Michael's Dispatches

Gates, Petraeus, McKiernan, McChrystal and Rodriguez

13 May 2009

Again, this is a quick email.  The Gurkhas here in Brunei just conducted a live fire training exercise.  They walked half the night carrying between 80-100lbs, mostly ammo, and made an assault at first light.

Every British officer I talk with asks what in the world happened with General McKiernan, and why was his relief performed so publicly.  I do not know.  And I do not personally know General McKiernan.  I do know that these ears have never heard someone speak a foul word about him, and I talk with lots of interesting people.  If he, McKiernan, was a bad general I would have heard about it.

However, General McKiernan did make some statements about additional troops to Afghanistan, and when he made those statements I remember thinking, “He’s going to get fired.”  And so those statements were the first thing that came to my mind.  McKiernan has been saying we need more troops than are already on the way.  I do not have the training or experience to say how many troops we need in Afghanistan, but I know we could use a lot more than we have there now.  Yet it did seem like General McKiernan was pushing the envelope.  That doesn’t make him a bad general in my eyes.  His envelope-pushing speaks of professional courage and honesty, but also one can imagine that leadership might want to keep some opinions in-house.

But another clue is something that Secretary Gates said to me privately.  Actually, LTG David Rodriguez was there, and Rodriguez is tapped to take the number two spot in Afghanistan.   Secretary Gates said that his number one concern for Afghanistan is that we will lose the support of the Afghan people.  The recent loss of a great number of Afghans was undoubtedly upsetting for Secretary Gates and many others.  If we lose widespread support from the Afghan people, the war will be lost.  Some Russians like to say we are making the same mistakes that the Soviets made, but that’s untrue.  Atrocity was their middle name.  Many of the Afghans I talk with hate the Russians with incendiary passion.  Contrast this with the fact that I recently drove about a thousand miles around Afghanistan, without the Army.  Many Afghans know I am an American yet are very friendly.  If our military was treating them badly, I could not have made that trip.  Nevertheless, accidental mass carnage from our side is turning more and more people against us.

Gates is extremely smart and he knows the area.  He knows that more troops can obviously create more problems, and so this must be a tough judgment call for him and the generals, much less the President.  It’s also extremely expensive to support our troops in Afghanistan.  Far more so than in Iraq.  Our supply lines also are vulnerable.  I asked General Petraeus about this resupply issue and he seemed confident that we can work it out.  General Petraeus is about as no-nonsense as they come.  I ascribe great weight to his words.  In my experience, Petraeus always told the good, the bad and the ugly about Iraq.  (Unfortunately, the Iraq war might rekindle if we ignore it.  There are signals coming from Iraq that lead me to believe we could fumble that ball.  However, with Gates, Petraeus and Odierno on the field, I believe that the Pentagon will be more forthright about Iraq than we saw some years ago.)

But the issue of troop strength in Afghanistan is prickly on many levels ranging from international politics all the way down to the nitty-gritty of resupply.

In regard to Lieutenant General McChrystal, his reputation is enviable.  McChrystal’s reputation is as solid as that of Generals Mattis or Petraeus, but fewer people have heard of McChrystal.  I know some very interesting folks in the special operations world, and McChrystal gets a five-star rating out of five stars.  That comes from officers and enlisted.

McChrystal’s number two man will be Lieutenant General David Rodriguez.  I last saw LTG Rodriguez in December 2008 when he accompanied Secretary Gates on a trip from Afghanistan to Manama to Iraq to Turkey to the United States.  I flew on their airplane and so we got to talk now and then.  I first learned about Rodriguez some years ago in Iraq.  Again, this is a man with great experience and he is respected by all the folks I’ve ever talked with.  Rodriguez runs a tight ship and I believe he definitely is up for the job in Afghanistan.

I was concerned about some of our military leadership some years ago, but now that’s the least of my concerns.  The military leadership is rock solid.

Personally, I didn’t like seeing General McKiernan get publicly relieved.  A quiet disembarkation might have been better.  After all, he is a true American who defended the United States.  To me, McKiernan will be known as a man who did his duty, not as the General who got relieved.

And now we likely will get the chance to see if a McChrystal-Rodriguez team can do in Afghanistan what Petraeus-Odierno did in Iraq.

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