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May 12, 2009

Why The Change Of Command In Afghanistan

Yesterday Secretary of Defense Gates took the unusual step of firing a 4 star combatant commander in the midst of the war. In fact, it hadn't been done since Truman relieved MacArthur. Now there was no insubordination involved with Gen. McKiernan just a sense that things weren't getting better and there was a man (actually, men) better suited to get the job done that was ready and available.

Mr. Gates praised Gen. McKiernan's record and said no specific incident prompted his ouster. A senior Pentagon official said Mr. Gates and other top national security officials concluded in recent weeks that Gen. McKiernan had the wrong background and mind-set for the Afghan war. Gen. McKiernan, who was commissioned into the Army in 1972, spent his entire military career commanding conventional forces. He served in the Balkans, led the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, and then oversaw the U.S. ground war in Iraq in 2003.

Gen. McChrystal and Gen. Rodriguez bring a different set of experiences. Gen. McChrystal, who currently serves as the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has spent most of his career in the secretive special operations community and oversaw the commando teams that captured Saddam Hussein and killed terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

Gen. Rodriguez, who serves as Mr. Gates's senior military adviser, commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in eastern Afghanistan last year and is seen as one of the military's leading experts on counterinsurgency. He will assume the newly created post of deputy commander for operations for the 45,000 American troops now in Afghanistan.

..."Gates has been thinking about this since the transition," said a senior Defense official. "When you have guys of the caliber of McChrystal and Rodriguez on the bench and rested, you need to get them into the fight."

I'm not even going to pretend I know enough about these men to render judgment. The fact is there are only a handful of people who are and they (Gates, Adm. Mullen and Gen. Petraeus) seem to on board with the change.

It's a hard fate for McKiernan who is obviously a capable and honorable man. It's just that there is a pair of officers that leadership thinks can do better. I expect the manager of my favorite baseball team to put the best players out on the field regardless of sentiment. We can expect no less from those responsible for prosecuting our nation's wars.

Two things in this article that are comforting. The first is Gates' delivered the news in person last week, McKiernan deserved that at the least. The second is this was something done with deliberate thought and not a reaction to recent civilian casualties.

Will the McChrystal/Rodriguez team be able to manage the war in all its complexity (fighting the enemy, getting the Afghan Army up and running, supporting the Afghan government, dealing with NATO allies, etc) better than McKiernan? No one knows for sure but Gates is going with the people who he thinks give us the best chance to succeed. That's all we can hope for.

(H/t for the WSJ article to Max Boot writing at Commentary. See his post for more on the difference between Gates and Rumsfeld's management styles.)

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posted by DrewM. at 11:31 AM

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