What Does Obama's Afghan Command Change Mean?

The Obama Administration wanted "a fresh look" and General David McKiernan seemed attuned to the wrong sort of campaign.

For the first such change in wartime since Harry Truman replaced General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War in 1951, Barack Obama is replacing General David McKiernan in Afghanistan. Obama is moving both to change a stalemated war in Afghanistan and to scale back expectations there.

In the process, the Obama Administration is signaling that there will be no massive military surge preferred by General David Petraeus, as well as, seemingly, an end to nation-building fantasies and a preference for more special operations while searching for compromise.

McKiernan, the commander of conventional ground forces for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is being replaced by a rather controversial special operations expert, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal. As head of Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal oversaw the capture of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the killing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

McChrystal, a West Pointer who became a Green Beret not long after graduation, following a stint as a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, is currently director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, the executive staff to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The new deputy commander, filling a new slot, will be Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, the top military aide to Defense Secretary Bob Gates and former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, who currently travels with him around the world.

Defense Secretary Bob Gates announced the sacking of McKiernan and designation of McChrystal, as well as his own top aide, Rodriguez, as deputy commander.

The new American commander in Iraq, whose appointment was announced by Gates on Monday, has to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He doesn't come without a nimbus of controversy.

McChrystal's former outfit, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which he commanded from 2003 to 2008, has been criticized by some on the left, including journalist Seymour Hersh, as "an executive hit squad." JSOC is a combination of many of the various military service's top special operators, i.e., commandos, including the Delta Force. It was formed in the aftermath of the failed 1980 attempt to rescue hostages from the American embassy in Iran.

Some of McChrystal's troopers have been criticized for using torture during interrogations.

The family of football star-turned-Ranger Pat Tillman, killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan, want to know what McChrystal knew and when he knew it.

And the family of Pat Tillman, the football star who became a Ranger after 9/11 and died in a "friendly fire" incident in Afghanistan, criticizes McChrystal for approving Tillman's Silver Star citation for bravery "in the line of devastating enemy fire" just a day before distributing a memo saying that it was "highly possible" the former Arizona Cardinals safety was killed by his own colleagues.

None of which has dissuaded Obama from making McChrystal -- with, perhaps not coincidentally with a president who so values the spoken word, a reputation as an outstanding briefer -- his commander in what is now America's most troubled war.

So why the switch?

Unlike McChrystal, a West Pointer who went airborne, then Special Forces, McKiernan is a College of William & Mary ROTC graduate who went into the armor section of Army, going up the ranks commanding units focused on tanks and other armored vehicles.

Working under the overall commander, General Tommy Franks, McKiernan commanded the conventional ground forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Which, actually, went very well. Then the trouble, probably predictably, really started with the various Iraq insurgencies emerging.

In Afghanistan, McKiernan, drawing on the lesson that the Iraq force started out far too small to provide stability after Saddam was ousted, has repeatedly insisted on more troops for that mountainous, farflung country.

President Barack Obama made it known before he took office that there would be a new direction for the troubled war in Afghanistan.

General David Petraeus, who oversees Afghanistan as well as Iraq now as head of U.S. Central Command, has also been pushing for more troops for Afghanistan. But Obama, backed by Gates, is delivering about half as many troops as Petraeus and McKiernan wanted.

Putting McChrystal -- whose expertise is in carefully-targeted, highly-lethal, mostly ground force raids on jihadist leaders and cadre -- in command reinforces the message that there will not be the sort of massive surge of American troops into Afghanistan that current commanders wanted. Incidentally, though the exact numbers are classified, McChrystal's vaunted JSOC may number no more than a few thousand.

Under McKiernan's command, American forces in Afghanistan have been increasingly criticized for air strikes that result in many civilian casualties. The administration says that air strikes will continue.

But sources say that the air strikes will be more discriminating and targeted. The probability of civilian casualties goes up in the absence of experienced soldiers on the ground calling in the strikes, something which is a function of the special operations forces McChrystal has served with throughout his career.

Then Vice President-elect Joe Biden met with McKiernan in Kabul on January 10th.

The move from McKiernan to McChrystal also seems to signify an end to nation-building fantasies in Afghanistan.

The Bush/Cheney Administration spoke of building a much more modern nation-state in Afghanistan, which is not nearly as modern as Iraq. Not much was actually accomplished, however, as the fateful Iraq fixation took hold and became the chief enterprise of an entire presidency.

When Obama announced his new strategy for Afghanistan -- and Pakistan, the deterioration of which during the Bush years accelerated into outright crisis -- on March 27th, there were distinct overtones of nation-building.

Not so much now. Oh, they're still moving to stabilize what passes for a central government, do more in the vast rural areas, and provide more economic development aid, as well as real training for the Afghan army and police forces, but it's all with an eye to compromise rather than outright victory.

There've been a variety of apparently desultory talks with the Taliban in the past, with all but ousted former Afhan leader Mullah Omar, now ensconced in Pakistan, seen as being in the ballpark. That was then. Today Reuters reported that former Taliban officials, working with the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, have contacted Mullah Omar and other top Afghan Taliban leaders to set up peace talks.

On the table, among other things, asylum for militants in Saudi Arabia in exchange for withdrawal of foreign forces, as well as negotiation on the shape of a new constitution and government.

Not exactly unconditional surrender.

The Obama Administration seems to be focusing on the original ostensible purpose for going into Afghanistan in the first place after 9/11: To disrupt Al Qaeda and deny it a base in Afghanistan.