When Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced that he had requested the resignation of General David D. McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Everyone was surprised. It was the first time that a top general is being relieved from duty in the time of war after more than 50 years since President Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War.
It was a rare decision to make and remove a wartime commander during the war when Obama’s administration had voiced out an increasing alarm about the country’s downward spiral.
Born on December 11, 1950, David D. McKiernan is a retired United States Army general who served in Afghanistan. He was the Commanding General of the U.S. Army, Europe and the Seventh U.S. Army from December 2005 to May 2008 before Afghanistan. Prior to being promoted to a four – star general, he also served as the Commanding General, Third U.S. Army and Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC) in 2002 to 2004 and commanded all allied ground forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His last assignment prior to his being fired and retirement was when he served in Afghanistan as Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from June 3, 2008 to June 15, 2009 while serving as Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) between October 6, 2008 to June 15, 2009.
General McKiernan finished his Bachelor of Arts degree in history at the College of William & Mary in 1972. He was commissioned from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and served as an Armor officer. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree which he obtained from Shippensburg University as well as an honorary doctorate in Public Service from William & Mary.
McKiernan served in the VII Corps Headquarters in the First Gulf War and gained his experience in the Balkans as a staff officer in the 90s. He assumed command of the Third U.S. Army and U.S. Army Central Command on September 2002 and became the commander of Coalition Forces Land Component for the U.S. Central Command in preparation for Operation Iraqi Freedom. By March 2003, General McKiernan led all coalition and U.S. traditional ground forces that assaulted Iraq that removed Saddam Hussein from power.
As commander of the ground forces he was assigned as the Deputy Commanding General/Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army Forces Command, the biggest major command in the U.S. Army that is responsible for the readiness and deployment of Army forces based in the U.S. He was later assigned as Commander International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the United States forces – Afghanistan in June 3, 2008 and served until June 15, 2009 after being fired from his position and was replaced by General Stanley McChrystal.
Gates recommended McKiernan to be replaced because he was looking for “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes” on Afghanistan that marks the continuous domination of officers who pressed for the use of counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan which were significantly different from the Army’s conventional principles.
The Defense Secretary was looking on a new military leadership that is needed for the new strategy and mission aside from a new ambassador. Gates immediately convened a Pentagon news conference and urge the swift Senate confirmation of General Stanley McChrystal and Lt. General David M. Rodriguez for McChrystal’s deputy praising them for their unique skill set in counterinsurgency.
Unlike McKiernan who is an armor officer and seen as someone who is cautious and traditionally minded officer. The firing of McKiernan also lies on the fact that General David Petraeus who was a subordinate of McKiernan in Iraq and is now his superior. McKiernan was seen as slow in adopting Petraeus’ counterinsurgency tactics. Petraeus also played an essential role in the Obama’s administration strategic review of the Afghanistan conflict and was involved in deciding the removal of McKiernan.
High number of civilian casualty incidents in Afghanistan came up as the primary source of discomfort for Gates and Mullen during McKiernan’s term but this is not seen as reason for his removal. During McKiernan’s time in Afghanistan, he responded better on Afghanistan’s situation. Civilian deaths had gone down to 40% since January compared to the same period before his tenure.
McKiernan had taken over the command of the NATO – led mission in Afghanistan in June and was supposed to serve his post for two years. Just like most top U.S. commanders before him, he also pressed the Pentagon to provide additional forces to fight the increasing violence and escalating Taliban insurgency.
McKiernan requested for more troops which were needed after years of neglect because of Iraq but bringing in more troops were not the only answer to the problem. He said that they can win all the tactical battles however winning doesn’t mean they have won. To win means they have to win the battle of ideas and define winning in Afghan terms which means improved security, reduced civilian casualties, trustworthy government, economic and social progress.
He also spoke of the need in increasing Afghan army forces and provide a better and respected police force as well as in rooting out foreign jihadis and Taliban extremists. He talked about the need of seeking regional solutions through a “bottom-up” approach.
All these approaches completely reflect President Obama’s Afghan policy which McKiernan had already been doing for the past six months before Obama made them his own. So why is a competent general as McKiernan who is well like by many in Kabul being fired?
Is it because of tactical disagreements since Petraeus is now in command and McKiernan is his subordinate? Or is it because of the White House pressure after earning a war it does not want to fight?
The answer lies within the rivalries among America’s top brass because General McKiernan was the force who led the ground forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in which General Petraeus was his subordinate and now is his boss as head of Central Command. Next, Karl Eikenberry, the new US ambassador to Kabul and a former general who served in Afghanistan had reservations working with General McKiernan.
In spite of the fact that Obama was impressed with McKiernan’s call for additional troops in Afghanistan, Obama agreed with the need for a new leadership. With General Stanley McChrystal replacing McKiernan and the President is faced in dealing with someone he barely knew. Someone who is more vocal about his thoughts that led to General McChrystal’s own resignation after he and his subordinates were accused of mocking top senior officials at the Pentagon and Vice President Biden.
General David McKiernan’s military career might have ended after being fired but he retired with full honors from the Army on July 15, 2009. He may not have the “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes” but he was certainly successful in responding for a better situation in Afghanistan. Too bad, top brass rivalries came up with baseless reasons to fire him that ended the military career of a competent general.