Monday, August 17, 2009

The inside story of McKiernan's removal

From Rajiv Chandrasekaran, on the front page of today's Washington Post.

In mid-March, as a White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan was nearing completion, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met in a secure Pentagon room for their fortnightly video conference with Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Kabul.

There was no formal agenda. McKiernan, a silver-haired former armor officer, began with a brief battlefield update. Then Gates and Mullen began asking about reconstruction and counternarcotics operations. To Mullen, they were straightforward, relevant queries, but he thought McKiernan fumbled them.

Gates and Mullen had been having doubts about McKiernan since the beginning of the year. They regarded him as too languid, too old-school and too removed from Washington. He lacked the charisma and political savvy that Gen. David H. Petraeus brought to the Iraq war.

McKiernan's answers that day were the tipping point for Mullen. Soon after, he discussed the matter with Gates, who had come to the same conclusion.

Mullen traveled to Kabul in April to confront McKiernan. The chairman hoped the commander would opt to save face and retire, but he refused. Not only had he not disobeyed orders, he believed he was doing what Gates and Mullen wanted.

You're going to have to fire me, he told Mullen.

Two weeks later, Gates did. It was the first sacking of a wartime theater commander since President Harry S. Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for opposing his Korean War policy.

I don't feel like I have enough information to judge whether GEN McKiernan's firing was handled poorly or well, whether he needed replacement or not. A lot of people have jumped to his defense, but in the sort of backhanded way of suggesting that it was probably time for him to go but things should've been dealt with in a different fashion, causing a 37-year veteran less embarrassment, etc etc. It's hard to see how offering him the chance to resign doesn't qualify as softening the blow, but what do I know? When it comes down to it, I'll say what I've said all along: the President and the Secretary of Defense should have the guy they want in place to run the war effort, and I don't have a lot of heartburn about how they choose to get there.

Some uncharitable things have been said about McKiernan "not getting it," while GEN McChrystal does; some associated hagiography; and a whole lot of personalizing of the war that I don't think is particularly productive. This falls in line with the narrative that's emerged from Iraq, where GEN Petraeus is seen as having saved the war through his inspired leadership (though of course with the assistance of the Surge brigades and so on).

I guess at the end of the day I think all of this gets-it/doesn't-get-it talk is indicative of a certain soft-headedness and mushy thinking about war, a romanticizing of Hollywood heroes riding to the rescue on a white horse. War is a complicated business (or so I've heard), and "getting it" damned sure doesn't guarantee success. We should keep that in mind if we're looking back in two decades trying to figure out how a badass like "the Pope" could possibly have failed in Afghanistan. McKiernan, as you might expect, gets this:
The war in Afghanistan, he said, "will not be decided by any one leader -- military or civilian -- from any one nation."
In any event, there's some new stuff in the Post article, so have a look.

4 comments:

  1. "The war in Afghanistan, he said, "will not be decided by any one leader -- military or civilian -- from any one nation." Well said. I would add a permutation: "The war in Afghanistan will not be decided by any one country--not even if that country is the United States." Well, that isn't completely correct, but something we need to think more clearly about.

    A huge part of whether the Afghans "win" or not, depends on how countries other than the US contribute. This is something that McKiernan understood. One of many criteria that has to be used in judging McChrystal versus McKiernan is who is better at securing and coordinating international support for Afghanistan.

    Case in point. AQ linked networks including Haqani and the Punjabi Taliban pose an arguably greater threat to the Russian homeland than to the American one. This latest terrorist attack on Russia today is symbolic of this:
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090817/ap_on_re_eu/eu_russia_caucasus_violence

    The joint US/Russian statement specifically mentioned the importance of US Russian cooperation on training the ANSF. Russians have complained that their past efforts to assist the ANSF haven't been fully accepted.

    My question: "what are Obama, McChrystal, Formica, Eikenberry and Holbrooke doing to incorporate Russia into CSTC-A"? The Afghans require that Russian assistance be low profile and the Russians fully accept that.

