WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Monday that he had fired the top American general in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, making a rare decision to remove a wartime commander at a time when the Obama administration has voiced increasing alarm about the country’s downward spiral.
Gates, saying he seeks “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes” on Afghanistan, recommended that President Barack Obama replace McKiernan with veteran Special Operations commander Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. His selection marks the continued ascendancy of officers who have pressed for the use of counterinsurgency tactics, in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are markedly different from the Army’s traditional doctrine.
“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 also recommended that Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, a former head of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan who is serving as Gates’ military assistant, be nominated to serve in a new position as McChrystal’s deputy. Gates praised McChrystal and Rodriguez for their “unique skill set in counterinsurgency.”
McKiernan, an armor officer who led U.S. ground forces during the 2003 Iraq invasion, was viewed as somewhat cautious and conventionally minded, according to senior officials inside and outside the Pentagon.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has pressed aggressively to broaden the military’s mission in Afghanistan and Iraq beyond killing the enemy to protecting the population, overseeing reconstruction projects and rebuilding local governance. Petraeus played a key role in the Obama administration’s strategic review of the Afghanistan conflict and was involved in the decision to remove McKiernan, which Petraeus said in a statement that he “fully supports.”
The decision to fire McKiernan represents one of the handful of times since President Harry S. Truman’s removal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 that U.S. civilian leaders have relieved a top wartime commander, and is in keeping with Gates’ style of demanding accountability by dismissing senior military and civilian officials for a host of problems, including nuclear weapons mismanagement and inadequate care for wounded troops.
McChrystal is the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. From 2006 to August 2008, he was the forward commander of the U.S. military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, responsible for capturing or killing high-level leaders of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently tapped McChrystal to lead an effort to manage the rotations of senior officers to shore up a base of experience on Afghanistan.
In a statement, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama agreed with the need for new leadership but that he was “impressed” by McKiernan’s calls for more troops for Afghanistan. McKiernan had successfully pressed the administration to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, forces that have only now begun to arrive in the country.
Gates did not criticize McKiernan directly and instead praised his decades of “distinguished service.” But senior officials said McKiernan’s leadership was not bold or nimble enough to re-energize a campaign in which U.S. and other NATO troops had reached a stalemate against Taliban insurgents in some parts of Afghanistan.
One senior government official involved in Afghanistan policy said McKiernan was overly cautious in creating U.S.-backed Afghan militias, a tactic that Petraeus had employed when he was the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
“It’s way too modest,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t have 2009 to experiment in Wardak province,” where one such militia has been set up. “I think we’ve got about two years in this mission. The trend lines better start swinging in our direction or we’re going to lose the international community and we’re going to lose Washington.”
However, other U.S. military and Afghan officials disagreed with the criticism, saying McKiernan’s approach was prudent.
Incidents in which U.S. forces caused high numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan had emerged as a major source of discomfort for Gates and Mullen during McKiernan’s tenure, but officials said that was not the reason for his removal.
“McKiernan got it, and he’s been much better about responding,” a senior military official said. Gates noted Monday that civilian deaths in Afghanistan had declined 40 percent since January compared with the same period last year.
Since the Obama administration took over earlier this year, Gates had been weighing whether to replace McKiernan and had asked Mullen and Petraeus for their opinions. Mullen informed McKiernan two weeks ago that a change was needed. Gates then broke the news to McKiernan during an hourlong, one-on-one dinner at Camp Eggers in Kabul on a trip to Afghanistan last week.
Asked by reporters whether this decision would effectively end McKiernan’s military career, Gates replied: “Probably.”
In a statement, McKiernan said it had been his “distinct honor over the past year to serve with the brave men and women” from the 42 nations that have contributed to the international effort in Afghanistan and with the members of Afghanistan’s security forces. “I have never been prouder to be an American soldier,” he said.
McKiernan took command of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan in June 2008 and was scheduled to serve in the post for two years, a U.S. military official said. Like other top U.S. commanders before him, McKiernan pressed the Pentagon firmly and publicly to provide additional forces to combat rising violence and an escalating Taliban insurgency.
McKiernan oversaw initial troop increases under the Bush administration as well as the ongoing deployment of an additional 21,000 troops this year ordered by Obama. McKiernan has an outstanding request, which neither the Pentagon nor Obama has approved, for 10,000 more troops next year.
Gates told Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the top members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Monday morning that he was replacing McKiernan. At the news conference, Gates urged the swift Senate confirmation of McChrystal and Rodriguez.
McChrystal has come under criticism for his role in the military’s delay in acknowledging the friendly fire death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, a former NFL player, in Afghanistan in 2004, an incident likely to come up during confirmation hearings.