WASHINGTON — The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, was forced out Monday in an abrupt shake-up intended to bring a more aggressive and innovative approach to a worsening seven-year war.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced the decision in terse comments at the Pentagon, saying that “fresh eyes were needed” and that “a new approach was probably in our best interest.” When asked if the dismissal ended the general’s military career, Mr. Gates replied, “Probably.”
The move reflects a belief that the war in Afghanistan, waged against an increasingly strong Taliban and its supporters across a rugged, sprawling country, is growing ever more complex. Defense Department officials said General McKiernan, a respected career armor officer, had been removed primarily because he had brought too conventional an approach to the challenge.
He is to be replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. He served in Afghanistan as chief of staff of military operations in 2001 and 2002 and recently ran all commando operations in Iraq.
Forces under General McChrystal’s command were credited with finding and capturing Saddam Hussein and with tracking and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. His success in using intelligence and firepower to track and kill insurgents, and his training in unconventional warfare that emphasizes the need to protect the population, made him the best choice for the command in Afghanistan, Defense Department officials said.
At the same time, he will be confronted with deep tensions over the conduct of Special Operations forces in Afghanistan, whose aggressive tactics are seen by Afghan officials as responsible for many of the American mistakes that have resulted in the deaths of civilians.
Pentagon officials have begun to describe Afghanistan as the military’s top priority, even more important than the war in Iraq. President Obama announced a major overhaul of American strategy in Afghanistan in March. Planned troop levels are expected to reach more than 60,000 Americans.
Pentagon officials said it appeared that General McKiernan was the first general to be dismissed from command of a theater of combat since Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.
At a Pentagon news conference on Monday, Mr. Gates praised General McKiernan for what he called his “long and distinguished” service, but said of Afghanistan, “Our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches by our military leaders.” General McKiernan served in his current command for only 11 months, about half the length of such tours.
The change also reflects the influence of Gen. David H. Petraeus, who took over last fall as the top American commander for Iraq and Afghanistan. General Petraeus served under General McKiernan in Iraq only to surpass him quickly in his rise through the ranks. The defense officials said the two men did not develop a bond after General Petraeus inherited General McKiernan as his Afghanistan commander.
While his unblemished record included service in the former Yugoslavia, General McKiernan found himself unable to win support from the two most recent defense secretaries. As the commander of allied ground forces during the invasion of Iraq, General McKiernan differed with the Pentagon leadership and with his commander, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, when he joined a circle of Army officers who advocated many more troops than were ordered to the region.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Obama agreed with the recommendation from Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen that “the implementation of a new strategy in Afghanistan called for new military leadership.” The president praised General McKiernan’s leadership, but said it was time for a “change of direction in Afghanistan.”
The president met with Mr. Gates in the Oval Office on Monday, but aides declined to provide details of their discussions.
A senior administration official said that last week, Mr. Gates asked the president for his approval to remove General McKiernan and the president agreed. Mr. Gates then officially delivered the news of his final decision over dinner last Wednesday night with General McKiernan at Camp Eggers, the American military headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Mr. Gates said General McChrystal would be assisted by a deputy commander, Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who is to serve in a new position with responsibility for the day-to-day management of the war. General Rodriguez had a previous tour in eastern Afghanistan as commander of the 82nd Airborne.
A West Point graduate from the class of 1976, General McChrystal is himself a Green Beret and a Ranger, as well as a veteran Special Operations commander. One spot on General McChrystal’s generally sterling military record came in 2007, when a Pentagon investigation into the accidental shooting death in 2004 of Cpl. Pat Tillman by fellow Army Rangers in Afghanistan held General McChrystal accountable for inaccurate information provided by Corporal Tillman’s unit in recommending him for a Silver Star.
The information wrongly suggested that Corporal Tillman, a professional football player whose decision to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks drew national attention, had been killed by enemy fire.
In recent work as director of the Joint Staff, General McChrystal has developed a plan to select a group of some 400 troops and officers to go back and forth from assignments in the region and the United States. While at home, the troops and officers would continue in their military jobs and work on some aspect of Afghan strategy, training or operations. The troops would remain in the cadre for three to five years, depending on the job. The approach is similar to the way General McChrystal ran Special Operations forces.
Most troops now deploy to Afghanistan for about a year or less without any formal training in the region before they go. They often move on to unrelated jobs when their Afghan tours end.
“The idea is to develop a group of people who give you continuity, expertise and relationships. They know each other plus the people they’re going to work with,” said a senior military official who has worked closely on the plan. “As they build relationships among themselves, relationships with Afghan partners and relationships with Afghan units, their relative effectiveness is just going to go up.”
The official said that the program, which Admiral Mullen has approved, should be up and running within 60 days after details are worked out, and its effects would be noticeable in Afghanistan within six months.