A top aide defended Gen. David McKiernan after his dismissal as Afghanistan theater commander Monday, saying many of the civilians who died in U.S. air strikes last week had been forced into target buildings by the Taliban and required to shoot at government forces.
The Afghan government says nearly 150 people died in the strikes in the western province of Farah, angering the administration of President Hamid Karzai, who raised the issue with President Obama in Washington last week.
There had also been unhappiness within the Pentagon about the handling of civilian casualties by Gen. McKiernan, who will be replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command who is currently director of the Joint Staff.
Lt. Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for Gen. McKiernan, told The Washington Times that an investigation of last week’s incident showed the Taliban was principally to blame for the civilian deaths.
“This was a deliberate plan by the Taliban to create a civilian casualty crisis,” Col. Julian said. “These were not human shields; these were human sacrifices. We have intelligence that points to this. Patient after patient just kept telling the doctors their story and how they were forced by the Taliban to stay in these locations.”
The dismissal - announced as a bid to bring “fresh eyes” to the situation - took Gen. McKiernan and his support staff by surprise, said U.S. defense officials with knowledge of the situation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
In a brief statement, Gen. McKiernan said simply that the Afghan people “deserve security, government that meets their expectations and a better future than the last 30 years of conflict have witnessed.”
“While the Taliban and other terrorist groups offer only lies and fear, our continued efforts promote freedom and hope,” he added.
The removal of Gen. McKiernan marks the fifth time Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has replaced a four-star commander. Army Gen. George W. Casey, the current Army chief of staff, was moved out as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007, along with U.S. Central Command commander Gen. John Abizaid.
In June 2007, Mr. Gates ended the career of Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace by not appointing him to a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley was replaced in 2008 after several serious mishaps related to Air Force handling of nuclear weapons.
Gen. McChrystal, whose appointment is subject to Senate confirmation, has spent most of his career working in counterintelligence and led operations aimed at targeting terrorists, such as the deadly attack on al Qaeda’s top Iraq leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, in 2006.
Mr. Gates indicated in announcing the change of command that he wanted to change strategy toward the Taliban, which is expected to increase operations this spring and summer to counteract an influx of 21,000 additional U.S. troops. U.S. officials are also expecting violence to escalate during presidential elections in Afghanistan in August.
“As I have said many times before, very few of these problems can be solved by military means alone,” Mr. Gates said. “And yet, from the military perspective, we can and must do better. It’s time for new leadership and fresh eyes.”
A military officer in Afghanistan said rumors about Gen. McKiernan’s replacement began circulating over the weekend and that the main reason was a desire for “new leadership all around.”
“I think it is more civilian-military relations-related,” said the officer, who also spoke on the condition he not be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “We do not have and have not had good civ-mil integration between the senior leadership in this country.”