Defending Gen. McKiernan
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Since the sudden announcement by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the United States was changing commanders in Afghanistan, much has been written about the "inadequacies" of the departing commander, Gen. David McKiernan. The charges include that he is overly conventional, that he is too focused on big-army tactics, and that he does not understand the nature of the insurgency and what is required to defeat it. I have spent the past year in Afghanistan working directly for McKiernan. I have seen his tactics and his beliefs in action. America deserves to know what David McKiernan has accomplished here.
Over the past year, I have seen our focus in Afghanistan shift from kinetic military operations to one of engaging the population, building the capacity of the Afghan government, and ensuring that the military's top priority is the training and mentoring of the Afghan army and police. Integrated strategic planning with the United Nations and the Afghan government is now the rule rather than the exception, as it was when McKiernan arrived last June. The general has traveled around the country and has held countless forums, known as shuras, with Afghans in various localities. He has engaged local and provincial leaders one on one to hear their concerns and ensure that they understood the intentions of the international coalition. All of our Special Forces operations combined cannot win the support of the Afghan people the way these shuras do.
As important as these conversations are, talk goes only so far, and Afghans have heard endless talk over the past 7 1/2 years. McKiernan has followed talk with action. He issued a tactical directive last year emphasizing the strategic victory gained by avoiding civilian casualties over a tactical victory that may or may not advance our long-term cause. He stressed the need for soldiers to obey traffic laws and to stop running Afghans off roads but still maintained the force protection measures necessary to safeguard our troops. To some, traffic laws may seem inconsequential in a combat zone, but to Afghans this is home. These are their roads, and how we behave on them matters. McKiernan realized that after more than seven years, our small, everyday actions count as much to the Afghan people as our bigger actions do. All the while, he continued to direct the necessary military operations and ensured that operations were focused on securing the population for the long term, not just increasing the body count of our enemies.
Gen. McKiernan has said many times that we will never win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people but we can win their support, though we will not do that through military operations alone.
This struggle is not about killing insurgents. We have killed more insurgents than we can count over the past seven years and have moved no closer to victory by doing so. This struggle is about the Afghan population. Afghans must believe that their government will provide them greater security and opportunity for prosperity than the insurgency will. We are not naive; we know that military operations must continue and that some people must be killed -- but under McKiernan a more holistic approach to winning the peace has been our focus. These are the "conventional" tactics he has been employing.
To those who say we have moved too slowly, to those looking for the quick fix or fast score that will enable our forces to come home, I urge caution.
This will take time. A new society cannot be established overnight, and the United States cannot build a society for the Afghans. In a country that has lost a generation to 30 years of war, it will take longer than many may have the patience for, but we must take the time if we are to succeed so that our children will not have to return one day to finish the work on which we gave up. This long-term outlook may not have won McKiernan much support back home, but it has guided his actions for the past year, and therein lies the best hope for both the Afghan and American people.
Those of us who have had the privilege to work with him here believe in Gen. David McKiernan and what he has accomplished. We have seen the difference he has made. But, more important, we believe in the mission.
The reasons we came here after Sept. 11, 2001, still exist, and if we fail, we do so at the peril of our nation. I am sad to see Gen. McKiernan go; his departure will be a great loss to our mission. But I wish Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his team success, and I stand by to support them in any way I can. This mission is too important to our nation and the world to do any less.
The writer, a former Navy pilot and former Senate staff member for defense policy, has been a civilian strategic adviser to Gen. David McKiernan since June 2008.