The ouster of Afghanistan commander David McKiernan could make—or break—the Obama presidency.

Military analysis.
May 11 2009 6:45 PM

It's Obama's War Now

The ouster of Afghanistan commander David McKiernan could make—or break—the Obama presidency.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced this afternoon that he has "asked for the resignation" of Gen. David McKiernan, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and that he plans to replace him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

This is a very big deal.

McKiernan's ouster signals a dramatic shift in U.S. strategy for the war in Afghanistan. And it means that the war is now, unequivocally, "Obama's war." The president has decided to set a new course, not merely to muddle through the next six months or so.

First, let's clarify a few things. When a Cabinet officer asks for a subordinate's resignation, it means that he's firing the guy. This doesn't happen very often in the U.S. military. McKiernan had another year to go as commander. (When Gen. George Casey's strategy clearly wasn't working in Iraq, President George W. Bush let him serve out his term, then promoted him to Army chief of staff.) Gates also made it clear he wasn't acting on a personal whim. He said that he took the step after consulting with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and President Barack Obama. According to one senior official, Gates went over to Afghanistan last week for the sole purpose of giving McKiernan the news face-to-face.

Gates emphasized at a press conference today that McKiernan didn't do anything specifically wrong but that "fresh thinking" was needed urgently. The United States couldn't just wait until the current commander's term ran out.

An intellectual battle is now raging within the Army between an "old guard" that thinks about war in conventional, force-on-force terms and a "new guard" that focuses more on "asymmetric conflicts" and counterinsurgency.

McKiernan is an excellent general in the old mold. McChrystal, who rose through the ranks as a special-forces officer, is an excellent general in the new mold. He has also worked closely with Gates and Petraeus. (In his press conference, Gates referred to McChrystal's "unique skill set in counterinsurgency.") For the past year, McChrystal has been director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff. More pertinently, for five years before that, he was commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, a highly secretive operation that hunted down and killed key jihadist fighters, including, most sensationally, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Last fall, Bob Woodward reported in the Washington Post that JSOC played a crucial, unsung role in the tactical success of the Iraqi "surge." Using techniques of what McChrystal called "collaborative warfare," JSOC combined intelligence intercepts with quick, precision strikes to "eliminate" large numbers of key insurgent leaders.

This appointment will not be without controversy. McChrystal's command also provided the personnel for Task Force 6-26,  an elite unit of 1,000 special-ops forces that engaged in harsh interrogation of detainees in Camp Nama as far back as 2003. The interrogations were so harsh that five Army officers were convicted on charges of abuse. (McChrystal himself was not implicated in the excesses, but the unit's slogan, which set the tone for its practices, was "If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it.")

Gates also announced yesterday that he would nominate Gen. David Rodriguez to be the deputy commander in Afghanistan, a newly created position. Rodriguez is currently Gates' military assistant and, before that, was commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. These forces, which are separate from those under NATO command, spend most of the time going after Taliban fighters.

McChrystal and Rodriguez are close friends. They have both been in Washington for more than a year. And Geoff Morrell, Gates' press secretary, said in a phone interview this afternoon that they're both "champing at the bit" to get back on the front lines. "They're rested and raring to go," he said. "They understand the strategy. They're determined to win. They will do what is necessary to win."

We've heard this kind of talk before, of course. Fresh, new, and determined don't necessarily add up to victory. But the shift in command does mark a dramatic change from the uncertain muddle we've seen up to now. And Obama's whole presidency may rise or fall on whether it succeeds.

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