The departure of McKiernan

Gen. David McKiernan has been replaced less than halfway into his normal two year tour of duty as the top us commander in Afghanistan.  The Stars and Stripes lists out a variety of reasons for his replacement. They run the gamut from being in the way of a new man, to being out of step with the new administration’s policy.


“From a military perspective, we can and must do better,” Gates said at a news conference Monday. “Our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches from our military leaders. “We have a new policy set by our new president. We have a new strategy, a new mission, and a new ambassador. I believe new military leadership is also needed.”

Antony Cordesman suggested that the requirements of the “clear-hold-build” strategy required another man. The general’s Afghan translators, who were also reached by the Stars and Stripes for comment, seemed deeply saddened by his departure and appeared to like McKiernan a great deal.

Anthony Cordesman, analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the move shows the White House’s belief that the coming months are a critical period in the future of U.S. operations overseas. “The deterioration of Afghanistan over the last year was certainly not (McKiernan’s) fault,” he said. “But his experience is as a different kind of commander. “He does not have the direct experience with the clear-hold-build strategy that McChrystal has. That’s what the White House and Gen. (David) Petraeus see needed there right now.”

Kabir Sekander, a cultural adviser and translator for McKiernan, said Monday that McKiernan had told staffers just days before about the leadership change.

“It was very sad,” Sekander said. “This guy honestly worked so hard and did so many good things. He was very involved in so many aspects of this job and the mission. We went with him to so many meetings with the elders. I traveled with him extensively all over the country.


His replacement, Stanley McChrystal, whose “counterinsurgency combat approach” the Washington Times describes as being “more in tune with the Obama administration’s policy to combat Taliban resurgence in the region”, has an interesting background. Wikipedia writes that

As head of what Newsweek termed “the most secretive force in the U.S. military,” McChrystal maintained a very low profile until June 2006, when his forces were responsible for the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.[3] After McChrystal’s team successfully located Zarqawi and called in the airstrike that killed him, McChrystal accompanied his men to the bombed-out hut to personally identify the body. Impressed, President George W. Bush publicly credited McChrystal and his troops by name for Zarqawi’s death, breaking an Army policy against mentioning McChrystal in public. Asked to confirm that it was indeed McChrystal who had engineered Zarqawi’s death, Multi-National Force – Iraq spokesman Major General William B. Caldwell IV said, “If the president of the United States said it was, then I’m sure it was.”[3][6]

McChrystal’s Zarqawi unit, Task Force 6-26, became notorious for its interrogation methods, particularly at Camp Nama, where it was accused of abusing detainees. After the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal became public in April 2004, 34 members of the task force were disciplined; five Army Rangers were ultimately convicted of prisoner abuse at Camp Nama.[7][8]

McChrystal was also criticized for his role in the aftermath of the 2004 death by friendly fire of Ranger and former professional football player Pat Tillman. The day after approving a posthumous Silver Star citation for Tillman that included the phrase “in the line of devastating enemy fire,” McChrystal sent an urgent memo warning senior government officials not to quote the citation in public speeches because it “might cause public embarrassment” if Tillman had in fact been killed by friendly fire, as McChrystal suspected. McChrystal was one of eight officers recommended for discipline by a subsequent Pentagon investigation but the Army declined to take action against him.[9][10] …

Normally a routine process, McChrystal’s Senate confirmation was stalled by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who sought more information about the alleged mistreatment of detainees by Special Operations troops under McChrystal’s command in Iraq and Afghanistan.[16] After meeting with McChrystal in private, the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmed his reappointment as lieutenant general in May 2008 and he became director of the Joint Staff in August 2008.[2][5][17]


The Captain’s Journal suggests that the real point of conflict with McKiernan was that he wanted a heavier footprint while the Obama administration is reluctant to send in more military resources. “McKiernan wanted a heavier footprint, just as did Mr. Obama during his campaign for Presidency. He continually requested more troops. John Nagl, who is now head of the Center for a New American Security (which, ironically, is currently advising the Obama administration), has stated that up to 600,000 troops would be required in Afghanistan, and advocated such a commitment.” As in many other things, McKiernan’s mission lived and died on the outcome of a debate in Washington. The Captain’s Journal adds:

In sparsely covered news, there also seems to be a deep reluctance to deploy more than about 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. So another strategy must be employed. It’s difficult to tell with certainty what this strategy entails, since this administration isn’t telling us has declared the metrics for the Afghanistan campaign to be classified. But a relatively good guess might be that heavier reliance will be made on special operations forces attacks on high value targets, which would be more of the same strategy that had failed us so far in Afghanistan.

In a fortuitously timed article Stratfor attempts to explain what it believes is the key debate in the administration over Afghanistan. Stratfor believes that Petraeus and Obama (with Gates on Obama’s side) are divided over the issue of whether it is necessary to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.


Petraeus argues that the U.S. strategic goal — blocking al Qaeda in Afghanistan — cannot be achieved simply through an agreement with the Taliban. In this view, the Taliban are not nearly as divided as some argue, and therefore their factions cannot be played against each other. Moreover, the Taliban cannot be trusted to keep their word even if they give it, which is not likely.

From Petraeus’ view, Gates and Obama are creating the situation that existed in pre-surge Iraq. Rather than stunning Afghanistan psychologically with the idea that the United States is staying, thereby causing all the parties to reconsider their positions, Obama and Gates have done the opposite. They have made it clear that Washington has placed severe limits on its willingness to invest in Afghanistan, and made it appear that the United States is overly eager to make a deal with the one group that does not need a deal: the Taliban.

On the other side of the debate, Stratfor believes that Obama and Gates, mindful that the Taliban can simply hide out in Pakistan, cannot be militarily defeated. Hence Petraeus’s Iraq strategies would be useless against them. Stratfor says that in Obama’s view, a Taliban victory is inevitable in the end. “Gates and Obama are not convinced that the endgame in Iraq, perhaps the best outcome that was possible there, is actually all that desirable for Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, this outcome would leave the Taliban in power in the end. No amount of U.S. troops could match the Taliban’s superior intelligence capability, their knowledge of the countryside and their willingness to take casualties in pursuing their ends, and every Afghan security force would be filled with Taliban agents.” Therefore, it might be better to enlist the Taliban or at least elements among the Pashtuns in a fight against al-Qaeda and remain in their good graces after the endgame. I have no idea whether Stratfor’s reading is an accurate one.


Those are the different explanations for McKiernan’s depature. Some are strategic in content, others political. What the “real” reasons are will likely be leaked in the coming weeks. But what matters most isn’t McKiernan’s replacement itself, but what it tells us about the new strategy in Washington, which is the key determinant of victory or defeat in the region.

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