Tuesday 12 May 2009

All change at the top

The Guardian, or more specifically, Robert Fox sees it as "echoes of Vietnam". The summary sacking of General David McKiernan as the American commander in Afghanistan after only 11 months, he writes, "is a sure sign that things are not going well there."

Fox links to Simon Tisdall, who points out that there are questions surrounding the decision. Some would say, he avers, that it is a sign of panic in Washington about the impasse now developing in America's longest war since Vietnam.

Robert Gates, undoubtedly advised by Gen Petraeus, makes it clear that it is time for "fresh thinking" and "fresh eyes" on Afghanistan, also announcing his proposed replacement – nominated as Lt-Gen Stanley McChrystal, with Lt-Gen David Rodriguez as his deputy. Writes Fox:

The message is clearly that the mix of tactics and weaponry used so far hasn't worked. In seven and a half years the Taleban have grown in strength and now have more than a toehold in the key provinces across the south of Afghanistan. There are now serious worries that it may not be possible to hold full, free and fair elections for the presidency on 20 August. The propagandists of the Taliban and al-Qaida know how damaging this is to the US message of bringing security and governance to the region.
We then get cited, "unidentified Pentagon officials and fellow officers" who say that McKiernan was too conventional in his thinking. He is also criticised for having tried (and failed) to force out Karzai, and that as Nato commander he was too chummy with the mostly flaky European allies. Thus, this week's developments mark another stage in the "re-Americanisation" of the Afghan war.

McKiernan's proposed replacement, Lt.-Gen. McChrystal, is a soldier steeped in U S special operations. He began his career as commander of an A-team detachment with the 7th Special Forces Group in 1980. During the first Gulf War (1990-91) he deployed to Saudi Arabia as an army special operations action officer. Later he was in command of an Army Ranger battalion in 1996-97 and a Ranger regiment from 97-99. From September, 2003 through August, 2008, he led the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees special ops units, including counterterrorism units such as the Army's Delta Force.

However, Maj-Gen Jim Molan, the Australian army officer who worked under US General George Casey in the Iraq war, cautions against putting too much emphasis on the special forces background. What's important, he says, is that McChrystal will reflect in detail Petraeus's thinking.

That must indeed be a factor in this unheralded decision, and it must be pertinent that, while McKiernan is an armour specialist and thus a "big army" man, McChrystal is more attuned to the small unit tactics and unconventional warfare which characterise counterinsurgency campaigns.

Herschel Smith of Captains Journal does not buy the idea of McKiernan being "old school" but he does see the change as striking a "strategic statement" in Afghanistan. McKiernan wanted a heavier footprint, just as did Obama during his campaign for presidency. He continually requested more troops but, with no increase over the 68,000 troops on offer, another strategy must be employed.

Precisely what that is or might be, Smith reminds us is difficult to tell with certainty. The administration is not letting on, and the metrics of progress have been declared "classified".

Smith, however, points to a debate among counterinsurgency experts as to where to deploy the additional resources on their way. The choice is between urban population centres or the countryside and, for the moment it looks like "security bubble" time in the urban centres.

This was the mistake made by the Russians during their campaign, where they became prisoners of their own armour and city boundaries until their logistical difficulties and constant drain of casualties took enough of a toll for them to withdraw in defeat.

Somehow, though, one cannot imagine that either Petraeus or McChrystal would make that mistake, or that Gates would stand idly by and let them do it. But, other than acknowledging that a "strategic statement" has been made, it is difficult to add much more and note that, as does Smith, only time will tell whether they succeed or fail.