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.
"Blame General Petraeus," a senior Defense Department official said. "He redefined during his tour in Iraq what it means to be a commanding general. He broke the mold. The traditional responsibilities were not enough anymore. You had to be adroit at international politics. You had to be a skilled diplomat. You had to be savvy with the press, and you had to be a really sophisticated leader of a large organization. When you judge McKiernan by Petraeus's standards, he looked old-school by comparison."
This change of command is a story of Washington's new approach to the war, one that involves not just more troops and reconstruction money but a new kind of military leader to carry out the mission. It is a story of a loyal general who, his superiors believed, was miscast for the role he had been assigned, and his intense replacements, who have been asked to win a losing war with many of the same impediments. It is also a story of the president's top military leaders, who are betting that this one personnel decision, above all others, will set in motion a process that reverses U.S. fortunes in Afghanistan.
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In April 2008, two months before he assumed command in Kabul, McKiernan traveled to Afghanistan for a get-acquainted visit. Within days, he concluded that there were not enough troops to contend with the intensifying Taliban insurge ncy.
At the time, the United States had about 33,000 military personnel in the country, about a third of them assigned to combat operations. The rest were in supporting roles. About 30,000 were from the other 42 nations in the NATO-led force, but many had been deployed with onerous rules that prevented their involvement in counterinsurgency activities.
Even more worrisome was a lack of other resources needed to win a war: helicopters, transport aircraft, surveillance drones, interpreters, intelligence analysts. Troops in Afghanistan had a fraction of what they required.
"There was a saying when I got there: If you're in Iraq and you need something, you ask for it," McKiernan said in his first interview since being fired. "If you're in Afghanistan and you need it, you figure out how to do without it."
By late last summer, he decided to tell George W. Bush's White House what he knew it did not want to hear: He needed 30,000 more troops. He wanted to send some to the country's east to bolster other U.S. forces, and some to the south to assist overwhelmed British and Canadian units in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
The Bush administration opted not to act on McKiernan's request and instead set out to persuade NATO allies to contribute more troops. With Washington then viewing NATO as the solution -- not the problem -- McKiernan seemed like the right general to help win over the allies. Before coming to Kabul, he had been the top Army commander in Europe, and he had been part of the NATO mission in the Balkans in the 1990s.
He deemed management of the alliance in Afghanistan one of his chief responsibilities. He met with an almost daily stream of visiting delegations from European capitals, and he sought to change some of the more Byzantine troop rules.
But back in Washington, McKiernan was increasingly seen as too deferential to NATO. By November, when it became clear that the Europeans would not be sending more troops, senior officials at the Pentagon wanted him to focus on making better use of the existing NATO forces -- getting them off bases and involved in counterinsurgency operations. Although McKiernan sought to do that, his superiors thought he was not working fast enough. Of particular concern was the division of the country into five regional commands, each afforded broad autonomy to fight as it pleased.
"He was still doing the NATO-speak at a time when Gates and Mullen were over it," a senior military official at the Pentagon said.
It was around that time that Petraeus stepped in as overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. He became one of McKiernan's two bosses, and he quickly assessed the regional-command situation as untenable. He suggested adding a three-star general, one rank down from McKiernan, to take charge of daily military operations -- just as he had done in Iraq. It would free up McKiernan to spend more time on high-level diplomacy with Afghan leaders and NATO members, and it would strip power from the regional commanders.
Gates and Mullen thought it was a good idea, as did two of their most-trusted advisers: McChrystal, who was running Mullen's staff, and Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who had been Gates's chief military assistant and served as one of those regional commanders. But McKiernan had a different view. He believed that each regional command faced different challenges and that lumping all of the operational responsibility under another layer of bureaucracy would cause tension between the United States and its allies.
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In February, with a new administration in power, Obama ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, giving McKiernan much -- but not all -- of what he wanted. He planned to send most of the new forces to the south, where Taliban attacks were becoming increasingly frequent and potent.
In Washington, doubts about McKiernan were growing among Gates and Mull en and their staffs. McKiernan's plan to integrate civilian and military resources, which Gates had asked him to draw up, did not impress many who read it in the Pentagon. Once again, they faulted McKiernan's perceived deference to NATO. What the document needed, they thought, was sharp thinking from the U.S. military, not a casserole of inputs from a dozen allies.
But McKiernan did not have a reservoir of senior U.S. officers to help him with such projects. McKiernan faulted the Pentagon for not sending more people to work for him. Mullen and Gates saw it differently: McKiernan could have asked for more, but he didn't, and they were not impressed with some of the people he chose.
By mid-March, it was clear to Gates and Mullen that Obama's Afghanistan strategy, which would be announced later that month, would involve not a retrenchment but an expansion of U.S. efforts. Although the goal had become more focused -- to deny al-Qaeda a haven -- the plan was to achieve that outcome with a more comprehensive counterinsurgency effort, the likes of which, they thought, demanded a new commander.
Across the Potomac, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had hired longtime diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke to focus exclusively on Afghanistan and Pakistan. She tapped Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired three-star general who had served in Afghanistan, to be the new U.S. ambassador to Kabul.
Gates had begun to regard the advice on Afghanistan he was hearing from Rodriguez to be far sharper than what he was receiving from Kabul. Mullen felt the same way about McChrystal. The secretary and the chairman batted the idea around in confidence: What if we sent both of them -- McChrystal as the top commander and Rodriguez as his deputy? Both generals are regarded as skilled practitioners of counterinsurgency strategy, and both played influential roles in internal discussions about Obama's new Afghanistan strategy.
