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.
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.
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.