Four generals who can’t shoot straight

A look at the startlingly poor track record of Afghan war commanders in the Obama era

Topics: Afghanistan, Pentagon, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, Defense Department, Gen. John Allen,

Four generals who can't shoot straightClockwise from upper left: David Petraeus, Stanley A. McChrystal, John R. Allen and David D. McKiernan

The U.S. is supposed to be in Afghanistan for at least another two years, but you know the war effort may be struggling when this is the track record of its commanders over the past four years:

  • Gen. David McKiernan was appointed to lead coalition forces in June 2008, but lasted less than a year in Afghanistan before being fired for incompetence in May 2009.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked for McKiernan’s resignation after he lost confidence in his leadership over the deteriorating war effort. Asked if the move would end Gen. McKiernan’s 37-year military career, Gates said at the time, “probably.” The move was seen as highly unusual, and was the first time since the Korean War that a four-star commanding general was relieved of his duties in the middle of a war. Unfortunately, it would prove to be less of an aberration than it looked.
  • Gen. Stanley McChrystal replaced McKiernan in June of 2009, but he too only lasted a year after he was fired for insubordination. A Rolling Stone article quoted McChrystal aides, lips loosened by booze, disparaging President Obama and Vice President Biden in a way that exposed a rift between the military and civilian leaderships. After agonizing over the decision for two days, President Obama fired McChrystal in June of 2010, saying it was “the right decision for our national security.” The scandal ended McChrystal’s 30-plus-year military career.
  • Gen. David Petraeus sailed through Senate confirmation hearings to replace McChrystal and it finally seemed like the war had a stable commander. His tenure saw a troop surge and, along with it, the war’s highest casualty rates and some of its most controversial actions. “King David” stayed in the post just over a year, leaving in July 2011 to head to CIA. Now, of course, he has resigned in disgrace following a sex scandal.

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  • Gen. John R. Allen replaced Petraeus last year after a distinguished career in the Marines. Just 17 months after he began his command, he’s become embroiled in Petraeus’ sex scandal, reportedly sending tens of thousands of inappropriate emails to a woman whom he lusted after. The Obama administration said Allen will retain his command for the moment, but it could be in peril if more embarrassing details emerge. Will his be the fourth Afghan war commander to have his career end prematurely?
While these could all be isolated incidents, it’s hard not to see  a pattern here — each incident was unprecedented in the modern era in its own way. And it’s hard not to see the string as a bad omen for a war effort that faced difficult odds of success in the best circumstances, but has often encountered the worst.
Alex Seitz-Wald
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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