Defending McKiernan

by Joshua Foust on 5/25/2009

Paul Farnan, who has worked since last June as General McKiernan’s strategic advisor, writes of what McKiernan accomplished in his short 11-month tour:

He issued a tactical directive last year emphasizing the strategic victory gained by avoiding civilian casualties over a tactical victory that may or may not advance our long-term cause. He stressed the need for soldiers to obey traffic laws and to stop running Afghans off roads but still maintained the force protection measures necessary to safeguard our troops. To some, traffic laws may seem inconsequential in a combat zone, but to Afghans this is home.

That order was more important than most people realized. When I was there earlier this year, I was appalled to learn that even on Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs as they’re called, soldiers would swerve at bicyclists when they got too close (in one case, the man on the bike was a police officer, and the Humvee driver knocked him over in front of a police checkpoint), or hold contests to see how many windshields they could shatter while on patrol (the winner? 26), and otherwise behave like asses. One of my colleagues even asked his driver, “how would you feel if some dude in a big-ass truck came and broke your windshield, or intentionally scratched your car?”

The soldier shrugged. “I’d probably kill him, or at least go kick his ass.” We both looked at him a second, as realization dawned in his face. Later, his Brigade commander issued the McKiernan directive, about obeying traffic laws, slowing down when driving through villages, following a long, gradual escalation of force when approached by road traffic, and so on. Within a month, the villagers we spoke to were happy at the changes, when before they were either indifferent or genuinely unhappy to see us. This kind of thing matters, even if back in the states it feels trivial.

Farnan continues:

This struggle is not about killing insurgents. We have killed more insurgents than we can count over the past seven years and have moved no closer to victory by doing so. This struggle is about the Afghan population. Afghans must believe that their government will provide them greater security and opportunity for prosperity than the insurgency will. We are not naive; we know that military operations must continue and that some people must be killed — but under McKiernan a more holistic approach to winning the peace has been our focus. These are the “conventional” tactics he has been employing.

Bingo. That is the heart of my concern about General McChrystal—the man is known mostly for his man-hunting skills. Which is not a bad thing by any stretch: I think we could benefit from having more individual militant commanders killed in Afghanistan. The trouble comes if that becomes our primary focus, especially because that is what a lot of insiders credit with the real “success” behind the Surge in Iraq.

Like my other commentaries on General McChrystal, none of this is a criticism per se. I have no idea how he will command, or what he will do. But the sudden removal of McKiernan—who, if nothing else, deserve our endless praise for finally ending the reign of Bomber McNeill—might indicate General Petraeus’ desire for a drastic change of course in Afghanistan… right when it had been improving, even if incrementally and far too slowly.

It feels weird saying this—despite working for the Army, I have been a consistent critic of how it’s conducted the war in Afghanistan—but I just don’t get what is going on. In either case, much of the opprobrium leveled at McKiernan—whether Ralph Peters complaining about Obama’s “war virgins,” or even Andrew Exum noting McKiernan’s reputation for “not getting it”—is simply unwarranted. The man was doing a good job with a crappy situation, and I’m still trying to see how McChrystal’s promotion is not going to make things worse, if nothing else than for the disruption of changing commands way too early and on extremely short notice.

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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 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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