"It was much more about getting them in than getting McKiernan out," Mullen said. "I couldn't afford not to have my A team over there."
They discussed the issue with Petraeus, to whom McKiernan reported. McKiernan had been his boss during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but Petraeus had vaulted above him in recent years, leaving a degree of awkwardness between the two generals. Petraeus agreed with Mullen and Gates, and he urged that a change occur well before the Aug. 20 Afghan presidential election.
McKiernan had been expected to stay in Kabul until the summer of 2010. By the time his successor got up to speed and brought over a new team of deputies, it would have been another six months. "I couldn't wait that long," Mullen said.
In years past, senior commanders who were not deemed to be a good fit were gracefully moved to other high-level jobs, or even promoted. But there were no vacant four-star jobs to which McKiernan could be reassigned. He would have to retire -- or be fired. It did not matter that McKiernan had not committed a firing offense. The secretary and the chairman had come to believe that the war in Afghanistan required immediate innovation and creative risk-taking, even if it meant drumming out one of the Army's most-senior leaders, a general much beloved among those who served for him.
In mid-April, Mullen made his trip to Afghanistan to remove McKiernan, hoping that he would choose to resign voluntarily.
"I suppose that would have been an easy, painless way out -- just to say, 'Well, I've been here for a year and I'm rotating out,'" McKiernan said. "But I told a lot of people that I was staying for two years. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I said that."
The day before he left Kabul, McKiernan spoke to several hundred U.S. and NATO troops assembled in the courtyard in front of his office. "I don't want to leave," he told them. "There's work still to be done here. . . . But I'm a soldier and I live in a democracy and I work for political leaders, and when my political leaders tell me it's time to go, I must go."
The line of soldiers waiting to shake his hand continued for 90 minutes.
* * *
I n his first two months on the job, McChrystal has moved with alacrity to shift the focus of U.S. and NATO troops from chasing the Taliban to protecting cities and towns, reasoning that expanding areas of population security would have greater impact on the insurgency than a series of raids. But there is also a recognition in McChrystal's headquarters that McKiernan had made valuable contributions: The troops he asked for are now central to counterinsurgency operations in southern Afghanistan. McKiernan also set in motion changes in training Afghan security forces that McChrystal plans to continue.
Soon after arriving in Kabul, McChrystal issued a "tactical directive" to all forces under his command: The use of airstrikes on housing compounds, which have caused hundreds of civilian casualties since 2001 and stoked deep anger among Afghans, would be restricted to the most clear and critical cases.
McChrystal said bombs could be dropped only when solid intelligence showed that high-level militants were present or U.S. forces were in imminent danger. He made it clear he would rather allow a few rank-and-file Taliban fighters to get away than to flatten a house whose occupants might include women and children.
Although McChrystal's directive was not fundamentally different from the one McKiernan issued in September 2008, what was profoundly new was the way McChrystal persuaded those under him to follow it. He spent weeks reiterating its importance at his daily morning videoconference with regional commanders.
McChrystal's relationship with Mullen has resulted in a flow of personnel that eluded McKiernan. The chairman told McChrystal he could poach whomever he needed from the Joint Staff -- a list that now extends to about two dozen senior officers, including some of the military's best-regarded colonels.
Before McChrystal left Washington, Gates asked him to deliver an assessment of the war in 60 days. Instead of summoning a team of military strategists to Kabul, McChrystal invited Washington think-tank experts from across the ideological spectrum.
The experts gave McChrystal a 20-page draft report that calls for expanding the Afghan army, changes in the way troops operate and an intensified military effort to root out corruption. There were few revolutionary ideas in the document, but McChrystal may have received something far more important through the process: allies in the U.S. capital, on the political left and right, to talk about the need for more troops in Afghanistan -- in advance of his assessment to Gates, which will probably be submitted this month.
"He understands the need to engage Washington, and he's willing do so in a creative way," said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was part of the team.
* * *
When McKiernan returned to Washington to plan his retirement -- he eventually submitted a resignation to Gates rather than allow himself to be terminated -- he checked into an 11th-floor room at the Embassy Suites in Pentagon City. Dressed in a golf shirt and jeans instead of the green camouflage uniform he wore for decades, he ticked off a list of accomplishments that he maintained were not recognized by his colleagues in the Pentagon, from improving border coordination with the Pakistanis to integrating the operations of Special Forces units.
"There's been a lot of conditions that have been set in Afghanistan over the past year that are going to pay dividends in the next year or two," he said.
He said he wished he had had the same "open checkbook" to recruit senior officers from the Pentagon that has been afforded to McChrystal. And he acknowledged that he should have "done a better job of feeding the beast in Washington," even though he believed that "an operational commander needs to spend the vast majority of his energy and time and efforts focused inside the theater of operations and not on trips to Washington."
On July 15, under a bright blue morning sky, hundreds of soldiers stood at attention on the parade ground at Fort Myer as an announcer intoned: "General David McKiernan is retired."
"If you had asked me 30 days ago if I would be here today at my retirement ceremony, I would have said no -- maybe in a bit stronger terms," he told the 300 people who had gathered to see him off. "Make no mistake: I was dismayed, disappointed and more than a little embarrassed."
The war in Afghanistan, he said, "will not be decided by any one leader -- military or civilian -- from any one nation."