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How Modern Generals Come Unstuck

Mark Urban | 17:54 UK time, Tuesday, 12 May 2009

General David McKiernan's fall from grace is a salutary reminder of what's at stake for the US in Afghanistan.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates dismissed him with some modern management speak about the need for, "new thinking and new approaches", but his departure after less than one year in the job has more of a feel of World War I or II about it, when generals were routinely "broken" or "came unstuck" in the febrile atmosphere of total war.

Gen McKiernan was widely respected for his intellect. Having interviewed him shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq (the ground element of which he masterminded) I can attest to his soft spoken, cerebral presence.

But it also became clear, when my questions about the wisdom or otherwise of disbanding the Iraqi army visibly nettled him, that he was a man uncomfortable with press scrutiny.

Last year, someone who had seen the general in action in Kabul told me, "he doesn't get on well with Afghans". His downbeat pronouncements about the progress of the military campaign had annoyed people in Washington too, where some regarded him as verging on the defeatist.

Gen McKiernan did not look or sound like a man of the "Yes We Can" school. His fall reminds us that in the modern age people who cannot get on with foreign leaders or get their media message across are simply unsuited to high command.

The US will now send General Stanley McChrystal to take over the command of its war in Afghanistan. Gen McChrystal manages to combine the unlikely attributes of a smooth media operator (having been a Pentagon spokesman), with the fearsome battlefield reputation of being a key player in the secret world of special operations, turning the tide in Iraq.

Those who worked with Gen McChrystal as commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), running America's elite counter-terrorist forces such as Delta Force, say he was like a soldier monk, taking just 10 days off a year and often accompanying his operators on "door kicking" raids in the worst parts of Iraq.

In 2005-6, when even many of the generals running the US war there seemed to be giving up hope, Gen McChrystal increased the pressure on al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Iranian-backed Special Groups.

Will Gen McChrystal apply his relentless, aggressive, approach to Afghanistan? We will be watching out for the signs of any change in strategy or message. The "Af-Pak battlespace" is of course quite different to Iraq.

Gen McChrystal will already be calibrating just how different.


  • Comment number 1.

    For several years now I have been watching news reports from the BBC and others showing both UK and US camps in Afghanistan.

    What has shocked me most is that an identical policy to the failed policy in Vietnam has been put into place - namely having forts or outposts in enemy territory where you install a company or a platoon of soldiers in an attempt to lure in the enemy. At which point you call in air support and hope to blow the enemy to bits before they over-run the fort.

    This tactic proved a disaster in Vietnam as it gave the Viet Cong the all important mobility whilst those US troops in the outposts were static and an easy target. It also hugely demoralised the US troops as, at best, they felt like sitting targets and at worse jumped in the night to every creak, crack and birdsong they heard from outside the outposts. The occasional armed patrols outside of the outposts were usually undertaken by hugely demoralised and even frightened troops after weeks or months of being a target.

    Anyone who knows anything about military historian knows about this. I have therefore sat in stunned silence watching this tactic used in Afghanistan. Non wonder they have finally kicked out that US General!

  • Comment number 2.

    soldier monk to fight soldier martyrs? makes sense. in such a war would we want anyone rational? it might be a handicap?

    given the usa beat the british through what today would be called terrorism you would think they understood counterinsurgency better?

    With Gen McChrystal having been in charge of a highly secretive operation that hunted down and killed key jihadist fighters, including, most sensationally, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq one get an idea of what is to come? death squads? a strategy that worked against the ira?

  • Comment number 3.

    So a military man has been replaced with a media / marketing man in Afghanistan, the bankers did something similar, replacing farsighted doomsayers with small minded if not outright dishonest marketing cheerleaders, and how did that work out?

  • Comment number 4.

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  • Comment number 5.

    The USA's attitude to the rest of the world is very similar to Britain's view of the rest of the planet in the early 20th century, namely that "we rule the world".

    Until the USA relinquishes this isolationist and offensive (to others) attitude, it will not win hearts and minds.

    Perhaps General McKiernan's viewpoint is the correct one. Afganistan is a "no-win" situation. If so, he was fired because the blinkered politicians and megalomaniacs Stateside, did not find the real truth palatable.

