he said, it would mark the beginning of a process of handing over responsibility to the Afghan people.

Obama also said he will be "insisting on a unity of purpose" from his advisers and staff, and he vowed to pay "very close attention to make sure they execute." The public warning echoed admonitions he gave in private to his national security team Wednesday after dismissing McChrystal, officials said.

Medvedev declined to give Obama any advice in the joint news conference about how to get out of Afghanistan, which Soviet troops invaded in late 1979 and occupied for a decade. Medvedev said only, "This is a hard topic, a difficult one."

At the Pentagon, Gates said McChrystal's statements and attitudes made his continued command in Afghanistan and his membership on Obama's national security team "untenable."

Mullen, who described McChrystal as a "friend" whom he had backed for the job in Afghanistan, characterized the general's transgressions in even harsher language.

"I cannot excuse his lack of judgment with respect to the Rolling Stone article," Mullen said, calling the comments of McChrystal and top aides "at best disrespectful of civilian authority."

Mullen added: "We do not have the right to cast doubt on the ability or mock the motives of our civilian leaders, elected or appointed. . . . If we lose their trust and confidence for any reason, it is time to go."

He said there should be "no question about the neutrality of the military, the apolitical aspect of the military and the need the keep that in mind in absolutely everything we do."

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