Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why did Petraeus oust McKiernan?

General McKiernan's firing is, of course, all over the news today, and the news begs the obvious question, why? In announcing his decision, Defense secretary Gates cited the need for new eyes on the problem, a new leader for a new mission under a new president, etc. That's all dressing for public consumption. Obviously there are other factors in play, some of them perhaps less noble.

One report I read yesterday noted that the new CENTCOM commander and man acclaimed as the genius who "won" Iraq for the US - Gen. David Petraeus - had previously served under McKiernan; that with Petraeus' elevation to CENTCOM commander the roles had been reversed; and that the two did not "form a bond." (Petraeus is well known to be prickly, driven, a bit arrogant, as well.) Other reports have centered on McKiernan as sort of "old army," more comfortable with the kind of armor-based tactics and approach in which Cold War-era officers were trained, whereas Petraeus is a supposed master of the use of fast, light forces and counterinsurgency. McChrystal fits his approach to a T, having been a Special Forces (what people of the Vietnam-war generation called the "Green Berets") commander (who earned Ranger qualification as well - as did Petraeus). But disturbingly, McC. also commanded forces in Afghanistan that were linked to torture and abuse of prisoners - something that the Taliban surely will have noted, and that may spell misfortune for US troops whom they might capture in the months ahead. McC. might want to revisit the experiences of the Soviet troops who fought Afghan mujahhedin in the 1980s. The stories of the torture and mutilation that Soviet captives suffered at these militias' hands are legion - and horrific. And the Taliban may well know that the American people are as a whole tiring of war, and that making examples of a few GI's or Marines may increase pressure back home to pull all the troops out - or else "take out" entire villages of Afghans as payback.

But this WaPo report cites one possible cause for McK.'s firing that especially concerns me: that McK. was somehow too slow to form local militias against the Taliban. This, of course, in contrast to the alleged brilliance of Petraeus' support (while he was in command of the "Surge" in Iraq) of forming local militias - the Sunni sahwa, or Awakening, what the US forces refer to as the Sons of Iraq (SOI). The (mostly Sunni) SOI were indeed effective against al-Qaeda jihadists in Iraq, but their support was mostly bought and paid for with US dollars. Even at the time, many experts (here I humbly include myself) warned about what might happen later, if the money dried up and these guys were not brought into the fold of the Iraqi military or police forces. That, of course, is exactly what's happening in Iraq. Some of these SOI are already turning against the central government and re-allying with "al-Qaeda" or other, Sunni nationalist elements of the anti-US insurgency.

In other words, Petraeus' local militia solution is coming back to bite the Iraqi government, and the US as it tries to withdraw from Iraq and redirect to Afghanistan. It was a very short-sighted solution, more tactical than strategic. But now Petraeus (with Obama's go-ahead, of course) may be hoping to implement the same short-sighted "solution" in Afghanistan - and to do that, he may have felt it prudent to move McKiernan (who was hardly a pal anyway) out of the way, and replace him with McChrystal. We'll see how this plays out . . .

Gen. David McKiernan Ousted as Top U.S. Commander in Afghanistan

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