Shadow Government

General McKiernan gets the boot

By Peter Feaver I have three quick takes on the surprising news that General McKiernan, the senior U.S. military officer commanding operations in Afghanistan, has been relieved of his command Is this proper? Absolutely. So far, the Obama administration has shown very well-tuned sensibilities to civil-military relations, and this move is no exception. It is ...

By Peter Feaver

I have three quick takes on the surprising news that General McKiernan, the senior U.S. military officer commanding operations in Afghanistan, has been relieved of his command

Is this proper? Absolutely. So far, the Obama administration has shown very well-tuned sensibilities to civil-military relations, and this move is no exception. It is absolutely proper for the commander-in-chief to relieve military commanders whenever he (or his chain of command) has lost confidence in them. I think the Bush administration would have been well-advised to do more of this and sooner. From the point of view of civil-military relations theory, and based on what we know so far (which is, admittedly, not much) this seems to be a textbook operation. Even the gracious words that Secretary Gates had for McKiernan, who by all accounts is a decent and honorable person who deserves the nation’s gratitude for his long and noble service, were proper.

Is this fair? Possibly not. Initial reports do not indicate that McKiernan was a key stumbling block nor the reason that the situation in Afghanistan has been unraveling. Put it this way: compared to General Casey, who was given much more rope and who was not so much relieved of duty as promoted upstairs to the top post in the Army, or compared to Admiral Fallon who became notorious before he resigned, McKiernan seems to be getting a fairly quick hook. Casey actively sought to block the new surge strategy, and Fallon repeatedly told reporters and others that he saw it as his role to thwart administration policy. There are no such reports about McKiernan (though they may emerge).

Is this the right decision? Too soon to tell. While there are undoubtedly command problems in Afghanistan, the most egregious problems are on the NATO side, not within the U.S. structure. Evidently, McKiernan had lost the confidence of his superior, General Petraeus, and that by itself is both grounds for his dismissal and reason to believe that anyone who comes after him and has Petraeus’ confidence will do better. But, as Tom Ricks suggests, this move only makes sense if it is in conjunction with other moves that would imply a more comprehensive strategic shift. Whether this move will turn out to be the right one depends on how all these other shoes drop, and that is not certain at this point.

One thing is certain: the senior military leadership have been put on notice. Spanning the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration, Gates has now relieved quite a few generals for cause — more than any post-Cold War defense leader.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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