The Foxing of the Generals

by Joshua Foust on 8/17/2009 · 6 comments

Rajiv Chandrasekaran files another excellent, depressing story today on the military in Afghanistan:

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.

In other words, General McKiernan was basically fired for not having enough friends in Washington and being insufficiently media-friendly… and not necessarily because of his command, his capabilities, or his record. It’s good to know the military’s top leadership is defining success like this—at least we know in the future success will be disconnected from performance.

Here’s a bigger question: since General McKiernan is the first theater Commanding General to be fired since MacArthur—a terrible precedent, given how many of the them screwed up before him—and because that firing was basically because he’s not camera-friendly and not a craven politician… what does that mean for the future of military leadership? If Mullen and Gates are sending the message that in order to succeed one must become some sort of John Nagl-type figure—filled with soundbytes and suave at the cocktail parties—that’s not terribly encouraging for the future of the Army (or military as a whole). Being Washington- and media-friendly is not the same as leadership, even if being able to move in those circles is an increasingly important part of the job.

The decision to fire McKiernan stinks more and more as new information comes out. And I learn new reasons to be deeply mistrustful of McChrystal’s initiatives, considering how many of them are just as conventional and unworkable as McKiernan’s supposedly were. This really does not bode well for the war in Afghanistan, or the military as a whole.

And there’s a another subtext to this story as well: the Obama foreign policy team seems uninterested in multilateralism. Back in June, I posted the concerns of someone working at ISAF in Kabul that McKiernan’s firing meant the war was being “Americanized.” It is also the theme of Chandrasekaran’s Afghanistan-focused reporting. This report of his is no exception.

“He was still doing the NATO-speak at a time when Gates and Mullen were over it,” a senior military official at the Pentagon said…

In Washington, doubts about McKiernan were growing among Gates and Mull en and their staffs. McKiernan’s plan to integrate civilian and military resources, which Gates had asked him to draw up, did not impress many who read it in the Pentagon. Once again, they faulted McKiernan’s perceived deference to NATO. What the document needed, they thought, was sharp thinking from the U.S. military, not a casserole of inputs from a dozen allies.

Well how dare a four-star general try to maintain the U.S.’s most important military alliance during a controversial war. McKiernan obviously paid for his insolence, so the problem of multilateral thinking is solved, right?

The Consequences of McChrystal’s New Rules
McChrystal’s Confusing New Rules
The Shortcomings of McChrystal’s Review
McChrystal’s Existential Choice
Yet Another Strategic Review
Thoughts on the Change of Command in Afghanistan
Defending McKiernan
Who Is Stanley McChrystal?
A Double-Edged Sword

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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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Fabius Maximus August 17, 2009 at 9:35 am

Perhaps you mis-interpret this. For several generations US generals have been selected to a large extent for their media skills and politically flexibility. It’s what the “system” values.

As the pressure increases to show results in Afghanistan, senior DoD leaders seek generals with these essential and critical skills (it’s what they value). McKiernan just didn’t make the grade.

This is nothing new.

Bones August 17, 2009 at 12:33 pm

I think you’re giving too little credit to the article’s insistence on Gates and Mullen deciding they needed a commander with the skills to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a political issue. If there really were rumblings going on in the Pentagon, how long before that sniping leaked to the Hill and McKeirnan found himself the target of paranoid delusions (aka ‘death panels’) invented just to score points in the real long war back DC? Given the focus on contentious domestic issues, and what that will do for the population’s concern and attention regarding Afghanistan, there is something to be said for having a leader with the absolute full confidence of the Pentagon who who be able to help prevent Afghanistan from becoming a political football.

Also, considering the environment in Afghanistan, must the world “politician” necessarily be preceded by “craven”? I guess you have little to no respect for those skills (Does Nagl rank up with McClellan for you, sheesh), but it seems that they’re even more important in this sort of a war. Diplomacy and War is full of stories of competent officials who were perceived to lack Washington’s full cachet, and were treated thusly when foreign powers dealt with them not as the real center of american power. It’s not fair to men serving underneath to suffer the consequences while a more diplomatic solution is hammered out.

