Today, I delivered a lunchtime talk on the evolution of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine to a group of visiting officers and diplomats hailing from various countries across the Middle East and Central Asia. When I stepped out of my talk, I was then ushered into the office of LTG (Ret.) David Barno, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a god of the light infantry and Ranger communities, and a man for whom I have a lot of respect -- and all the time in the world.
"There, uh, was some news that was announced while you were in class," the general said to me. I'll say!
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is replacing the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, less than a year after he took over, marking a major overhaul in military leadership of a war that has presented President Obama with a worsening national security challenge.
Defense officials said that General McKiernan was removed 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 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.
“Our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches by our military leaders,” said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at a news conference this afternoon announcing General McKiernan’s dismissal.
Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered few reasons for General McKiernan’s ouster beyond generalities that “fresh eyes” were needed. “Nothing went wrong and there was nothing specific,” Mr. Gates said. It was simply his conviction, he added, “that a new approach was probably in our best interest.”
In February, Mr. Obama announced a new strategy, a troop increase and a broader commitment to civilian instruction for the war in Afghanistan.
General McKiernan had served in his current command for only 11 months, while such tours are usually two years or more.
General McChrystal, a West Point graduate who served in Afghanistan as chief of staff of the military operations there in 2001 and 2002, also commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment and served tours in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
Now there is a lot of stuff at work here. First, I heard rumors that McChrystal might replace McKiernan only last Friday, when a senior U.S. policy-maker cornered me and asked me what I thought of McChrystal. That's kinda like asking a rifleman in the French Army what he thinks of Napoleon. Although I indeed served under McChrystal's command in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I do not know him personally and was but one cog in a giant machine at the time.
I do know that many policy-makers and journalists think that McChrystal's work as the head of the super-secret Joint Special Operations Command was the untold success story of the Surge and the greater war on terror campaigns. I also know that McChrystal and David Petraeus forged a close working relationship in Iraq in 2007 and have much respect for one another. (Prior to 2007, the relations between the direct-action special operations task force and the overall command in Iraq were strained at best.)
Second, let's not beat around the bush: Gen. McKiernan was fired -- and fired in a very public manner. Secretary Gates' exact words: "I have asked for the resignation of General David McKiernan."
This tells me that President Obama, Secretary Gates, and Gen. Petraeus are as serious as a heart attack about a shift in strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was ruthless, and they were not about to do the George Casey thing whereby a commander is left in the theater long after he is considered to have grown ineffective.
The sad truth of the matter is that people have been calling for McKiernan's head for some time now. Many of the people with whom I have spoken do not think that McKiernan "gets" the war in Afghanistan -- or counterinsurgency warfare in general. There was very little confidence that -- with McKiernan in charge in Afghanistan -- we the United States had the varsity squad on the field.
That all changed today. I do not know if the war in Afghanistan is winnable. But I do know that Stan McChrystal is an automatic starter in anyone's line-up.
P.S. We can now chalk another victory up for both the West Point Class of 1976 -- which has produced an obscene number of general officers -- and, of course, the Ranger Mafia.
UPDATE: More from the 'sphere:
- Josh Foust on McChrystal's dark side.
- Spencer Ackerman on McChrystal's scary smart side.
- Fred Kaplan on the "wow" factor of this development.
I neglected to mention that a few days ago, LTG David Rodriguez was named as deputy commander in Afghanistan. Rodriguez, as Fred notes, is close friends with McChrystal. I have heard that they are, in fact, best friends. And it goes without saying that they are both USMA '76.