SECDEF Gates spoke this afternoon on the replacement of GEN David McKiernan as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan. McKiernan was on the job for less than a year, having been appointed the task under the Bush administration. LTG Stanley McChrystal will replace him. McChrystal was a Special Forces officer, and former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command.
The whole thing was quite civilized; GEN McKiernan's service was duly praised... perhaps eulogized. It is the first major sacking of a commander in this war. Could it be that senior officers will be held accountable for the success or failure of their mission, or is this just a political move to replace a Bush assignee?
Based on Gates' announcement, it appears that it is a signal that field commanders will be held accountable for the lack of progress in their areas. Gates spoke of LTG McCrystal's experience as a counterinsurgent. He announced the appointment of a Deputy Commander in Afghanistan, LTG David M. Rodriguez, who he also touted as an experienced and strong counterinsurgent. LTG Rodriguez was the commander of the 82nd Airborne when I was in Afghanistan. I saw him once as he conducted a FOB visit. Being a good little advisor, I wore my uniform properly and stayed the hell out of the way, taking care of my business whilst he went about his.
I do not know GEN McKiernan. I have no reason to have anything other than respect for him and his service. I wouldn't be disrespectful to him. It appears that he is being used to symbolize to the Officer Corps that counterinsurgency failures will come home to roost. This is a message that needs to be taken to heart.
I think it's more about the message than the man.
It's unfortunate that one man has to take the blame, but that's the nature of command. A commander is responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen. I saw one joyful commenter on a popular counterinsurgency website today, figuratively jumping for glee that GEN McKiernan was being sacked for this "cavalier attitude towards civilian casualties." This is clearly not the case, but the man will have to live with that kind of speculation from here on out.
That being said, it's time that leadership downrange hear the bell clearly; no more losing ground and coming back holding your place on the promotion list. Many have commented that a tower guard at Camp Phoenix could lose rank at the drop of a hat, but there was no accountability for the myriad of broken systems that were run by officers. A team could spend weeks downrange without the proper equipment while staff officers bickered over who got one of the 42 new humvees... but no officer's career was ever in danger while a team of advisors was rendered nearly disabled for lack of the equipment that the denizens of Phoenix cast lots for. A brigade or battalion commander can leave an area notably less secure than when he got there and go back with a shiny new medal, a great evaluation and a choice assignment.
I recently asked in the comments on Abu Muqawama if there had been a single maneuver force commander who had suffered any negative impact on his career due to the degradation of security in Afghanistan or Iraq. There had not been. Battalion and brigade commanders came back from the theaters of combat having visibly lost ground, or having failed to make progress, with medals and nice new assignments including promotions. Apparently, that has now changed.
This should not be construed as a criticism of GEN McKiernan; I think it's more about the message than the man. I feel for the man, but I applaud the message.
On his blog, Andrew Exum agrees with the commenter below. In an NPR interview on 5/12/09, Exum sounds more like the above. In the end, a significant portion of the event is about the message that there is a new strategy and it will be ruthlessly enforced.