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."
Mullen said that when he first read the Rolling Stone article, "I was nearly sick." Even though the most disparaging comments were made by anonymous aides, he said, McChrystal "is responsible for his people" and should be held accountable.
"The essence of it was clear," Mullen said. "In its totality, it challenged civilian control, which is a fundamental principle for us that is not challengeable. It wasn't, it isn't, and it won't be in the future."
As for the war in Afghanistan, Mullen said, "The strategy hasn't changed in any way, nor has the policy."
Asked whether the episode would further damage already tenuous relations between the military and the news media, Gates said, "To let it impact the relationship with the press would be a mistake."
He said his message to civilian and military leaders is that "the press is not the enemy." If an unfavorable story comes out, he said, they should first find out whether it is true, and if it isn't, they should gather data to make their case. "But don't get into a defensive crouch," he said he tells Pentagon officials.
Gates rejected the idea that the events revealed broader underlying tensions within the military over the Afghan war.
"This was an anomaly, not a systemic problem," he said.
Gates said his main concern in recent days has been to "minimize the impact of these developments" on the conduct of the war in Afghanistan.
He said of the choice of Petraeus to replace McChrystal, "This is the best possible outcome to an awful situation."
"My greatest concern was that somebody who came new to this fight in a leadership role," and who did not have relationships with key Afghan and Pakistani leaders or intimate knowledge of the military plan in Afghanistan and the commanders involved in it, "would take months to get up to speed." He said there was "only one general officer who was in a position to move in with hardly a missed beat."
It was Obama's idea to turn to Petraeus, Gates said, and the choice "immediately . . . addressed the concerns that I had."
Gates and Mullen said Petraeus fully backs the strategy in Afghanistan but would have the "flexibility" to make tactical changes that he thinks are necessary to achieve U.S. goals.
"I do not believe we are bogged down" in Afghanistan, Gates said in response to a question. "I believe we are making some progress. It is slower and harder than we anticipated."
Gates was also asked what message the removal of McChrystal sends to the radical Islamist Taliban movement that has been battling to return to power since it was ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001. He replied, "I don't think there is disarray in the U.S. Armed Forces. The Taliban would be making a very serious mistake if they drew that conclusion from this."