Who Fired McKiernan?

A few thoughts on the announcement that Gen. Stanley McChrystal will replace Gen. David McKiernan as commander of American forces in Afghanistan. First, most of the news reports and blog commentary I’ve read so far trace the decision directly back to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, with some noting the role played by Joint Chiefs head Adm. Michael Mullen. Indeed, a few of the ledes I’ve seen have formulated it as Gates, or alternatively “the Pentagon,” calling for McKiernan’s resignation.

That stands in stark contrast to the last two headline-making cases of a commander relieved of duty — namely, Gen. George Casey, who Petraeus replaced in Iraq, and Adm. William Fallon, who Petraeus replaced at CENTCOM. Both of those moves were very pronouncedly traced back to the White House and/or Goerge W. Bush himself.

I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s consistent with U.S. wartime tradition, where for the most part, once the political decision to go to war has been made, the day-to-day operations are left to the generals. In some ways, the Bush administration’s close involvement with the Iraq War on the ground exacerbated the politicization of the war’s daily twists and turns.

There are two possibilities here. One is that President Barack Obama has found a clever way to maintain some political distance from the Afghanistan War, which some observers have been suggesting he increasingly “owns” with this summer’s troop increases and his revamped regional strategy. The other is that he really doesn’t own it to the degree those observers have suggested.

Back to McChrystal. Tom Ricks — who believes the move is the work of Gates and Petraeus — says, “[T]he message is: Biggerchanges are coming in the war than you think.” I’d add that those changes will be more than what we see. As others have pointed out, McChrystal is a special forces man, and if he’s one of the unsung heroes of the Iraq Surge, it’s in part because his checkered role there was reportedly of the “black site” variety, where inspections don’t happen and records conveniently disappear. In other words, the tip of the iceberg in Afghanistan just got smaller. What McChrystal brings to this war is likely to make a difference outside the glare of public scrutiny.

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