President Obama had been in office for only five months when he relieved Army Gen. David McKiernan as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The new president made the move on the recommendation of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who told the president that he wanted “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes” in Afghanistan. McKiernan was the first top wartime commander to be dismissed since Harry S. Truman’s removal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951.
“We have a new strategy, a new mission and a new ambassador. I believe that new military leadership is also needed,” Gates said at a hastily convened Pentagon news conference.
Gates elevated Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who had played a central role in Iraq leading U.S. Special Operations troops who conducted a relentless campaign to destroy the leadership of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, as well as Iranian-backed Shiite militia forces that were attacking U.S. troops.
McChrystal was summoned to meet with Obama on Air Force One in Copenhagen to discuss a major change in strategy in Afghanistan. Just days earlier, McChrystal had given a speech in London suggesting that a major military buildup was needed in the country. In a public question-and-answer session after the address, he had been dismissive of a scaled-down war plan, backed by Vice President Biden, to shift the focus of the American effort from defeating the Taliban to a narrower campaign aimed at hunting down al-Qaeda.
McChrystal’s remarks had infuriated some in the White House. His 25-minute talk with Obama in October 2009 was his first in-person meeting with the president since taking command that June. A month later, Obama authorized sending more than 33,000 new forces to Afghanistan, where they would conduct the broader campaign that McChrystal advocated, but Obama insisted that they would start to come home after 18 months.
The long review process sowed mistrust between the White House and the president’s top commanders. Many of Obama’s top aides believed that the military had boxed Obama into the larger troop surge. In his memoir, “Duty,” Gates accused the vice president of poisoning Obama’s relationship with his generals. “I thought Biden was subjecting Obama to Chinese water torture, every day saying ‘the military can’t be trusted,’ ” he wrote.
McChrystal was fired in June 2010, one year into his command, after he and his staff were quoted in a Rolling Stone magazine profile making derisive remarks about top White House officials, including Biden.
Obama replaced McChrystal with Gen. David H. Petraeus, who had risen to fame as the top commander in Iraq when President Bush shifted strategy and put Patraeus in charge of a surge in troops into the country.
In 2008, Obama, still a candidate, flew over Baghdad with Petraeus and discussed the U.S. war strategy there with him. In Iraq, Obama and Petraeus were never completely in sync on strategy. Petraeus wanted to employ a large-scale counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan that involved protecting the Afghans from the Taliban, improving governance and rebuilding the country’s economy. Obama had his doubts about the costly approach.
In his memoir, Gates recounted a tense 2011 meeting with the president in the White House Situation Room: “As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
Gen. John R. Allen took command in Afghanistan in July 2011. Faced with an order from Obama to withdraw 23,000 troops during his first year in command, Allen hastily transformed the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. Instead of trying to continue large U.S. counterinsurgency operations advocated by his predecessors, he accelerated a handover of responsibility to Afghan security forces. He ordered American and NATO troops to push Afghans into the lead fighting roles across much of the country, even in insurgent-controlled areas. “My instruction to my commanders is to get the [Afghans] into the fight,” Allen told The Washington Post. “The sooner I can get them there, while I still have the time and the combat power, the more I can catch them if they fall.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford took over command from Allen in February 2013 and managed the withdrawal of American forces for his next 18 months in command. The Marine general earned respect at the White House through his efforts to balance the ongoing fight against the Taliban with the political demands of home, where officials were eager to curtail the military footprint before Obama’s departure in 2017. With some reluctance, Dunford signed off on the White House’s plan to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 1,000 by the end of 2017. Eventually, Taliban gains and the struggle of the Afghan Security Forces led Obama to abandon that plan. His latest approach called for reducing troop numbers in Afghanistan from 9,800 to about 5,500 in his final year in office. Dunford, who was appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was expected to play a critical role in helping determine whether such a withdrawal was still feasible.
Gen. John Campbell led U.S. troops from July 2014 through March 2016. He played a critical role in helping to persuade Obama to drop his promise to end the Afghan war before he left office and reduce the American presence to a Kabul-based force of about 1,000 troops. Campbell led U.S. troops at a time when Afghan forces were pressed to do the vast majority of the fighting and often struggled to hold onto territory from the Taliban. Campbell was a forceful advocate for keeping the U.S. force at 9,800 troops. He also pressed for loosening some of the rules of engagement so that U.S. planes could provide more air power to the struggling Afghans. The requests were not welcomed by Obama. “We aren’t going to get more people — politically there’s no appetite because we are downsizing,” Campbell told The Washington Post in the spring of 2016. “So the only thing I can affect is my authority to strike different groups and my authority to provide different enablers to the Afghans.”
Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson, who had served multiple tours in Afghanistan, took command in March of 2016 and assumed responsibility for helping the Afghan troops hold ground as he oversaw further American withdrawals from the country. Nicholson suggested that he wanted to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of the fighting season in the fall of 2016 and potentially longer. As Obama’s tenure drew to a close, Nicholson was still reviewing the American strategy in Afghanistan. It was not clear what kind of response his requests for maintaining higher troop levels would receive from the White House.