    After all was the US invasion of Iraq a success? If the answer is "yes", it is a highly qualified one.

  • Comment number 6.

    The replacement (sacking!) of General McKiernan does not bode well for ISAF, He seems to have got on well with other members of the Allied Forces.
    Will McChrystal be able to?, His background could suggest tensions with the Alliance.
    A Washington Yes Man, with a Gung-Ho attitude, is the last thing the allies need! His experiance in Iraq, does not mean the same tactic's will work in Afghanistan, kicking in door's, is not the way to win Afghan "Hearts and Minds"!
    I fear he will start to lecture Allies (ie Us !).
    Iam no Expert, but i doubt that a Special Forces style COIN strategy is the right one for Afghanistan, it lacks the Urban, countryside mix of Iraq. A conventional Infantry campaign, backed by a extensive Civil Program, might be a better option, The strategy followed by McKiernan!
    On a personel note the dismissal of General McKiernan, was a cruel blow to a excellcent Soldier.

  • Comment number 7.


    Caine and Able

    (PM) Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, of Israel, is expected to lay down the first clear marker on the direction Israel will take concerning the Middle East peace process in the coming years, which means nothing less than a retreat from even the theoretical possibility of peace. The Heinz 57, Arab nations and Israel may all live in the same region and maybe all the sons of Abraham, but the reality is the act more like Caine and Able. Netanyahu is the head of a coalition comprised of ultra-nationalists, that violates the basic human rights of the Palestinians, thru tactics of persecution, ghettoization and cultural and religious ostracism, not interested in, and will never accept, and rejects outright a two-state solution in which an independent Palestinian state would exist alongside Israel, while establishing a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem. The coalition policy rejects the withdrawal from either the Golan Heights, or to the pre-Six Day War borders of the occupied territories (captured in 1967), the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Instead, Netanyahu (suggested) maybe willing except the development of the Palestinian Authority, building up its civic institutions, economy and security, but only to the point of self-government but not sovereignty.

    Bomb, Bomb Iran Options

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to explore options in his first meeting with President Barack Obama next week in Washington. And the main option will be the if the (AIE) American Israeli Empire will work together to launch a pre-emptive Nuclear Attack upon Shi-ite Persian Iran, or jus the Eastern Part of the Empire, Israel would take unilateral action. Neither Netanyahu nor his principal military advisers would suggest a deadline for American progress on the Iran nuclear program, though one aide said pointedly that Israeli time lines are now drawn in months, (not years) These same military advisers said that they believe the defenses of Iran remain penetrable, and that Israel would not necessarily need American approval to launch an attack. (The problem is not military capability; the problem is whether you have the stomach, the political will, to take action).

    No Sweet Deals

    Arab League Secretary-Geneal Amr Mussa rejects outright the idea of sweetening the deal making it more amenable for Israel to accept by revising the peace plan where Palestinian refugees would be resettled into a demilitarized, Palestinian Authority state to be established on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the rest would remain and be absorbed into the Arab states where they are presently living, forfeiting the right of return to Israel.

    One Spark Is All It Takes

    A Nuclear is on the horizon, war will erupt anytime after (PM) Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, of Israel, lays down the law, to the Imperial Media Messiah President of the Western (AIE), and returns to the Eastern (AIE). The Hierarchical Structure, with the (AIE) at the apex, top of the pyramid of power. Or, Spheres of Influence, the (AIE) as just one Sphere of Influence among others, establishing the principle that The Ends Justify the Mean, Might Makes Right, that the Empire above all others has the right to use FORCE, against anyone who it ultimately thinks is going to be a threat to it to preserve access to (RESOURCES AND MARKETS), were international boarders and laws mean nothing and what goes on in your neighbors backyard, is your business and you have every right to interfere into the business of your neighbors, using what ever type and amount of force you need to use. That détente is appeasement and should never be tolerated, and the (UN) United Nations is nothing more than an international social club which is good only as a tool to achieve the goal of (AIE) American Israeli Empire. The Middle East Crisis, the encroachment of the (AIE) and (NATO) North Atlantic Treaty Organization upon the boarders and Sphere of the Russian Federation, and (Af-Pak), one spark is all it takes and it will all go up..

  • Comment number 8.

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