General McKiernan Out in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 months ago

General McKiernan is out as the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today asked for the resignation of the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, saying the U.S. military “must do better” in executing the administration’s new strategy there.

Gates recommended that President Obama nominate veteran Special Operations commander Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to replace McKiernan, who would depart as soon as a successor is confirmed. Gates also recommended that Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the former head of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan who is currently serving as Gates’s military assistant, be nominated to serve in a new position as McChrystal’s deputy.

The leadership shift comes as the Obama administration has voiced increasingly urgent concern about the surge in violence in Afghanistan as well as unrest in neighboring Pakistan.

“We have a new strategy, a new mission and a new ambassador. I believe that new military leadership is also needed,” Gates said at a hastily convened Pentagon news conference.

“I think these two officers will bring . . . a focus which we really need in 2009. And I just didn’t think we could wait until 2010,” Gates said.

Gates praised McChrystal and Rodriguez for their “a unique skill set in counterinsurgency” as well as “fresh thinking.”

We learn just a bit more about why this decision has been made through undisclosed sources.

The officials say McKiernan, who’s been top U.S. commander in Afghanistan for about a year was too much “old army.” McChrystal, on the other hand, was one of the top Special Operations Forces commanders who led the operation that killed al Qaeda’s top leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Gates and CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus reportedly decided McChrystal was the most logical and best choice to lead the new counter-insurgency, counter-narcotics campaign in Afghanistan.

At The Captain’s Journal we simply cannot forget the awful judgment by General Rodriguez – probably parroting Army intelligence – that the Taliban were distracted and there wouldn’t be a spring offensive in 2008.  As for General McChrystal, his participation in the Zarqawi operation means that he knows how to accomplish high value target kills, a strategy that has failed us thus far in Afghanistan as a replacement for boots on the ground.  Thus far we aren’t impressed.

There is further trouble, and it is the phrase “counter-narcotics.”  The U.S. Marines in Helmand (24th MEU) specifically ignored the poppy, as their strategy was to kill the Taliban (some 400 of them) and provide for security for the population (begun before end of the campaign in Garmser, turned over to the British).  We have spoken against the poppy eradication efforts, as it will do little to accomplish the mission, but will infuriate the local farmers who are attempting to support their families and thus add to the insurgency.

As we have discussed, the Taliban raise revenue by any number of means, including kidnapping, taxes on small businesses, extortion, emerald mines, timber harvesting, and so forth.  A recent effort to replace poppy with pomegranates saw the Taliban at the town meetings, ready to tax pomegranates instead of poppy.  The problem is the Taliban, not the poppy.

It also doesn’t ring true to us that McKiernan is “old school.”  McKiernan showed great support and ownership of the U.S. Marine Corps operations in Garmser, from both the harder side to the softer side.  But this change does strike us as a strategic statement in Afghanistan.

McKiernan wanted a heavier footprint, just as did Mr. Obama during his campaign for Presidency.  He continually requested more troops.  John Nagl, who is now head of the Center for a New American Security (which, ironically, is currently advising the Obama administration), has stated that up to 600,000 troops would be required in Afghanistan, and advocated such a commitment.

The Captain’s Journal has advocated a larger commitment, but had never believed that it would require 600,000 troops, just more of the style of counterinsurgency conducted by the Marines in Helmand (minimal ratio of support to infantry troops, deployment to areas where the Taliban are the strongest, kinetics followed on by remaining in the AO to provide security for the population, etc.).  Yet reality seems to have sunken deep into the administration.  We don’t have 600,000 troops to commit.

In sparsely covered news, there also seems to be a deep reluctance to deploy more than about 68,000 troops in Afghanistan.  So another strategy must be employed.  It’s difficult to tell with certainty what this strategy entails, since this administration isn’t telling us and has declared the metrics for the Afghanistan campaign to be classified.  But a relatively good guess might be that heavier reliance will be made on special operations forces attacks on high value targets, which would be more of the same strategy that had failed us so far in Afghanistan.

Finally, there is a debate among counterinsurgency experts as to where to deploy what additional resources the administration is willing to commit – urban population centers or rural terrain where the Taliban function, get their resources, and enforce their government.  The former seems to have won.  The troops are going to the population centers, a mistake that the Russians made during their campaign.  The Russians were prisoners of their own armor and city boundaries until their logistical difficulties and constant drain of casualties took enough of a toll for them to withdraw in defeat.

