The XX Factor

Why the Firing of Gen. David McKiernan Matters

The announcement that Gen. David McKiernan is being removed from command of NATO forces in Afghanistan-apparently the first firing of a U.S. commander in a theater of war since Korea- is a very big deal. But what does it actually mean? One thing it means is that the dust has yet to settle in the transition to a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which suggests that any fruits of that strategy remain distant. Laid out in a white paper this spring , the new strategy stems from a wholesale rethinking of our approach that has been underway at least since Gen. David Petraeus took the helm at CentCom last fall. It includes, but isn’t limited to, the decision to deploy some 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan, increase the number of civilian advisors and quicken the training of Afghan National Army cadets and police officers. Among its more controversial aspects are initiatives like one underway in Wardak Province, near Kabul, to arm local militias to fight the Taliban in a sort of wannabe “Anbar Awakening” , and various under-the-radar attempts to negotiate with the elements of the Taliban and its collaborators known in military and think tank jargon as “reconcilables.”

In announcing McKiernan’s firing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke of his “long and distinguished” service and said that “nothing went wrong, nothing specific” to necessitate his removal. The consensus seems to be that McKiernan, who oversaw the ground invasion of Iraq in 2003, was too conventional a thinker to lead U.S. and international forces during this next and as yet mostly imaginary phase of the war in Afghanistan. It isn’t simply, as Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon notes , that “McKiernan did a good job, but they need someone they think can do an excellent job.” It’s more that they need-or think they need-a commander who thinks like one of those bearded guys in street clothes who tend to be both more politically thoughtful in their conversations with locals and more targeted in their assaults than conventional forces. The choice of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal as McKiernan’s replacement confirms this. McChrystal headed the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, and Bob Woodward credits his use of so-called “collaborative warfare” with a key role in the success of the surge in Iraq.

Afghanistan has always been an unconventional battlefield, and some of the military’s greatest successes there have been a result of the comparatively delicate work of well-deployed Special Operations teams. But even if you think a more nuanced approach would work better, you might sympathize with the difficulties McKiernan faced in what has so far been a profoundly under-resourced fight. The awkwardness of waging an unconventional war with thousands of soldiers trained primarily to “close with and destroy the enemy”-even when it’s unclear who the enemy is- was perhaps best articulated in a tactical directive McKiernan issued this winter to all 58,000 NATO troops under his command, including some 26,000 Americans. Following several air strikes that killed Afghan civilians and angered many, the directive advised soldiers that:

We must clearly apply and demonstrate proportionality, requisite restraint, and the utmost discrimination in our application of firepower. No one seeks or intends to constrain the inherent right of self defense to every member of the [NATO] force. However, commanders must focus upon the principles which attach to every use of force – be that self defense or offensive fires. Good tactical judgment, necessity, and proportionality are to drive every action and engagement; minimizing civilian casualties is of paramount importance.

To some this may seem like common sense, but it should be noted that a directive like this would have been unthinkable in Afghanistan a few years ago. If you’ve ever hung around soldiers, you can imagine that some grumbling ensued, as well as a measure of genuine confusion. No one seeks or intends to constrain the inherent right of self defense to every member of the force. To me, it sounded as if McKiernan were saying, “if at all possible, don’t shoot.” For conventional soldiers trained and acculturated the way ours currently are, this is very strange advice. It’s indisputable that you fight with the army you have, but I for one don’t envy McKiernan or his replacement the task of transforming that army into a more nuanced, Special Ops-type institution, and fast. Fewer shots from the air would certainly calm Afghans on the ground. But the very prospect makes infantrymen nervous as hell.