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US military chief to reassure Afghans, allies after sacking

Washington's senior military officer was due to arrive in Afghanistan on Friday to explain the sacking of the allied commander in Kabul as the Obama administration said it was not "bogged down" in the war.

world Updated: Jun 25, 2010 21:34 IST

Washington's senior military officer was due to arrive in Afghanistan on Friday to explain the sacking of the allied commander in Kabul as the Obama administration said it was not "bogged down" in the war.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, left late Thursday for Afghanistan and Pakistan to reassure regional leaders that the war effort would not be derailed by the departure of General Stanley McChrystal.

"My message will be clear. Nothing changes about our strategy. Nothing changes about the mission," said Mullen.

He spoke a day after McChrystal was forced to step down as commander of the NATO-led force due to disparaging remarks about administration officials, including President Barack Obama, contained in an explosive magazine article.

McChrystal's disrespectful display was "unacceptable" and Obama's choice of General David Petraeus as the new commander was the "best possible outcome to an awful situation," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

Speaking at the same press conference as Mullen, Gates said there was forward movement in the Afghan war -- the administration's latest bid to defend the mission as foreign troop casualties hit record highs.

On Friday, NATO reported the deaths of two more personnel -- one in a bomb blast, the other in an insurgent attack -- bringing the total number of foreign soldiers killed this year in Afghanistan to 302.

June has become the deadliest month for the war since it began in late 2001, with a total of 82 foreign troop deaths, according to icasualties.org.

NATO and the United States have more than 140,000 troops in Afghanistan, with the number set to peak at 150,000 by August, as the allies hope to force an end to the insurgency with an escalated offensive in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban's heartland.

"I do not believe we are bogged down. I believe we are making some progress," Gates said, adding: "It is slower and harder than we anticipated."

He supported the change in command, and said it should not be "misinterpreted" by enemy or ally as a softening of Washington's commitment.

Obama said Petraeus, well regarded in Washington for his role in turning around the Iraq war, would be able to hit the ground running due to his work on Afghanistan as head of Central Command, which oversees both war zones.

"Not only does he have extraordinary experience in Iraq, not only did he help write the manual for dealing with insurgencies, but he also is intimately familiar with the players," including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama told reporters.

A senior Western diplomat in Kabul said that although McChrystal had a good relationship with Karzai, the appointment of Petraeus had reassured the Afghan leadership that "it will be business as usual."

"The main message of Mullen's visit is to ensure that the operation continues as scheduled," the diplomat said on condition he not be named.

"But I don't think it is necessary to reassure the Afghans, I don't think they are worried."

"Of course there was good rapprochement with McChrystal but they are pretty reassured by the appointment of Petraeus, who is well known in Afghanistan."

Mullen is expected to arrive in Kabul late Friday, staying just a day for meetings with US and NATO officials, and "some Afghan meetings," a US diplomat said.

Janan Mosazai, a candidate in Afghanistan's upcoming parliamentary polls, said it was "insufficient" for Mullen to simply offer reassurance and called for a "greater emphasis on the political element" of the war strategy.

"What we have seen in the last few months is a failure to marry the political and military elements of the counter-insurgency strategy," he said.

"What concerns me is the emphasis by US leaders on the continuity of what McChrystal did in the past year but if we see a disproportionate emphasis on the military over the civilian component, then we will see the deterioration of the current situation," Mosazai said.

McChrystal's strategy entailed pouring tens of thousands of extra troops into Afghanistan, to take the fight to the Taliban.

He won early praise for a drop in civilian casualties, as he attempted to win popular trust, at the same time working hard to bring Karzai on board.

His dismissal was met with dismay in Kabul, where Afghans and foreign diplomats praised his efforts to change the course of the war.