Gates searches for his Grant
By Tom Mahnken Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ decision to replace General David McKiernan as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan was an unusual, though hardly unprecedented move. The relief of a general in wartime is a serious matter, and doubtless Gates thought long and hard before making the decision. Change was, however, needed. A ...
By Tom Mahnken
By Tom Mahnken
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ decision to replace General David McKiernan as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan was an unusual, though hardly unprecedented move. The relief of a general in wartime is a serious matter, and doubtless Gates thought long and hard before making the decision. Change was, however, needed.
A number of stories in today’s newspapers drew the inevitable comparison to President Truman’s firing of Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. Such an analogy is profoundly unfair to General McKiernan, an officer who has served his country loyally for almost four decades. MacArthur pursued a strategy that was at variance with U.S. policy and was ultimately insubordinate; no such charge has been leveled or even implied in McKiernan’s case. He was replaced not because he did something wrong, but rather because, in the eyes of his superiors, he did not do enough right.
If an analogy is to be drawn, it should be to Lincoln’s shuffling of Union generals during the early campaigns of the Civil War. Like Lincoln, Gates wants to win, and he is looking for a general who can deliver it. Many of the generals Lincoln fired were good, solid officers; they just lacked the qualities needed to prevail in a war quite unlike the ones they had studied and experienced earlier in their careers. Gates is similarly engaged in the difficult process of sorting out which generals possess the qualities necessary to succeed in today’s complex conflicts. His decision raises the question of where we would be today if his predecessor took that task as seriously as he does.
The new team in Kabul bears the indelible imprint of Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. In Stan McChrystal, Gates has turned to a skilled and innovative soldier who has spent much of the last eight years in the field. As Director of the Joint Staff, the most powerful three-star position in the Pentagon, he understands how the machinery of the Defense Department works. He also has the ear of Mullen.
For McChrystal’s deputy, Gates tapped another skilled commander, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, who currently serves as Gates’ Senior Military Assistant, knows the Pentagon well, and will have the ear of its leadership. Above McChrystal and Rodriguez are two of the brightest officers in the U.S. military. General David Petraeus, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, is well known. Less well known, though no less impressive, is the new military head of NATO, Admiral Jim Stavridis.
With these appointments, Gates has thrown some of the best U.S. officers into the fight in Afghanistan. Whether Gates has indeed found his Grant remains to be seen. We should hope he has.
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