By all accounts, Gen. David McKiernan did nothing wrong during his short tour as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And it's not often that a general is removed in the middle of his tour. When Gen. George Casey floundered in Iraq, President Bush kept him on until the end of his tour and then promoted him to chief of staff of the Army. So Defense Secretary Robert Gates's announcement that McKiernan was asked to resign (fired, in military-ese) and would be replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal sent shock waves around the Pentagon.
McKiernan was reportedly slow in agreeing with Gen. David Petraeus, head of Central Command, that the war should be viewed as primarily a battle to win allies rather than simply to defeat enemies. And by taking the dramatic step of removing McKiernan only 11 months into his 24-month tour, Gates, who emphasized that he made the move with President Obama's blessing, showed he wanted to shake things up. "Our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches from our military leaders," he said at the Pentagon news conference announcing the move. And analysts see McChrystal as fitting with the new approach. "McKiernan's removal confirms that it's now Petraeus's army. The conventional warriors are being washed out of the system. The unconventional warriors are in the saddle," said Andrew Bacevich, a military and international relations expert at Boston University.
McChrystal's core experience is in the shadowy world of special operations: From 2003 to 2008, he led the Joint Special Operations Command, including the forces that killed Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
That has led some to wonder if McChrystal may be more of a bad-guy killer than the gentleman-general counterinsurgency expert, exemplified by General Petraeus, now in vogue in the Obama administration. But for the most part, the counterinsurgency community has welcomed McChrystal's appointment. The mission in Afghanistan requires many skills other than "shooting people and blowing things up," said Andrew Exum, an Afghanistan veteran and fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "But I think General McChrystal is a nimble-enough intellect to understand this. General McChrystal is not a knuckle-dragging, door-kicking Army Ranger the way that they're often portrayed in the popular imagination. He's a very thoughtful general." In addition to his black-ops experience, McChrystal has done stints as a fellow at Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest assignment is at the Pentagon, as director of the Joint Staff.
What his appointment means for the conduct of the war is not yet clear. And McChrystal won't single-handedly make the big decisions like how to proceed with airstrikes that are becoming increasingly controversial because of the civilian casualties they cause. He'll most likely have to consult with Gates, Petraeus, and even Obama on big calls.
But the move indelibly puts President Obama's stamp on the war and underscores how important it will be to his presidency. "There is a realization that the situation in Afghanistan is so dire, and the challenges so complex, that you really need a silver bullet," Exum said. "You have one chance to get this right, and you'd better get your A-team on the field."
Obama, along with the people of Afghanistan, is hoping they are indeed getting it right.
- Read more about Obama's efforts in Afghanistan.