A Double-Edged Sword

by Joshua Foust on 5/11/2009 · 7 comments

The Pentagon just announced the surprise replacement of General David McKiernan with Lt. General Stanley A. McChrystal, who commanded JSOC from 2003-2008. The replacement, which comes eleven months into a typically 24-month tour for McKiernan, is very sudden, and potentially indicative of a serious lack of confidence in McKiernan’s abilities by the Obama administration.

LTG McChrystal received much praise for his command of the Joint Special Operations Command, which was credited with the capture of Saddam Hussein in December of 2003, and the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006. As such, he carried a great deal of clout for his methods in prosecuting what many saw as the somewhat scattered successes of pre-Surge Iraq. Bob Woodward also credits JSOC under McChrystal’s command with lowering violence before and during the Surge.

General McChrsytal carries with him a dark side as well. One unit under his command, the now-notorious Task Force 6-26, which was assigned to find HVTs, or High Value Targets in Iraq, is credited with the ultimate death of Zarqawi. The problem is, along the way they faced accusations of running a secret camp that tortured prisoners, and they were implicated in at least two detainee deaths during torture sessions. Their camp, called Camp Nama, became something of a lightning rod after a “computer malfunction” destroyed upwards of 70% of their records and an investigation into their conduct stalled out.

More relevant to Afghanistan is GEN McChrystal’s involvement in the shameful coverup of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death. While he was named among the list of high-ranking military personnel believed to have covered up the circumstances of Tillman’s death, GEN McChrystal was “spared because he had apparently drafted a memo urging other officials to stop spreading the lie that Tillman died fighting the Taliban. He drafted that memo, however, after signing the award for Tillman’s posthumously-awarded Silver Star, the commendation for which claims, in part, that he was leading the charge against a Taliban assault. GEN McChrystal has never clarified why he signed an award for Tillman dying under enemy fire right before begging his colleagues and superiors to stop lying about Tillman dying under enemy fire.

In either case, GEN McChrystal’s appointment is a jarring shift for U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, which are currently transitioning commands between the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. It is unclear what having a Special Operations commander in charge will do the overall country strategy, just as it is unclear what two major changes of commands in a short period of time will do to the current units who are deployed there. As more information becomes available about this, we’ll post updates.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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ZI May 11, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Could this be an indication of who has the most influence between the so-called “counter-terrorist and the “counter-insurgents” (if these two groups actually exist and are not a journalistic invention)?

The strategy seems pretty vague for now and is open for a lot of different interpretations.

bruce becker May 11, 2009 at 3:35 pm

There is no practical economy in Afghanistan after 8 years. Opium production is the mainstay of their culture. Changing generals is not going to bring changes.

Joshua Foust May 11, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Bruce, that is an angle I didn’t catch but should have: Just what, exactly, does SecDef Gates think will change by early-swapping generals? Moreover, what could this portend about the larger counterinsurgency? My worry is: given McChrystal’s reputation and history, we’re going to see a much more substantial focus on decapitation strikes and small, quick, individually-focused kill missions… which I think is the opposite of what we should do.

As ZI rightly notes, this is decidedly a strong CT commander for what should be a COIN mission.

Supreme Commander EurAsia May 11, 2009 at 10:55 pm

The kid-killer and probably arm-chair-fighter Stanley McChrystal is
one of those U.S.-gangsters we will defeat in the long run. Haha!

Shohmurod May 11, 2009 at 11:36 pm

Changing McKiernan probably was a political show of action, however marginal, aimed at pleasing the Afghans after that devastating air raid on civilians. There could be other reasons not public such as McKiernan may have had instructions to avoid air raids in populated areas, or he may have had bad personal relations with powers that be…there’s a lot we don’t know. But the move sure came in a hurry right after that incident. Makes you think…

JJ May 11, 2009 at 11:56 pm

Condoleezza Rice will be ‘honoured’ by the University of Calgary at a gala opening of the new School of Public policy. She was described by school director Jack Mintz as ” a good example of what a school of public policy can achieve.” The rest of us here in Canada just think of her as a war criminal who shouldn’t be invited here rather she should be arrested and prosecuted for war crimes. If you do too, please sign petition.

Secret Squirrel September 1, 2009 at 10:07 am

Supreme commander eurasia is a NTAC. ZI is obviously an uninformed armchair wanna-be military analyst. To think that CT and COIN are journalistic inventions is stupid to say the least. Canadians have no say-so in regards to Condeleeza Rice or any other Americans. Canada is on the same list as France in terms of supporting the war, which is fine. Doesn’t bother us, but makes for some really funny jokes.

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