Obama's War -- Firing a General

Pentagon Worries Led to Command Change

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009

In mid-March, as a White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan was nearing completion, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met in a secure Pentagon room for their fortnightly video conference with Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Kabul.

There was no formal agenda. McKiernan, a silver-haired former armor officer, began with a brief battlefield update. Then Gates and Mullen began asking about reconstruction and counternarcotics operations. To Mullen, they were straightforward, relevant queries, but he thought McKiernan fumbled them.

Gates and Mullen had been having doubts about McKiernan since the beginning of the year. They regarded him as too languid, too old-school and too removed from Washington. He lacked the charisma and political savvy that Gen. David H. Petraeus brought to the Iraq war.

McKiernan's answers that day were the tipping point for Mullen. Soon after, he discussed the matter with Gates, who had come to the same conclusion.

Mullen traveled to Kabul in April to confront McKiernan. The chairman hoped the commander would opt to save face and retire, but he refused. Not only had he not disobeyed orders, he believed he was doing what Gates and Mullen wanted.

You're going to have to fire me, he told Mullen.

Two weeks later, Gates did. It was the first sacking of a wartime theater commander since President Harry S. Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for opposing his Korean War policy.

The humiliating removal of a four-star general for being too conventional reveals the ferocious intensity Gates and Mullen share over a growing war that will soon enter its ninth year. It also demonstrates their zeal to respond to President Obama's demand for rapid success in a place where foreign armies have failed for centuries.

"There are those who would have waited six more months" in order to have a less abrupt transition, Mullen said in an interview. "I couldn't. I'm losing kids and I couldn't sleep at night. I have an unbounded sense of urgency to get this right."

This account of McKiernan's tenure and departure is drawn from interviews with key participants and several senior officials, both supportive and critical of him, who have direct knowledge of the actions and conversations described. Because it involves a personnel matter, they spoke only on the condition that information provided not be specifically attributed. They are largely in consensus about the sequence of events, but they disagree whether McKiernan's leadership merited his dismissal.

The decision was not discussed at length within the White House but was endorsed by Obama. It reflects a view among senior Pentagon officials that top generals need to be as adept at working Washington as they are the battlefield, that the conflict in Afghanistan requires a leader who can also win the confidence of Congress and the American public.

McKiernan is an understated and reticent man; his 37-year career involved more than two decades of overseas deployments but less than a year at the Pentagon. He did not fawn over visiting lawmakers like Petraeus did in Iraq. He also did not cultivate particularly strong relationships with Afghan leaders. His replacement, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is regarded as a leader in the Petraeus mold: able to nimbly run the troops on the ground as well as the traps in Washington.

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