When David McKiernan was summarily fired from his post as commanding general in Afghanistan, I was shocked. Rajiv Chandrasekaran has a superb insider account in today’s WaPo that fills in some of the gaps.

The feature is “drawn from interviews with key participants and several senior officials, both supportive and critical of him, who have direct knowledge of the actions and conversations described,” all, naturally, on background because of the sensitivity of the subject. Apparently, SECDEF Bob Gates and JCS chairman Mike Mullen regarded McKiernan as “too languid, too old-school and too removed from Washington” and had those fears confirmed during a briefing in mid-March.

The decision was not discussed at length within the White House but was endorsed by Obama. It reflects a view among senior Pentagon officials that top generals need to be as adept at working Washington as they are the battlefield, that the conflict in Afghanistan requires a leader who can also win the confidence of Congress and the American public.

McKiernan is an understated and reticent man; his 37-year career involved more than two decades of overseas deployments but less than a year at the Pentagon. He did not fawn over visiting lawmakers like Petraeus did in Iraq. He also did not cultivate particularly strong relationships with Afghan leaders. His replacement, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is regarded as a leader in the Petraeus mold: able to nimbly run the troops on the ground as well as the traps in Washington.

“Blame General Petraeus,” a senior Defense Department official said. “He redefined during his tour in Iraq what it means to be a commanding general. He broke the mold. The traditional responsibilities were not enough anymore. You had to be adroit at international politics. You had to be a skilled diplomat. You had to be savvy with the press, and you had to be a really sophisticated leader of a large organization. When you judge McKiernan by Petraeus’s standards, he looked old-school by comparison.”

This change of command is a story of Washington’s new approach to the war, one that involves not just more troops and reconstruction money but a new kind of military leader to carry out the mission. It is a story of a loyal general who, his superiors believed, was miscast for the role he had been assigned, and his intense replacements, who have been asked to win a losing war with many of the same impediments. It is also a story of the president’s top military leaders, who are betting that this one personnel decision, above all others, will set in motion a process that reverses U.S. fortunes in Afghanistan.

That explains a lot, really. During McKiernan’s November 2008 appearance here at the Atlantic Council [transcript here] it was obvious that he understood that killing bad guys wasn’t enough.  But his bosses clearly thought that he was paying lip service to the new COIN emphasis.

And, it seems, he was rather hamstrung by  reality:

“There was a saying when I got there: If you’re in Iraq and you need something, you ask for it,” McKiernan said in his first interview since being fired. “If you’re in Afghanistan and you need it, you figure out how to do without it.” By late last summer, he decided to tell George W. Bush’s White House what he knew it did not want to hear: He needed 30,000 more troops. He wanted to send some to the country’s east to bolster other U.S. forces, and some to the south to assist overwhelmed British and Canadian units in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

The Bush administration opted not to act on McKiernan’s request and instead set out to persuade NATO allies to contribute more troops. With Washington then viewing NATO as the solution — not the problem — McKiernan seemed like the right general to help win over the allies. Before coming to Kabul, he had been the top Army commander in Europe, and he had been part of the NATO mission in the Balkans in the 1990s. He deemed management of the alliance in Afghanistan one of his chief responsibilities. He met with an almost daily stream of visiting delegations from European capitals, and he sought to change some of the more Byzantine troop rules.

Once the administrations changed, however, this asset became a liability:

But back in Washington, McKiernan was increasingly seen as too deferential to NATO. By November, when it became clear that the Europeans would not be sending more troops, senior officials at the Pentagon wanted him to focus on making better use of the existing NATO forces — getting them off bases and involved in counterinsurgency operations. Although McKiernan sought to do that, his superiors thought he was not working fast enough. Of particular concern was the division of the country into five regional commands, each afforded broad autonomy to fight as it pleased.

“He was still doing the NATO-speak at a time when Gates and Mullen were over it,” a senior military official at the Pentagon said.

McKiernan also bucked Petraeus:

It was around that time that Petraeus stepped in as overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. He became one of McKiernan’s two bosses, and he quickly assessed the regional-command situation as untenable. He suggested adding a three-star general, one rank down from McKiernan, to take charge of daily military operations — just as he had done in Iraq. It would free up McKiernan to spend more time on high-level diplomacy with Afghan leaders and NATO members, and it would strip power from the regional commanders.

Gates and Mullen thought it was a good idea, as did two of their most-trusted advisers: McChrystal, who was running Mullen’s staff, and Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who had been Gates’s chief military assistant and served as one of those regional commanders. But McKiernan had a different view. He believed that each regional command faced different challenges and that lumping all of the operational responsibility under another layer of bureaucracy would cause tension between the United States and its allies.

Adding to the tension:  “McKiernan had been his boss during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but Petraeus had vaulted above him in recent years, leaving a degree of awkwardness between the two generals.”

The bottom line was that Gates and Mullen were more enamored with the advice they were getting in Washington from McChrystal andRodriguez than that they were hearing from Kabul.   “It was much more about getting them in than getting McKiernan out,” Mullen said. “I couldn’t afford not to have my A team over there.”

Certainly, the move has improved relations between Washington and the field.

McChrystal’s relationship with Mullen has resulted in a flow of personnel that eluded McKiernan. The chairman told McChrystal he could poach whomever he needed from the Joint Staff — a list that now extends to about two dozen senior officers, including some of the military’s best-regarded colonels.

Before McChrystal left Washington, Gates asked him to deliver an assessment of the war in 60 days. Instead of summoning a team of military strategists to Kabul, McChrystal invited Washington think-tank experts from across the ideological spectrum.


“He understands the need to engage Washington, and he’s willing do so in a creative way,” said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was part of the team.

It was a sad and perhaps unjustified end to a distinguished military career for McKiernan.  But given the new administration’s new emphasis on Afghanistan — and the sense in Washington that time is running out to make significant progress — it only makes sense to have a team in place that works well together.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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