KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan said on Tuesday it hoped the newly named commander of U.S. and NATO troops would do more to avert civilian deaths, which had soured relations under outgoing commander General David McKiernan.
In a surprise move, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates removed the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan on Monday and picked a former special forces commander to oversee President Barack Obama’s strategy against a growing Taliban insurgency.
Gates asked for the resignation of McKiernan less than a year into a command that normally would last 18 to 24 months.
The change in command comes amid worsening tension between Washington and Kabul over reports that scores of civilians died in U.S. air raids in western Farah province last week.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai says as many as 130 civilians may have died in the incident and has demanded the United States halt air strikes. Without giving any figure, Washington says the death toll was probably lower and it cannot fight without relying on air power.
Syimak Herawi, a spokesman for Karzai, described the change of command as an administrative issue for the U.S. government. But he said Afghans want progress on civilian casualties from the new commander, Army Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal.
“We expect the new person ... to pay serious attention to the issue of cutting down civilian casualties and air raids, because civilian deaths put under question the legitimacy of the government and the presence of foreign troops,” he said.
Gates gave few details for the reasons behind the change.
The decision was almost certainly taken before the civilian deaths in Farah. According to U.S. newspaper accounts, Gates told McKiernan he would be removed at a dinner in Kabul last week, even as reports about the Farah incident were still coming in.
But the appointment of a new commander does give the U.S. and NATO force a chance to restart a relationship with its Afghan hosts that has become deeply strained over the civilian deaths.
Students marched at Kabul university over the weekend, chanting “Death to America.”
Karzai, running for re-election in August, has shown no sign of backing down from his call to stop air strikes and the Afghan parliament on Monday pushed the government to come up with a plan within a week to place foreign forces under Afghan laws.
According to the United Nations, U.S. and Afghan government forces killed more than 800 civilians last year, an increase of a third from the previous year.
McKiernan had ordered his forces to take steps to reduce civilian casualties and be more forthcoming with apologies when they take place. But that has proven difficult in an environment where a thinly stretched force is so heavily dependent on air power to protect it over vast distances.
The force is about to become much bigger. U.S. troops will increase to 68,000 from 45,000 by the end of the year. Commanders expect heavy fighting, particularly in the south, in the next few months as the additional U.S. troops deploy into areas controlled by the Taliban.
McChrystal, the director of the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, must be nominated by Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate before he can take up the post.
The Taliban said McKiernan’s removal was a result of U.S. “failure” in Afghanistan.
“This is their policy. The war in Afghanistan and the current resistance forced them to change people when they see they are not winning,” Qari Mohammad Yousuf, a Taliban spokesman said.
“It will be best for them (foreign forces) and for the Afghans if they leave.”
Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Bill Tarrant