“This is not the time for a new commander to come in to rethink strategy,” said Malcolm Chalmers of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
The prospect of having to deal with a third NATO commander in little over a year was an unwelcome prospect for Afghan leaders, who had spent months building rapport with McChrystal, the lanky commander who had become President Hamid Karzai’s most trusted U.S. partner.
Omar said the Afghan leadership hoped replacing McChrystal would not impede progress in the war.
“We know Gen. Petraeus. He knows the country. He knows the strategy,” Omar said. “He is the most informed person and the most obvious choice for this job.”
The sentiment was echoed in Western diplomatic circles in Kabul, where foreign officials were skittish about prospects of a McChrystal departure — 13 months after Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked Gen. David McKiernan, saying the mission needed a fresh approach.
“I think he really was a pioneering commander for changing the paradigm of the military engagement in Afghanistan to being about protecting the people and talking to communities,” Usackas said, adding that he didn’t think the switch would disrupt the mission. “Stan has done a tremendous job. He was a great leader. He made a mistake — a big mistake.”
The NATO headquarters in Kabul was quiet throughout the day, waiting for Obama’s decision. The staff knew McChrystal could lose his job but were stunned when it actually happened. Troops and civilians working there said an unsettled mood during the day turned somber when they learned they’d lost their leader.
Senior officials quickly preached the need for a smooth changeover in command.
A top official told his staff that while they’d lost a good commander, they should focus on the troops risking their lives to bring stability to the nation. One of those at the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussion was private, said the message was “We can’t let this campaign skip a beat.”
In Baghdad, an Iraqi government spokesman said he didn’t expect the change to affect the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country.
“The American administration is concentrating on Afghanistan because the security situation there is more critical than Iraq,” Ali al-Dabbagh said. “Iraq has overcome the critical stage and our troops now are more qualified” to take charge.