The United States is making a shocking shake-up in the leadership of the Afghanistan mission, replacing General David McKiernan with Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, according to various reports.  McKiernan has been in his post less than a year.


Ann Scott Tyson for WaPo:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is expected today to accept the resignation of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, and to recommend that the critical job go to veteran Special Operations commander Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Gates is expected to make the announcement in a hastily called Pentagon new conference along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen at 2 p.m. today, Pentagon officials said.

The leadership shift comes as the Obama administration works to execute a new counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to quell surging violence in those countries.

McChrystal is currently the director of the joint staff. From 2006 to August 2008 he was the forward commander of the U.S. military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, responsible for tracking down high-level leaders of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, including its former leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was responsible for a brutal campaign of bombings and beheadings until he was killed by U.S. Special Operations Forces in April 2006.

Elisabeth Bumiller adds for NYT:

Defense officials said that General McKiernan was being replaced because of what they described as a conventional approach to what has become one of the most complicated military challenges in American history.

He is to be replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command who recently ran all special operations in Iraq. The decision, to be announced this afternoon by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reflects a belief that the war in Afghanistan has grown so complex that it needs a commander drawn from the military’s unconventional warfare branch.

AP‘s Pauline Jelinek and Anne Gearan add:

McKiernan, on the job about a year, has asked repeatedly for additional forces. He has argued that his forces, while technically far superior, cannot hold ground against the Taliban in the volatile East and South. Obama’s revamped strategy for Afghanistan does markedly increase the number of U.S. forces in the country but focuses on nonmilitary solutions as a better long-term approach.

I don’t pretend to be privy to the inside details that Gates, Mullen and other decision-makers have.  From my outside perch, however, this strikes me as both unfair and counterproductive.    For one thing, based on McKiernan’s appearance here at the Atlantic Council [transcript here] and various statements in the press that I’ve read, the man very much understood that Afghanistan was a complex operation that couldn’t be won simply by shooting the bad guys.  But the ISAF commander is in charge of the shooters, not the civilian operations. Further, unless McKiernan was truly headed in the wrong direction — and I have no evidence that he was — it simply doesn’t make sense to change horses at this juncture.  While McChrystal is by all accounts a rising star and likely to be superb at this assignment, another change in command is another period of adjustment at a critical time. 

Adding intrigue to this development is that it comes only three days after a WSJ report by Peter Spiegel that, “Last month, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, quietly assigned his top staff officer, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to head the task force with the aim of improving the effectiveness of the Afghan strategy. Such strategic planning is usually left to commanders in the region.”  I’m reminded of George W. Bush’s appointing Dick Cheney to head up his vice presidential search committee in 2000 only to decide that he was looking for a man a whole lot like Dick Cheney.

Policy wonk Mark Safranski guesses that this has to do with tensions between McKiernan and new CENTCOM boss David Petraeus.  Via email, he suggests that the recent decision to treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single theater “requires somebody very comfortable with close coordination with CIA special activities staff and the AF-CIA joint targeting shop, who is used to having the White House looking over his shoulder as operations are conducted.”  He adds that, “Traditionally, the regular Army has never made appropriate use of special forces, a history that goes back to the Vietnam War – and definitely an issue in Afghanistan since at least late 2002.  If McKiernan continued that hallowed tradition, it would have been an added irritant in his relations with Petraeus, who as CENTCOM boss is the 800 pound gorilla. I would expect, further, that Petraeus and Gates are on the same page in regard to how special operations troops are to be integrated into any strategy in Afghanistan.”

My colleague Magnus Nordenman reminds me, too, that Bob Woodward has been extolling JSOC‘s impressive but off-the-radar role in turning around the situation in Iraq that, in Woodward’s view, has been overly credited to the Surge.  Perhaps those in the know are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.