The Miseducation of David McKiernan

by Joshua Foust on 1/14/2010

Amateur political scientists and subscribers to New York love to talk about class in America: the unaccountable rich, the disappearing middle class, and the stressed poor dregs of society. Not to say such issues don’t exist, but the way in which they are discussed rarely moves more than a few steps beyond asinine.

The U.S. military often lauds itself as the great equalizer—any American, regardless of class, can work up through the ranks, get an education, and achieve a measure of prestige and authority they’d never be able to get otherwise. (Think of the G.I. Bill, and how much money it provides not just for undergraduate, but also graduate education, even after one retires from service.)

If only this were so. In reality, the military has its own cliques, its in-groups and out-groups, and increasingly so—to a degree rarely seen in American history and certainly not as fretted over since Eisenhower’s infamous speech—the in-groups within the military are no longer defined by one’s relationships inside the system, or even a broad assessment of one’s capabilities. Rather, the most indicative attribute of a high-ranking officer’s future career prospects seem to reside more in his or her closeness to influential members of Congress, Think Tanks, and the DC media cliques.

The military-think tank mutual appreciation society that is Washington, DC is nothing new to readers here. But the way this society expresses itself is particularly galling.

General David McKiernan, the former commander of ISAF in Afghanistan, is one example of how members of the out-group get treated by the insiders. Andrew Exum, General McChrystal’s official think tank spokesman (just as Fred Kagan remains General Petraeus’ special pundit-pet), was all over McKiernan’s firing, declaring:

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.

Ineffective? Those are strong words for a man Max Boot once said doesn’t underestimate Afghanistan’s challenges. (Although, to be fair to boot, less than two months after declaring McKiernan a competent and engaged commander he was writing the man off as “the wrong kind of leader” and “too colorless,” so it’s not like Boot says anything beyond what his star-bedecked masters tell him to.)

Anyway, Exum repeated the charge in Foreign Policy that David McKiernan was hopelessly conventional, that he was the wrong guy to be leading an exciting and sexy counterinsurgency.

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’s quite a whisper campaign Exum was hearing (and to be fair to Exum, he had issues with McKiernan’s commend months before McChrystal got sent in). But what were General McKiernan’s shortcomings? According to Exum, they were his belief that we needed to interdict the Taliban crossing the border while we protected areas of the countryside.

That belief is certainly at odds with the latest McChrystal command to concede the countryside and focus on the cities like the Soviets did. But I think it’s more instructive to look at how McKiernan’s ideas in general have been treated—more specifically, how an enormous number of genuinely good ideas were rejected under his command but praised as brilliant under McChrystal’s. It’s staggering, whether calling for more troops a full year before the vaunted McChrystal report called for the same, or rejecting the obviously terrible idea of tribal militias (something anonymous sources hinted was a major cause for his firing). McKiernan was out in front from the moment he took command that the ISI was a major cause of insecurity because of its support for elements within the Taliban (something that really hasn’t gone away, except in McChrystal’s statements about the war).

General McKiernan was also way in front on the issue of Powerpoint ruining the Army’s ability to carry out operations. Major General Mike Flynn just got tons of good press (ugh) for saying that Powerpoint was a critical failure in planning. But in Tom Ricks’ Fiasco, however, we see this passage:

McKiernan had another, smaller but nagging issue: He couldn’t get [Tommy] Franks to issue clear orders that stated explicitly what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why. Rather, Franks passed along PowerPoint briefing slides that he had shown to Rumsfeld: “It’s quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense…In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary order], or plan, you get a bunch of PowerPoint slides…[T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides.”

Almost as egregiously, Expecto Petraeus is an infamous Powerpoint hack. FromThe Fourth Star, by Gregg Jaffe and David Cloud:

The way Petraeus operated was nothing like the conventional portrait of a wartime general. It wasn’t Patton,riding crop clutched tightly in his left hand, exhorting his soldiers from the top of a tank. Rather, it was the sligth and scholarly Petraeus swirling his emerald-green laser pointer over pie charts and columns full of data. “I am going to manage you by slides,” he told his troops.

