Firing a general

FIRING A GENERAL…. It’s extremely unusual for a four-star commander of a war zone to get fired in the middle of the conflict. It’s why yesterday’s developments, with the Obama administration firing Gen. David McKiernan, were so striking.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced yesterday that he had requested the resignation of the top American general in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, making a rare decision to remove a wartime commander at a time when the Obama administration has voiced increasing alarm about the country’s downward spiral.

Gates, saying he seeks “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes” on Afghanistan, recommended that President Obama replace McKiernan with a veteran Special Operations commander, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. His selection marks the continued ascendancy of officers who have pressed for the use of counterinsurgency tactics, in Iraq and Afghanistan, that are markedly different from the Army’s traditional doctrine.

“We have a new strategy, a new mission and a new ambassador. I believe that new military leadership is also needed,” Gates said at a hastily convened Pentagon news conference.

Just to be clear, in cases like these, “request the resignation” means “fired.”

Under the circumstances, the first question tends to be, “What, exactly, did McKiernan to prompt this unusual move?” But that seems to be the wrong way to look at this. “Gen. McKiernan is a good man,” said Jack Keane, a retired Army general who advised the Bush administration on the 2007 troop buildup in Iraq. “But he was the wrong man at the wrong time. What the war needs is a new strategy and a new plan.”

Based on most of the accounts I’ve seen, McKiernan hoped to apply conventional tactics to an unconventional conflict. The WaPo report added, “[S]enior officials said McKiernan’s leadership was not bold or nimble enough to reenergize a campaign in which U.S. and other NATO troops had reached a stalemate against Taliban insurgents in some parts of Afghanistan. One senior government official involved in Afghanistan policy said McKiernan was overly cautious in creating U.S.-backed local militias, a tactic that Petraeus had employed when he was the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.”

Slate‘s Fred Kaplan noted the larger dynamic: “An intellectual battle is now raging within the Army between an ‘old guard’ that thinks about war in conventional, force-on-force terms and a “new guard” that focuses more on “asymmetric conflicts” and counterinsurgency. McKiernan is an excellent general in the old mold. McChrystal, who rose through the ranks as a special-forces officer, is an excellent general in the new mold.”

As McChrystal takes command, he’ll be joined by Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez who will now oversee day-to-day management of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Both have extensive experience with counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare.

The period of muddling through in Afghanistan appears to be over.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.