“The post General Mattis is taking is a critical one at a critical time,” US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters.
Mattis, who is sometimes known in military circles as “Mad Dog Mattis”, was described by Gates as one of the US military’s “outstanding combat leaders and strategic thinkers”, in particular for his insight into “how the armed forces must be shaped and postured for the future”.
Petraeus's move is technically a demotion. Following the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal for remarks made in a magazine interview about US government officials, Petraeus took a lower rank as commander of the Afghan conflict last week.
Mattis has had his own problems with freedom of expression. In a 2005 interview aired by a San Diego television station, Mattis was filmed describing war as a “hell of a hoot”.
"You go into Afghanistan - you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them,” Mattis said.
Gates countered this problematic episode by saying that since then Mattis had “demonstrated that the lesson was learned”.
He said he was confident the four-star Marine general, who is portrayed in the HBO television series Generation Kill, would be able to “speak publicly about the matters for which he is responsible in an entirely appropriate way”.
After the recent scandal over McChrystal’s remarks, Gates issued new media guidelines for military staff last week. He said the military had become “too lax, disorganised and in some cases flat-out sloppy in the way we engage with the press”.
Over in Afghanistan itself there was further evidence that there needs to be a rethink in the manner in which the war is being fought.
A Nato helicopter patrol killed six Afghan soldiers after mistaking them for militants planting roadside bombs, the alliance said on Friday.
This latest incident, described as a “result of miscommunication” between Nato and the Afghan National Army (ANA), occurred in Ghazni province on Tuesday.
“ANA soldiers planned a patrol and had coordinated the patrol location with Isaf [International Security Assistance Force] elements,” a statement said. “While passing the information to the local Isaf unit, the wrong location of the ANA patrol was identified.”
Although the helicopter patrol checked whether “friendly forces” were in the area, it was cleared to open fire on “individuals believed to be insurgents”.
The Afghan Defence Ministry condemned the incident.