Orchestrating the briefing was an art, Petraeus believed, one he had perfected over years of command. When he was running it, his voice deepened and his back, normally pitched slightly forward, straightened a bit. On a typical day Patraeus covered forty-five to sixty slides,each of which would first be briefed to him by a colonel or major. Intelligence, enemy attacks, Iraq’s sclerotic electricity output, and press coverage merited daily attention. Other areas of interest to Petraeus, included bridge and road re-construction,chlorine supplies at water-treatment plants, oil exports, Iraqi politics, and even chicken embryo imports, were covered weekly.

No, I guess McKiernan’s desire to break out of the deluge of useless information such an approach generated made McKiernan overly conventional and colorless, to borrow the epithets used against him, post-firing. Frankly, the complaints against McKiernan were bizarre, seemingly without any real basis in fact but necessary to create the McChrystal Myth that would turn around the war. But then, thanks to an intrepid Washington Post reporter, we got the first tantalizing clues as to what was really going on:

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.

Ahh, subbing in the Powerpoint ranger. How… conventional. General McKiernan was 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. That should have given everyone involved much pause, but most of them were too busy bowing at the feet of the new super-general on the block, McChrystal.

If McChrystal’s command had been radically different than McKiernan’s, then we could at least point to that as one reason to fire him halfway through his tour. But that’s the thing: McChrystal has not been significantly different in intent than McKiernan. The new road rules Spencer Ackerman breathlessly hyped as super hip and so very population-centric were first issued under McKiernan. McChrystal issued new commands to limit air strikes out of a concern for civilian casualties… which were remarkably similar to almost identical orders McKiernan issued the year before.

Indeed, the deluge of news stories describing the rules of engagement as originating with McChrystal when they really originated with McKiernan was so overwhelming, I doubt anyone even took notice. Even on something as significant as ISAF-induced civilian casualties… the drop in casualties actuallybegan under McKiernan’s command and merely continued under McChrystal.

Indeed, the only “new” directives McChrystal has issued that he can claim to be his are the ones about withdrawing from remote outposts to focus on Afghanistan’s version of population centers. And that directive has been so effective the Taliban have claimed control over vast swaths of territory along the border with Pakistan—surely not an optimal solution when cross-border militants are a major source of trouble.

I’ll give General McChrystal this: the man is a master at manipulating media coverage of himself. McKiernan is indeed colorless in interviews, he is not “sexy” because he didn’t command hit squads illegally torturing Iraqis to death, and he sure as hell didn’t seem to relish playing the media-and-congressional-hearing game the way McChrystal and Petraeus do (oh, did I mention that Petraeus and McChrystal are buddies from WAY back, while McKiernan is not?). As Michael Cohen has been documenting, McChrystal talks pretty, but the reality behind his words is really just more of the same—a horribly conventional Army fighting an unconventional war and consistently losing ground almost everywhere save the places stymied by tens of thousands of surplus Marines.

So maybe, in a way, McKiernan’s firing is fortuitous, even if he says the whole thing embarrassed him so much he almost skipped his own retirement ceremony. And he’s not wrong to feel that way, since he is the first General fired from his command during wartime since MacArthur in Korea in the 1950s. None of the horrible failure-generals we’ve suffered through the past eight years, notBomber McNeill‘s reign of sky-terror in Afghanistan, nor Ricardo Sanchez’ gleeful use of torture chambers to spark an insurgency in Iraq in 2003, nor the mega-disaster of Tommy Franks, none of them were fired.

But McKiernan can at least take comfort in knowing his brief tenure of Afghanistan will barely be remembered in a decade when we’re scratching our heads and wondering why there is still an on-going genocide and unimaginable misery in that country. All the blame for that catastrophe will be laid at the Sainted General McChrystal’s feet. Maybe. McChrystal has a crack team of loyal revisionists working to burnish his forever image.

Related: Larry Korb’s spot-on critique of Admiral Mullen.

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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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