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Gates ousts US commander in Afghanistan, saying 'we must do better'

The man he wants for the post, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is deeply versed in special operations.

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Both McChrystal and General Rodriguez have recent experience in Afghanistan.

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McChrystal, who now heads the Joint Staff at the Pentagon under Adm. Mike Mullen, has mostly stayed behind the scenes, given his background in special operations. But he has recently led an effort to have certain units redeploy to the same places in Afghanistan again and again in order to build longer-term relationships with the population. The plan is still in the development stage.

Before Rodriguez became Gates's chief of staff last year, he was thecommander of the 82nd Airborne Division in the eastern region ofAfghanistan, where the US-led counterinsurgency effort is seen ashaving some success. Gates stressed that Rodriguez's knowledge ofAfghanistan is essential. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Rodriguez's command in eastern Afghanistan.]

Gates has earned a reputation for firing top Pentagon officials for poor performance, but he offered no details about why he asked General McKiernan to resign. McKiernan did "nothing wrong and there was nothing specific," Gates said.

McKiernan had long been vocal about the need for more troops – and was about to receive much of what he had asked for. But he had asked for an additional 10,000 troops on top of what Obama is already sending – a request Gates has said he would be loath to approve. But Gates said Monday that the difference of opinion on troop strength had nothing to do with his decision.

Administration officials may have been looking for a way to animate Obama's new strategy with new leadership, some experts say. While Gates credited McKiernan with reducing civilian casualties – a key factor in an effective counterinsurgency – McKiernan's low-key leadership style drew some criticism.

"It's an important break from the Bush administration," says one Senate staffer, who could speak to the press only on the condition that his name not be used. "It's actually a very encouraging sign."

There has been concern in Washington that McKiernan had yet to figure out a way to implement the new strategy Obama released this spring. The apparent lack of what's known as a "joint campaign plan" – a document that would detail the way in which American forces would operate under the new strategy – gave rise to fears in some quarters that McKiernan didn't have new ideas.

McKiernan was also perceived to be too accepting of the command-and-control structure in Afghanistan, which is split among individuals from various countries. McKiernan had said that the system was not ideal, but that he could work around it. Policymakers in Washington and other military officials, however, believed a change was needed to make the US more effective.