Kabul: The US ambassador to Afghanistan on Thursday acknowledged having "vigorous debates" behind closed doors with Gen Stanley McChrystal, but said he and the ousted NATO commander acted in synch to implement war strategy.
"Stan and I have known each other for a very long time, and worked shoulder-to-shoulder here together under very difficult circumstances over this past year. He was an excellent partner," Ambassador Karl Eikenberry told a group of Afghan reporters.
Eikenberry has clashed with NATO headquarters over the direction of the war. When a cable in which Eikenberry strongly questioned the wisdom of sending tens of thousands more US troops to the war leaked to the media late last year, his relationship with McChrystal became especially strained.
In a Rolling Stone magazine story that led to McChrystal`s dismissal, the commander said he felt betrayed by the leak. McChrystal accused Eikenberry of giving himself political cover in case the US military build-up didn`t succeed.
"Now if we fail, they can say, `I told you so,`" the magazine quoted McChrystal as saying. The general later called Eikenberry to apologise.
Eikenberry, who says he has not read the article, said it was important to focus on the mission and move beyond President Barack Obama`s decision on Wednesday to let McChrystal go.
"What is past is past now," Eikenberry said. "The President made a very difficult decision. I will tell you that Stan McChrystal will always remain my friend. He`s an extremely good officer. But now here, with regards to this mission, as our President said, it`s time to move forward."
Eikenberry pledged to work closely with Gen David Petraeus, who was picked to succeed McChrystal.
"Our team here in Afghanistan — our civilian-military team — we pride ourselves on two things." Eikenberry said.
"One, an environment and a climate where we sit behind closed doors and we can have those kinds of vigorous debates. We also pride ourselves, that when the door opens up, we`ve reached our decisions and we act with unity and unified effort."
Eikenberry said that is how he would characterise his relationship with McChrystal "and that`s exactly the same kind of relationship I`d look forward to having with the new commander."
Eikenberry said he was confident that Petraeus, who has been deeply involved in creating and implementing the Afghan strategy, would be able to take up the new post without losing momentum.
"We continue to have a very clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban`s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity, especially in the area of your Army and your police," Eikenberry said. He declined to comment on his relationship with Karzai, which has appeared strained since his criticism of the leader. He did say that he met with Karzai earlier Thursday.
McChrystal has described a plan to create a "rising tide of security" in southern Taliban strongholds that would win over the civilian population, and NATO commanders have said the next few months will be key to success.
The US-led forces have struggled to stabilise the southern farming town of Marjah - focus of a major offensive launched early this year - even as they begin a major effort with Afghan forces to ramp up security in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
In Washington, Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters the war in Afghanistan was "slower and harder than anticipated”, but that he did not believe the US was "bogged down”.
Gates said that progress was being made even if it takes longer than officials thought to help establish the local government and win over the local population.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said the US will not know if the strategy is working until the end of the year.