Defense Secretary Robert Gates has replaced the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, saying there was a need for "fresh thinking" and a set of "fresh eyes" to match the Obama administration's new strategy for taking on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
ABC News' Martha Raddatz broke the story that Gates intended to replace McKiernan with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former special operations commander. McChrystal, the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, is a three-star Army general but will soon be awarded a fourth star so he can take command of the war in Afghanistan.
Gates' senior military advisor, Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, will also head to Afghanistan to become McChrystal's deputy. McChrystal and Rodriguez will require Senate confirmation and Gates urged Congress to move quickly with their appointments.
McChrystal has long specialized in clandestine special operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rodriguez commanded the 82nd Airborne Division during a deployment to eastern Afghanistan that saw significant security improvements after the implementation of a counterinsurgency strategy.
Announcing the move at a Pentagon news conference this afternoon, Gates said, "Today we have a new policy set by our new president. We have a new strategy, a new mission, and a new ambassador. I believe that new military leadership also is needed."
Gates said he decided in favor of the change after consulting with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command.
Mullen echoed Gates' rationale for the leadership change, saying, "with the new strategy, with the new team across the board, I felt it was very important for new leadership, and supported this decision completely.
"There probably is no more critical ingredient than leadership. And, again, along with all the other changes, it's time now. And that's why I made that recommendation."
At the White House, President Obama "agreed with the recommendation of the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the implementation of a new strategy in Afghanistan called for new military leadership," according to a statement. "The President was grateful for and impressed by the leadership that General McKiernan demonstrated in calling for additional resources for the fight in Afghanistan. This change of direction in Afghanistan in no way diminishes the President's deep respect for Gen. McKiernan and his decades of public service."
Petraeus said in a statement that he had "participated in the decision-making process and fully supports the secretary's decision."
McKiernan has been in place only 11 months and will not move to another assignment, Gates said, adding that "this is the right time to make the change, at a time when we are at the beginning of the implementation of a new strategy."
He said there was nothing specific about why he was replacing McKiernan. "I would say, nothing went wrong," he said, adding that after consultations, he believed, " that a fresh approach, a fresh look in the context of the new strategy, probably was in our best interest."
Asked if McKiernan's resignation ends his military career, Gates said, "Probably."
A senior Defense official called McChrystal and Rodriguez an "A-Team. ... There's no doubt they'll make a difference given their experience in Afghanistan."
The change in command during a time of war is a testament to Gate's faith in McKiernan's leadership. While Gen. George Casey was replaced in Iraq by Petraeus in 2007, it was after two and a half years and Casey was then made chief of staff of the Army.
It also comes as 21,000 additional troops who McKiernan had requested to take on the Taliban in southern Afghanistan have begun arriving into the country.
Long considered an under-resourced campaign in the number of troops and equipment, by the end of this year the additional troops will boost U.S. troop strength to 68,000, which is more than double the size of the U.S. force there for much of last year.
But Gates said change was needed. "I believe resources or no, that our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches from our military leaders," he said.
Gates said today's announcement should not detract from the recognition McKiernan deserves for his long and distinguished military career. "For decades, in peace and war, Dave McKiernan has led hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform with conviction, integrity and courage," he said. "He has dedicated his life to the preservation of the freedoms we in this nation enjoy. And on behalf of the Department of Defense and the nation, I thank him for his years of selfless service."
Time Magazine named McKiernan one of its Most Influential People for 2009. Writing for the magazine, retired NATO commander and U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark praised McKiernan's leadership and "smart thinking" in the NATO campaign in Kosovo, where he exhibited "a willingness to bring unpleasant news to his superiors," both skills Clark said he would draw upon to excel in Afghanistan.
In command of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan, McChrystal led special operations units, like Delta Force, that operated in some of the most secretive missions in pursuit of high-profile insurgents.
He had a controversial role in the awarding of the Silver Star to Army Ranger Pat Tillman after the former NFL star's death by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
An investigation concluded that he had made "inaccurate and misleading assertions" in some of the paperwork recommending Tillman for the Silver Star even though he already had information suggesting Tillman had died from friendly fire. The Army did not agree with the investigation's recommendation that he should face some kind of action for his actions.