May 14, 2009

Captain Contradiction

Countless stories are sadly lost in a whirlwind 24 hour news cycle. Dick Cheney, Elizabeth Edwards, GM, Nancy Pelosi, and Carrie Prejean have drained the attention for other serious matters, like the firing of General David McKiernan. One would assume that firing the general of a deepening war costing hundreds of billions of dollars would be the major story for weeks, but relatively no energy has been expended on the subject.

McKiernan’s dismissal isn’t routine, even if it appears normal at first glance.

The war that McKiernan commanded is deteriorating and President Obama has formulated a new strategy for Afghanistan, so it seems logical to remove the man installed by former President Bush and replace him with Obama’s personal choice. But Obama had a small voice in the decision, which was made primarily by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates had grown tired of McKiernan long before he asked for his formal resignation on May 11th. A day after Gates broke the news, a senior Defense official told the Wall Street Journal, “Gates has been thinking about this since the transition. When you have guys of the caliber of McChrystal and Rodriguez on the bench and rested, you need to get them into the fight.”

Lieutenant general Stanley A. McChrystal, with perfect accolades for Afghanistan, could very well be more qualified than McKiernan. As commander of all special forces operations in Iraq, McChrystal was responsible for the capture of Saddam Hussein and the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the “Emir of Al Qaeda in the Country of Two Rivers.”

Beyond his achievements, McChrystal represents a shift in strategy from brawn to stealth. McKiernan, who was also unhappy with low troop levels in Iraq, constantly requested more troops for Afghanistan. Additional troops have been ruled out as a solution even as America deploys a fresh batch.

In contrast, McChrystal is regarded as a true student and adherent of counterinsurgency. Intelligence, the cornerstone of counterinsurgency, is his game and special operations are considered the future of asymmetric warfare.

But even if McChrystal is tailored for the Afghan battlefields, he doesn’t explain the regional catastrophe that he’s inheriting - and neither does McKiernan. When asked about his decision, Gates replied that he wanted “new leadership and fresh eyes,” a phrase he repeated under the pressure of wary reporters demanding specifics, all the while claiming that McKiernan hadn’t done anything wrong.

Obviously McKiernan had done something wrong. He was deemed too conventional for Afghanistan while McChrystal, with his special operations expertise, appears to be the perfect fit. There is no inconsistency here, but Gates also recently admitted that Afghanistan cannot succeed without the help of Pakistan, and that Afghanistan’s crumbling is a result of Pakistan’s internal meltdown.

Who is in charge of America’s strategy in Pakistan? Not David McKiernan.

Who decided that drone attacks which kill Pakistani civilians would continue despite their unpopularity? Who decided to make enemies by slandering Pakistan’s military? Who decided to publicly flog Pakistani president Asif Zardari and weaken his credibility at home by coloring him as an American puppet? Who decided to try and buy control of Pakistan’s military by dangling economic assistance? Who is preoccupied with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? Who is accused of violating Pakistan’s sovereignty? Who is increasing anti-American sentiment in Pakistan?

Not David McKiernan. Instead, these decisions and consequences seem to emanate from the Pentagon, in particular the trio of Robert Gates, Joint Chief of Staff Mike Mullen, and CENTCOM commander David Petraeus. “New leadership and fresh eyes” they are not, and yet no firings are in their futures.

McKiernan has received an unacceptably low level of media attention in America and his firing has gone unquestioned. But in Pakistan, the move has been perceived as an admission of failure as well as scapegoating. Indeed, McKiernan has the feel of a coach fired because of poor management in the front office. McKiernan may have been at the top of Afghanistan, but when viewed as part of South Asia, he drops significantly behind the many policy makers America has deployed.

Gates admitted that Afghanistan is worsening because of Pakistan, but Pakistan didn’t become what it is because of McKiernan. What success will McChrystal have in Afghanistan if the same decision makers keep making poor choices in Pakistan? Using Gates’ logic, America needs more “fresh eyes” than just McChrystal's.

The singular firing of McKiernan thus reeks of contradiction.

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