We have been advocates for the deployment of special operations forces (and specialized billets) as part of and attached to infantry units.  Directing SOF to conduct raids against targets they won’t engage the next morning to examine and answer for the destruction is separating them from the counterinsurgency they need to support.  Disengaging SOF from the population is a profound mistake, almost as bad as disengaging infantry from performing these direct action kinetics.  Large forward operating bases to house large forces of support units were a strategic mistake in Iraq, and will be in Afghanistan.

The Captain’s Journal is less than sanguine about these changes.  Only time will tell if they succeed or fail.



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  • Loyola

    Sounds like the strategy is to kill or capture Bin Laden, declare “Mission Accomplished” and split.

  • TSAlfabet

    “Finally, there is a debate among counterinsurgency experts as to where to deploy what additional resources the administration is willing to commit – urban population centers or rural terrain where the Taliban function, get their resources, and enforce their government. The former seems to have won. The troops are going to the population centers, a mistake that the Russians made during their campaign. The Russians were prisoners of their own armor and city boundaries until their logistical difficulties and constant drain of casualties took enough of a toll for them to withdraw in defeat.”

    Here is the difference I see between the U.S. situation and the Soviets: legitimacy. Whereas the T-ban can talk all they want about the infidel U.S. invaders, the truth is that the U.S. came as a direct result of attacks on the homeland by Taliban-supported terrorists. The Soviets were, in fact, an occupying, neo-colonialist force that had no intention of giving the Afghans any real choice of government. As a result, there was literally no place that the Soviets could go in Afghanistan that would not be hostile territory; i.e., “pacification” was impossible because the population would never support Soviet presence and, similarly, the Soviets could not train an indigenous force of Afghans to secure urban areas which would allow the Soviets to push into the hinterlands. (Don’t think the Soviets had much stomach for it, either, but that highlights another, important difference between the U.S. fighting spirit and the Soviet conscripts better left for another day).

    At any rate, it is not clear whether an urban or rural focus would be better; likely it is a choice of the lesser of two evils. The U.S. does, however, have at least a shot at training up the Afghan Army to hold urban areas with relatively easy logistics which will, in turn, allow the U.S. to push out from the urban areas and into the strongholds of the T-ban. If the U.S. is very, very lucky, the rural areas under the heavy sharia thumb of the T-ban may get extremely tired of life and welcome U.S./Gov’t forces when they eventually arrive.

    Unfortunately, if one is forced to read the chrystal ball at this point (and given the McKiernan news) it is likely that the Administration has secretly shifted gears on A-stan and decided that it will commit minimal resources with no, real COIN, and start looking for a way to declare “victory” and get out. Welcome back to the 1970′s.

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  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Interesting and insightful comments, both of you. I am afraid that they are on target. As for the urban v. rural thing, I too would have hoped that the pitiful Afghan Army would have been able to hold the urban AO and allow the U.S. forces to take on the rural areas (the down side is that the Afghan Army is shot through with incompetence and drug abuse, the upshot would be that it would allow the U.S. forces to actually do COIN).

    Basically, I think McKiernan was railroaded, and isn’t the “big Army dude doesn’t get COIN” commander he is charged with being. That’s all a lie, smoke screen and ruse. He was a fine commander who was given an impossible task with too few troops.

    Also, see Josh Foust for an assessment of other issues with McChrystal:

    http://www.registan.net/index.php/2009/05/11/a-double-edged-sword/

    I will update as I get new info.

  • TSAlfabet

    Also interesting to look at Gates’ role in this. On one hand, it is heartening to see that Gates is still SecDef– he seems to be a solid citizen, but then again at what point does he draw the line and refuse to be used as a smokescreen for bad policy?

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    A few more links:

    http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=7298

    http://www.slate.com/id/2218160/

    Follow the discussion thread at the SWC along with Fred’s commentary. Note the rich irony. For a discussion about how we are replacing old Army with new COIN experience, the old Army being focused on kinetics, the scene is ironic in its attention to McChrystal and his knowledge in HVT hits, so-called “collaborative warfare,” and the like. Nothing much about clearing, holding and building, securing the population. and so on. Lot’s about killing a few bad guys and ending it.

    Ass backwards discussion, and very telling about the so-called “counterinsurgency” community. Only so when it suits them.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Featured,General McKiernan,Obama Administration and was published May 11th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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