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Assessing the New Command in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Stephen D. Biddle, CFR Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
May 12, 2009

The Obama administration has continued its moves to refocus U.S. strategy and resources on Afghanistan. It has already announced plans to send more troops and a new strategy for combating the Taliban. In the latest move on May 11, Defense Secretary Robert Gates replaced the war's top commander with Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who formerly headed the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command.

Many observers have suggested the personnel change signals a shift in strategy. But CFR Senior Fellow for Defense Policy Stephen Biddle says he doesn't see that happening. For one, says Biddle, outgoing commander Gen. David D. McKiernan publicly supported the administration's increased focus on counterinsurgency operations. Instead, Biddle says the move is likely aimed at installing a highly skilled special operations practitioner to carry out the mission. It is also a reminder, Biddle says, that officials in the Obama administration will be held accountable for perceived failure, especially in a war that by all accounts is going very badly. The message to coalition forces and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Biddle says, is "there's going to be a very high degree of accountability imposed by the secretary of defense over outcomes in this theater," and "if you don't produce outcomes, real improvement on the ground, you will evidently be held personally responsible."

How the shift plays out among the Afghan population in another matter. The reliance on U.S. special operations forces -- which have been accused of heavy-handed tactics -- has angered many Afghans who believe civilian deaths have resulted from commando raids. Biddle says the appointment of a special operations practitioner who commanded units in Iraq mostly aimed at eliminating insurgent leadership could reinforce those negative opinions. "It may very well take (Lt. Gen. McChrystal) some time to establish a reputation with Afghans as being a commander who will bring a strategy of protecting you from the enemy," Biddle says, "rather than a strategy of heavy-handed violent raids against key leadership targets."

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