There’s also hints of a disagreement between the Pentagon and McKeirnan on the proper place of NATO and how to organize ISAF, which seems like a serious issue, but the article doesn’t put enough meat on that to debate seriously.

Stephen Pampinella August 17, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Agreed with FM but on a different note. If counterinsurgency is more political than military, then propaganda is power, and media savvy is a fundamental necessity. If McKiernan couldn’t get that right, then it was wise to remove him.

Yes, Gates/Mullen want Nagl types, but that’s because Nagl argues that success in counterinsurgency requires the creation of a learning organization that can reflexively adapt and learn from its mistakes. Your blog argues much the same point.

Lastly, NATO is simply not suited for counterinsurgency, and most of the Alliance doesn’t want to get its hands dirty (they want to do peacekeeping), save for the British, Aussies, Dutch, and Canadians. I imagine they see the ‘Americanization’ of the war as overdue, considering we’ve always seen it as a secondary theater. We’re the superpower, we always have to take the initial risks and NATO will then follow. Same thing happened in Bosnia in the 1990s.

AJK August 17, 2009 at 4:43 pm

I agree with the sentiment that counterinsurgency is more political than military, but the target of “soft power” ought to be Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Uzbekistan and…), not Washington DC. This seems to go back to the same problems as interpreters, ISAF’s twitter, etc. Is the goal of the war to placate the media or solve Afghanistan’s problems? I don’t mean this in a “Stay The Course/disengagement is unpatriotic” sort of way, but the different jobs require different tools and some sort of earnestness would be nice.

And I would say NATO is very suited for counterinsurgency: I’m convinced (but have yet to do research on the subject) that Canadian/British/German/Dutch Central/West Asian Muslims would give the Afghanistanis they interact with more peace of mind than Christians…throws the whole “crusade” propoganda out of whack, etc.

Anthony August 17, 2009 at 2:13 pm

I’m afraid I think you are over-egging the pudding a touch here, Josh.

To the extent that there is a degree of injustice over General McKiernan’s departure, it seems to me that it probably rests not so much in the fact that he was replaced as in the fact that he was sacked in an environment where large numbers of less capable officers over the last few years have been allowed to continue to advance up the career ladder regardless. In a way it’s sadly poetic that the same system that has allowed non-entities to advance up the ranks on the back of bureaucratic inertia resulted in General McKiernan being sacked because bureacratic imperatives meant that there was nowhere else in the career structure for him to go…

I agree with other commenters that the NATO issue probably deserves a greater prominence than you allow it. I can also understand the desire of those in Washington to get their very best people in place ASAP, regardless of the issue of a general’s ability to schmooze.

Joshua Foust August 17, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Fabius, my surprise and anger here comes, as Anthony noted, that McKiernan of all the generals was fired for not being media savvy. Considering the many generals we’ve had who are A-1 screw ups responsible for the deaths of thousands, that McKiernan alone got singled out for firing—especially in the way he was—is just galling.

Having a pair of generals scheming their way into new stars back in the Pentagon at the expense of the man running the war may be normal, but that doesn’t make any less disappointing to see. As far as I’m concerned the continuity between McKiernan and McChrystal—right down to issuing the same directives and having the same ideas and requests—speaks to just how ridiculous this was. Just as McKiernan not getting the people he wanted because he didn’t have the right friends, but now McChrystal gets everything his heart desires (except maybe more troops).

Seriously? None of you think that’s a ridiculous double standard?

The issue about NATO is, to my mind, more worrying, but also less clear. There is an implicit rebuke of NATO in McChrystal’s appointment, and it goes against the meta-narrative of Barack Obama’s administration so far. I don’t know what it could mean yet, though.

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