David McKiernan is one of our finest generals, especially when it comes to conventional warfare. If you need to get a force from the Kuwait border to Baghdad in three weeks, he’s the guy to do it–as he did at the beginning of the Iraq War. I’m not sure he was perfectly situated when it came to the war in Afghanistan. This is anything but a conventional war–and it may be that General Stan McChrystal, who was announced today as McKiernan’s replacement, will turn out to be a better fit. McChrystal last combat mission was to command the Special Operations Forces in Iraq–and Afghanistan is a war where the importance of special ops and counterinsurgency is paramount.
McKiernan’s departure gives me the opportunity to tell one of the most infuriating stories of the Donald Rumsfeld Era. After McKiernan reached Baghdad, Rumsfeld decided to fly out to Iraq for a victory tour. When the SecDef arrived in Baghdad, McKiernan had been up for three days 36-hours straight–and, as soon as they got into the C-130 for the flight to Basra (I think it was Basra), the General fell asleep. Rumsfeld was so angered by this–hah!–insubordination that he told his staff that McKiernan would never receive another (Add: combat) command so long as he was SecDef. And McKiernan never did: he didn’t get the Afghanistan command until Robert Gates replaced Rumsfeld.
In any case, McKiernan is a fine soldier. He did his best under very difficult circumstances, working with insufficient resources in Kabul during the Bush Administration (and with a battle plan destined to fail eventually in Baghdad, a plan he frequently questioned during the planning process–which didn’t endear him to Rumsfeld or Tommy Franks, either). He has served his country very well. I wish him all the best.
Update: When I wrote the post above, I wasn’t aware that Secretary Gates–in his rather remarkable fashion–had simply fired McKiernan. As Fred Kaplan says here, that is a thunderstrike…but not unprecedented for Gates, who fired the Air Force Chief of Staff last year after it became clear that the USAF wasn’t paying sufficient attention to protecting the nukes under its control. In this case, the issue wasn’t incompetence but the immediate need for leadership in Afghanistan that knows how to fight an asymmetrical war. This is further evidence–as if the ascension of David Petraeus and Gates’s Defense Budget weren’t enough–that the Army has undergone a seismic change, from a emphasis on conventional to unconventional warfare. This is a huge moment in military history: a library will be written about it.