President Obama and administration officials today expressed confidence about the direction of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as the new mission's new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, prepared to head to the region next week.
"What we saw yesterday was a change in personnel not a change in policy," the president said at a joint news conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. "We will not a miss a beat because of the change in command in the Afghan theater."
Petraeus' confirmation hearing will be held next Tuesday, and while the general -- widely praised by both Republicans and Democrats -- is unlikely to face any hurdles, the hearing will likely resurrect the debate over whether the United States should start pulling out its troops in Afghanistan by next year.
The president reiterated today that a review will be completed by December to gauge U.S. progress in Afghanistan and a decision about future U.S. strategy will be made accordingly.
The issues that led to Gen. Stanley McChrystal being relieved Wednesday "were not as a result of a difference in policy," Obama said. McChrystal resigned after disparaging comments he and his aides made in a Rolling Stones article raised uproar in Washington and led many to question the relationship and trust between the civilian and military leaders on the grouns.
The change in U.S. command comes amidst the backdrop of the deadliest month in Afghanistan for NATO. Seventy-nine NATO troops died this month in the country, higher than the previous record of 77 deaths last August. June is also likely to be one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops, with 44 Americans killed so far this month.
Gates admitted today the war in Afghanistan is "slower and harder than anticipated," but he added that the United States is "making progress" and he doesn't feel it is "bogged down."
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen will head to the region today to deliver that message.
"My message will be clear. Nothing changes about our strategy, nothing changes about our mission," Mullen said today.
Meanwhile, the fate of many of McChrystal's aides quoted in the article by Michael Hastings is unknown. Col. Charlie Flynn, McChrystal's chief of staff, will not be returning to Afghanistan. Duncan Boothby, a civilian press official in Afghanistan, resigned immediately in the aftermath of the scandal, but the job prospects of others are unclear.
Both Gates and Mullen today denounced McChrystal's comments as irresponsible and concurred that he was rightfully held accountable for comments made by him and his aides belittling administration officials.
"I cannot excuse his lack of judgment with respect to the Rolling Stone article or a command climate he evidently permitted that was at best disrespectful of civilian authority," Mullen said, adding that those in uniform do "not have the right, nor should we ever assume the prerogative to cast doubt upon the ability or mock the motives of our civilian leaders, elected or appointed."
Mullen said when he first read the story, he was "nearly sick, literally, physically. I couldn't believe it."
Petraeus' successor, the new head of the United States Central Command, has yet to be announced.
A day after Obama replaced McChrystal with Petraeus, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., urged the president not to stop there and questioned his timeline.