Robert Gates's title is secretary of defense, but he sees his job as secretary of war. That's the key to understanding why Gates has summarily axed Gen. David McKiernan as U.S. commander in Afghanistan. It also explains why Gates has chosen a Black Ops wiz, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to replace him.
Gates came into the Pentagon to win a war. President Bush had been persuaded—largely by his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley—that the U.S. was losing the struggle in Iraq: wholesale change at the Pentagon was needed to turn things around. In short order, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; the commander of Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid; and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, were removed. Gates, summoned to the Pentagon in the last days of 2006, completed the sweep by retiring the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Peter Pace. (Bush has never gotten due credit for the sheer nerve of this unprecedented purge.)
Gates's first and all-consuming task was to salvage the mess in Iraq. The "surge" of U.S. troops followed, and a new population-friendly strategy devised by Gen. David Petraeus (handpicked by Gates to oversee Iraq operations) laid down a blueprint. Gen. Ray Odierno, as U.S. commander on the ground, brilliantly translated that into day-to-day operations. Together, they turned the tide. Whether Iraq will yet turn out well remains unclear. But that rescue operation was seminal to Gates's view of his task. To win wars, he had to be ruthless in choosing the best military leaders he could find; figure out with them a plan; then give them running-room to execute it. Which meant that, above all, Gates had to have confidence in them.
War is hell—not least in its testing of the officer corps. The great George Marshall, as Army chief of staff, fired 20 of its 27 division commanders in 1942, the first year of America's involvement in World War II. In all, he purged 31 of the Army's top 42 commanders. Similar ruthlessness prevailed throughout the war: seven of 34 corps commanders were relieved.
Now Gates confronts a new mess in Afghanistan. After eight years of U.S. occupation, Afghanistan is going down the tubes. As in Iraq, sweeping change is needed. More troops are being sent; 20,000-plus is the plan. Petraeus, elevated in the wake of his success in Iraq to run Central Command, has cobbled together a strategy that may, at best, stem the Taliban tide for a few months while the systemic failures of Afghan governance and reconstruction are tackled. A new American ambassador has been sent to Kabul—not by coincidence, a former U.S. military commander there. But the United States is engaged in Afghanistan with a motley crew of 41 allies, mostly European; the new plan requires more help from them. Because the senior U.S. military commander in Europe has had scratchy relations with top Europeans, he is quietly retiring a couple of months early. In his place the U.S. is sending Adm. James Stavridis, who has won rave reviews for canny diplomacy as commander of U.S. Southern Command covering Latin and South America. A new U.S. ambassador to NATO—again, not by coincidence, a Dutchman by birth whose mother, as a child, escaped the Holocaust by weeks—arrives in Brussels this coming weekend.
The stage is set for a massive effort to turn Afghanistan around. There remained only the question of the commander of American and NATO forces there: General McKiernan. Gates decided that "fresh thinking, fresh eyes on the problem" were needed. Nothing personal, but McKiernan had to go.
McKiernan, as his many admirers in the military point out, can be seen as a victim of his own success. It was McKiernan who last year sounded the alarm about Afghanistan. To the edge of insubordination, he had the guts to argue publicly and repeatedly the need for massive troop reinforcements. That was not a message popular in a Pentagon stretched thin by Iraq—or to the outgoing Bush or incoming Obama administrations. But McKiernan won his argument. He also managed to straighten out the tangled chain of military command that has hamstrung coalition efforts in Afghanistan—a heroic effort only veterans of military politics can truly appreciate.
So why is he going? Fundamentally, Gates is sending a signal about accountability. The U.S. Navy has a simple rule: if a warship runs aground, the commander is held responsible. No matter if it was in the early hours, and his No. 2 had the watch; the commander is still held accountable. (The No. 2 will be canned as well.) Gates is imposing the same rule on the Army. If a theater of U.S. operations is going badly, the commander is accountable. So, McKiernan must carry the can for the deterioration in Afghanistan. It may be "unfair," given that he has been in the job for 11 months. That, Gates is saying, must be the rule. Other failures have been eased out gracefully: Gen. George Casey, after failing in Iraq in 2006, was kicked upstairs to be Army chief of staff. But now Gates feels strong enough to send a more public signal.
There are, of course, subplots—some involving McKiernan, some relating to Gates's jaundiced view of the Army. The new approach in Afghanistan will focus on what Petraeus and Odierno put into practice in Iraq: protection and mobilizing of the population as the core of successful counterinsurgency. McKiernan has, friends say, been arguing that this won't be possible without many more troops beyond the 20,000 he won. Time was another factor. Gates thinks the administration has perhaps 18 months to show clear progress in Afghanistan. Much beyond that, Gates fears, Congressional support for Afghanistan funding will collapse. So he needs results fast. McKiernan, having won his reinforcements, contemplated using them pretty much as before. Too many U.S. units in Afghanistan are still in "search and destroy" mode; and McKiernan hasn't managed to change their approach. Finally, politics played a role. The civilian death toll from U.S. airstrikes has been sapping the legitimacy of the coalition effort. Hamid Karzai—current and almost certainly, after the upcoming elections, next Afghan president—has even talked of demanding U.S. withdrawal. McKiernan's abrupt departure gives Karzai the sop he needs.
Back at the Pentagon, Gates's opinion of the Army leadership also factored into his decision. The Army leadership still inclines to see Iraq and Afghanistan as sideshows—passing distractions from its real task of preparing for high-intensity combat against some future state adversary. Gates found the Army brass was shunning, in its promotions, those who had tried new approaches in Iraq—favoring, instead, officers credentialed in those traditional skills. To counter this institutional bias, Gates has been intervening in Army promotion boards. McKiernan's defenestration provides further opportunity for Gates to demonstrate his determination to combat what he calls the Army's "next-war-itis."
McKiernan's chosen replacement, McChrystal, is a further signal of Gates's reforming zeal. McChrystal's career has been in Special Forces. Through 2003–2008 he ran Joint Special Operations Command, home of the Army's "black" units like Delta Force. He organized the operations that tracked down Saddam Hussein, multiple leaders of Al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. So McChrystal is being labeled a "man-hunter," a "killer"—with his switch to Afghanistan taken as evidence that Gates wants similar efforts there. The reality is simpler. For the past year, McChrystal has been director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon—a shrewd "out of the box" pick by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The job has given McChrystal copious "face time" with the secretary. His cool judgment on the teeming range of issues which daily confronts the Pentagon impressed Gates. And, again at Mullen's behest, McChrystal was most recently given the task of figuring out the nuts-and-bolts of a new approach in Afghanistan. "Gates sees McChrystal as the next Petraeus," said one insider. "They're both smart, mentally agile, intellectual, driven, charismatic."
McChrystal's appointment—which still must be confirmed by the Senate—is a gamble. He has none of the standard grounding in lesser international posts. But neither did Petraeus. Prudently, Gates is buttressing McChrystal by sending as his deputy another officer he trusts, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who has been Gates's military assistant since returning to Washington after a notably successful tour as a division commander in Afghanistan. There is talk McChrystal may get another deputy to handle day-to-day affairs with the increasingly balky European contingents.
President Obama has pledged to "win" in Afghanistan. Four months into the new administration, Gates is sending to Kabul the team he reckons offers Obama the best chance to achieve this—signaling, in the process, that what he looks for in commanders is, above all, brains.