McKiernan may become the General Shinseki of Afghanistan

McKiernan may become the General Shinseki of Afghanistan

By Kori Schake

The Obama Administration has just relieved the commander of the war in Afghanistan, General McKiernan. He had been in command for 11 months, during which time he agitated for more troops and greater unity of effort within the administration and among the allies. They have nominated to replace him the director of Admiral Mullen’s Joint Staff, Lieutenant General McChrystal, plus the Secretary Gates’ senior military assistant, Lieutenant General Rodriguez.

At Monday’s press conference, Gates and Mullen were at a loss to explain the cause for McKiernan’s relief. They would (both) say only platitudes about "with the new strategy, with the new team across the board, I felt it was very important for new leadership." When pointedly asked what McKiernan had failed to accomplish or what needed to be done differently than McKiernan envisioned, Gates and Mullen provided no substantive explanation. In interviews last week, Jim Jones, the National Security Advisor, listed among his accomplishments having pressed the Department of Defense to reduce their force requirements for Afghanistan.  

An administration has the right to shop for military leadership that they find congenial — someone whose approach they feel comfortable with, who has the ability to provide military advice effectively given the personalities and policies of the administration. To Gates and Mullen’s credit, they have chosen a serious-minded and accomplished replacement in McChrystal. 

But whatever McKiernan’s shortcomings, the quality of military leadership pales by comparison to the other shortfalls in the administration’s strategy: a common approach with the Karzai government to the use of military force; inadequate vision and resourcing for the essential non-military tools (diplomats and judicial advisors and agricultural experts and economists); and an unrealistic timeline on which Afghan political leaders, soldiers, and police can provide for themselves. A new military commander cannot solve these problems, and the Afghanistan war cannot be won without solving them.

The danger for the administration in having relieved McKiernan will come if their Afghanistan strategy does not produce the desired results on the expedited timeline the administration has committed itself to. McKiernan is on record as having asked for at least 10,000 more troops than the administration provided, and given his military judgment that the political objectives military force has been enlisted to help achieve would take a decade. If Afghanistan does not turn, the Obama administration will have just created this war’s Eric Shinseki.