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Change We Can Believe In?

6:16 PM, May 11, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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A knowledgeable and well informed friend writes in on the change in command in Afghanistan:

Earlier today, Defense Secretary Bob Gates unexpectedly announced that he had asked for the resignation of General David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan. For most Afghan policy insiders, this came as cause for quiet relief. By all accounts, McKiernan is an honorable soldier who, to his everlasting credit, campaigned vigorously for the additional U.S. troops that are needed to turn the tide in Afghanistan, and that President Obama has begun to provide. But McKiernan also left a great deal to be desired. He was, in fact, an uncreative and conventional thinker who was failing palpably at figuring out how to adapt the principles of counterinsurgency into the specific operational context of Afghanistan -- the kind of military art that made the surge a success. Indeed, many visitors to McKiernan's Kabul headquarters walked away with the nagging feeling that he didn't really have a plan to defeat the insurgency at all -- just a vague commitment to keep on slogging, ideally with more resources.

The departure of McKiernan thus opens the door to a host of long-delayed reforms, including an expansion of the Afghan National Security Forces, a reform of the command structure, and the development of a joint civil-military campaign plan. Let's hope that Generals McChrystal and Rodriguez prove up to the task.

As important as McKiernan's forced departure may prove for the fortunes of the Afghan war, it would also seem to mark a sharp break with the practice of the previous administration -- and a change for the better. Under President Bush, generals were rotated in and out of key commands in Iraq and Afghanistan for the most part on a set of inflexible timelines, dictated by Pentagon personnel policy, not their performance on the job. Lousy commanders weren't fired -- even long after their incompetence became plainly obvious to the President and everyone else in creation. Successes likewise weren't kept on beyond their appointed terms. As numerous military analysts pointed out, this was no way to run a war -- and they were absolutely right.

McKiernan's dismissal represents a striking departure from this pattern -- a four-star commander who was shown the door nearly a year ahead of schedule, because, frankly, he just wasn't that good. The Obama administration deserves praise for this. Indeed, you could say it's the kind of change that even THE WEEKLY STANDARD can believe in.