    Another question: "what are Obama, McChrystal, Formica, Eikenberry and Holbrooke doing to incorporate China into CSTC-A"? An Al Qaeda video from a week ago threatened to attack the Chinese homeland. China is the largest trading and investment partner of Afghanistan.

    Another question: "what are Obama, McChrystal, Formica, Eikenberry and Holbrooke doing to incorporate India into CSTC-A"? Haqqani, the Punjabi Taliban, AQ linked networks and the Quetta Shura Taliban arguably pose a greater threat to the Indian homeland than to the US homeland. Because of Pakistani sensitivities, other countries will have to help diplomatically for this to happen.

    What is the "A-team," which includes Andrew Exum for emphasis, doing to encourage China, India, Malaysia, Turkey, South Korea, and other countries to contribute thousands of specialists as part of a civilian surge?

    What is the "A-team" doing to take advantage of Indonesia's openness to contribute? Al Qaeda tried to kill their elected president last week. The latest Pew Research survey from June, 2009, demonstrated that the large majority of Indonesians think that their country should do more than it currently is to fight global terrorism. Obama is also "EXTREMELY" popular in Indonesia. Indonesia could help CSTC-A with the MoI's ANP and rule of law. Indonesia could also send thousands of civilians to Afghanistan. Indonesia seems set to recover sharply from the global financial crisis, and has a popular President who is seen as taking on corruption. This means that Indonesia has the political capital necessary to contribute.

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  2. I find reading these sorts of stories embarrassing, I don't know why. Is it because it's a company town, and the Post is a company paper (a very good one, I don't mean anything by that), that 'personnel' changes merit such stories? I suppose there is a lot positioning and politicking going on?

    Ugh.

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  3. Anand -- I should've left this comment on this thread, but instead it's over on the Ingushetia one. Copied again here:

    I don't have a whole lot of information on this, but I don't think that Russia is particularly serious or sincere about offers to assist with training. (I'm not sure how well-received they'd be in Afghanistan, either.) It seems more likely to me that they're going to maintain a strategic hedge through influence in Central Asia (influence over our supply lines, among other things, as we've seen in the Manas episode).

    Now having said that, the ANSF are being equipped with and trained on an absolute shitload of Russian gear... by -- you guessed it! -- CTSC-A. This obviously goes down to the level of things like AK-47s, but we're also talking about mortars, artillery pieces, and even helicopters. CENTCOM, CSTC-A, and the Afghans have collectively decided that the Mi-17 is the best fit for the medium-lift rotary wing requirement, citing stuff like its simplicity, the Afghans' familiarity with the platform, low cost, etc etc, but ignoring scarcity, lesser capability, and the fact that we have to spend time and effort training a bunch of U.S. helo pilots on a useless airframe just so we can train Iraqis and Afghans on someone else's gear (that we're selling them). Meanwhile the U.S. is having a really difficult time turning out helos because of problems with demand and other complications in the industrial base. Seems like a good fit, right?

    And then you consider the long-term training and sustainment relationship, and the fact that if we give the Afghans (or the Iraqis, or the Pakistanis for that matter) a bunch of broke-down old Russian shit and let them say "nah, we're not going to pay for spares or sustainment or maintenance training up front, we'll worry about that later," you're going to have about 10% of those aircraft operational in a few years.

    But big deal, we've got operational needs, and we need to expedite the delivery of Russian helos!

    So I'd ask you (and this is only peripheral to the Russians), is CENTCOM doing its job? What about CSTC-A?

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  4. Madhu -- I find reading these sorts of stories embarrassing, I don't know why. Is it because it's a company town, and the Post is a company paper (a very good one, I don't mean anything by that), that 'personnel' changes merit such stories? I suppose there is a lot positioning and politicking going on?

    I know what you mean, but I guess I'd say that you sort of cede your right to privacy w/r/t your bosses' and subordinates' opinions of you when you take a Senate-confirmable position (so wave bye-bye, every three- and four-star!).

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