In mid-March, as a White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan was nearing completion, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met in a secure Pentagon room for their fortnightly video conference with Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Kabul.
There was no formal agenda. McKiernan, a silver-haired former armor officer, began with a brief battlefield update. Then Gates and Mullen began asking about reconstruction and counternarcotics operations. To Mullen, they were straightforward, relevant queries, but he thought McKiernan fumbled them.
Gates and Mullen had been having doubts about McKiernan since the beginning of the year. They regarded him as too languid, too old-school and too removed from Washington. He lacked the charisma and political savvy that Gen. David H. Petraeus brought to the Iraq war.
McKiernan's answers that day were the tipping point for Mullen. Soon after, he discussed the matter with Gates, who had come to the same conclusion.
Mullen traveled to Kabul in April to confront McKiernan. The chairman hoped the commander would opt to save face and retire, but he refused. Not only had he not disobeyed orders, he believed he was doing what Gates and Mullen wanted.
You're going to have to fire me, he told Mullen.
Two weeks later, Gates did. It was the first sacking of a wartime theater commander since President Harry S. Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for opposing his Korean War policy.
The humiliating removal of a four-star general for being too conventional reveals the ferocious intensity Gates and Mullen share over a growing war that will soon enter its ninth year. It also demonstrates their zeal to respond to President Obama's demand for rapid success in a place where foreign armies have failed for centuries.
McKiernan is an old school American general. You don't get more hard corps old line American than being an Armor Commander. Armor, Artillery and to a lesser extent, tactical air (close air support), are the epitome of conventional war.
What's so old line about being an Armor General? That's a logistics war, big army against big army. The commander who can bring the greatest numbers against the weak point of the enemy normally wins. And what are "the greatest numbers?"
The numbers that matter in conventional war are rounds of ammunition and tons of ordnance. A conventional commander coordinates the firepower of more weapons on the battlefield to greater effect than does the commander of the enemy forces. The ultimate weapon in conventional war is a nuclear weapon. The most important resources for the winning commander come from either the largest economy or the greatest population. The commander's most important skills are coordinating the use of these resources - logistics.
How do you defeat the army that posses an essentially unlimited number of rounds of ammunition and ordinance to drop on you? The Chinese tried overwhelming numbers of troops, which works as long as the opponent isn't losing so badly they resort to nuclear weapons and you have enough troops. Since many of the Chinese troops used in Korea were previously Kuo Ming Tang troops and as such politically unreliable, they were expendable and available. But human wave attacks were not the best solution. A few years after Korea, the Algerians adapted Leninist guerrilla techniques and applied what is now called asymmetric warfare against the French. You don't offer the dominating power an army for a target. The new strategy was effective. Algeria is no longer French dominated even though the French had both the police forces and the conventional army with the conventional power. The asymmetric warfare technique migrated to South Vietnam and defeated the U.S. military also.
Asymmetric warfare was a logical solution when the occupation following American conventional invasion of Iraq was so badly screwed up by the American conservatives from the Heritage Foundation and the Bush administration who sent them there. The attempt to impress a foreign political ideology will always fail with it does not match the existing culture the ideologues attempt to impress it on. Such an effort creates a perfect ground for asymmetric warfare. So how does it work?
Instead a conventional army, you place highly skilled and very political cadres into the population and convince the population that the conventional forces and police of the government are their enemy. That is done in several ways. First, make promises that, given power, the cadre will focus on and provide for the needs of the population. Whatever can be done to back these promises up makes them more credible, so the cadres have humanitarian needs organizations - with political brands. This is easier when the government has no similar humanitarian efforts.
Second, conduct guerrilla operations against the enemy military and police that cause them to attack the population as the source of those operations. The extreme version of this is terrorist operations in which the attackers are prepared to and plan to die in the attacks. The most effective of these cause a massive counter reaction by conventional forces against the general population. Such efforts also create martyrs who have died to benefit the population. It really helps the insurgents when the government is inherently corrupt, since the population will always recognize this and act to reject it. How do you think the Iraqi population reacted to the corruption of Blackwater and Halliburton? Was there any doubt that these organizations represented the Bush administration? Since the conservative American philosophy of individualism with no regulation encourages such corruption, the Conservative philosophy creates its own enemies.
Afghanistan is a political war. Where is the effective conventional warfare counter for these asymmetric techniques? Conventional warfare has only one solution - destroy every last member of the cadre of insurgents, and if they keep being recreated from the population (as they will be), conduct genocide on the population. This has been the Soviet reaction in Chechnya. It hasn't worked very well there, and with the most modern forms of journalism, works even less well. The media has become a major theater in such wars now. That's because the battleground is the minds of the population involved.
LtC. John A. Nagl in his superb book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam describes the traditional U.S. military conventional war culture beautifully. It is a culture that permeates both the military forces and, more important, the American political culture. You can tell that Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Chrystal are violating it because they are accused of being "political generals." The American culture of war fighting looks down on "political generals", but that is the essence of fighting an asymmetric war successfully.
In the American political culture, Americans fight wars against other armies. When America is at peace, the military is subordinate to the political leaders, but when America is at war, the military leaders determine how the war will be fought. That includes the political effects, because modern wars are total wars in which both the military and the civilians are combatants. Let's not forget that both WW I and WW II were won in large part because the American economy was nationalized and directed by the government planners. That's the definition of total war. In total war, there is no essential difference between the civilian sector and the military sector. America fights modern wars in which scientific logic based on observable facts dominates the actions taken by both armies and civilians. West Point was created in 1803 and run by the Army Corps of Engineers to create an officer corps dominated by scientific thinking rather than the traditional thinking of European armies. West Point succeeded. It has been a major element in creating modern America.
By the way, buy a copy of colonel Nagl's book. Most intelligent and promotable U.S. officers already have.
As a company grade officer during the Vietnam War, I read Mao's writings on how to fight a war. They were inherently political. They started with a dedicated political cadre and worked up to a conventional army, but only as each stage succeeded. The stages were inherently political, not military. As one who firmly believed in logistics and the idea that the biggest battalions win, I was hard to convince. But I was thinking on the wrong battlefield. The conventional war battlefield is just that - armies, trenches and ordnance. The modern battlefield is men's minds. Thomas Kuhn would describe this as a paradigm shift. George Lakoff would describe it as "reframing the issue." Both are correct. But who would have thought that shifting the paradigm or reframing the issue would determine who might win a war? But it does.
And Gen. David McKiernan was not able to make the shift or reframe the issue. That became obvious to Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen. Afghanistan is simply not a war suitable for an armor general who sees war as a challenge for an engineer or logistician. It is a war for a politician. The fact that he was unsuited to win that war was demonstrated by his refusal to accept a face-saving way out of his command.
I don't blame McKiernan. I don't trust political generals, either. I was a logistician. That's my generation. McKiernan was one of our very best. But then, so was General Westmoreland in Vietnam. Let's not forget that we didn't win that one, either.