When Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford took command of the war in Afghanistan on Feb. 10, he succeeded a line of hard-luck officers who had succumbed to scandal or felt the White House's sting over requests for more troops.
President Obama has changed top commanders in Afghanistan — which he says is the heart of the war on terrorism — five times in less than five years. Retired officers say this is some kind of record for hiring and firing or shifting four-star officers in a major theater of war.
In contrast, the Iraq War required four, four-star commanders, starting in 2004, over 71/2 years. The last commander served only a year because his job was to oversee the U.S. troop exit, which was completed in December 2011.
"We're trying to do too many missions with too few forces in Afghanistan," retired Gen. Ronald Griffith, a former vice chief of the Army, told The Washington Times. "I guess the way you deal with that, if you're in Washington, is you either change the commander or you change the strategy."
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who led a division that ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, called the rapid turnover of generals "a huge mistake." Compounding the problem, he said, is that other allied nations leave their commanders in Afghanistan for even a shorter time, sometimes just six months.
"We should have kept a team of senior people together in Afghanistan for five years at a time," Gen. McCaffrey told The Times. "What kind of medium-complexity business would continually shuffle the leadership? All this turnover at the top had a detrimental effect on the broad direction of the war."
The parade of generals in and out of Kabul began in 2009, when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced the firing of Army Gen. David D. McKiernan after one year.
The stated reason: Mr. Gates wanted new thinking on counter-Taliban operations that he did not see in the conventional Army background of Gen. McKiernan, a big player in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His Army colleagues said the general was in disfavor for wanting more boots on the ground at a time when Mr. Obama wanted to bring them home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"David McKiernan, in my judgment, told them what he needed to do the job with," Gen. Griffith said. "And it probably made them uncomfortable."
CNN reported that Gen. McKiernan said at his retirement ceremony: "I was dismayed, disappointed and more than a little embarrassed."
The search for stability
Next: Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a career special operations warrior who hunted down al Qaeda leaders in Iraq. With Gen. McChrystal came a new war strategy and, like Gen. McKiernan, a request for more troops, something Mr. Obama partially met.
Gen. McChrystal lasted only a year. He allowed a Rolling Stone reporter to be embedded with him and his staff, and the ensuing article quoted them as making disparaging remarks about the president and Vice President Joseph R. Biden. Gen. McChrystal was fired.
Analysts said at the time that the command in Afghanistan needed stability with its next leader. The command did not get that stability.
In a scramble, the White House turned to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. As a U.S. senator, Mr. Obama criticized Gen. Petraeus for defending the 2007 surge of U.S. troops into Iraq.
Gen. Petraeus remained in Kabul for a year to implement a complex strategy that had American troops working side by side with Afghans to take back the villages.
In a surprise move, as the presidential election moved closer, Mr. Obama installed Gen. Petraeus, a charismatic leader coveted by some Republicans as a candidate, into the lower-profile job of CIA director.
"I have no knowledge he had ever had any political goals," Gen. Griffith said. "He would have denied he had any political goals. I'm not sure the Obama administration did not see it otherwise."
Said a Petraeus friend: "Petraeus should have been left in place. They wanted him off the stage."
Gen. Petraeus last year resigned as CIA director over an extramarital affair.
In Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus was succeeded by Marine Gen. John Allen, deputy chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Persian Gulf area.
If the NATO command thought this choice would bring a dose of stability, it was wrong again: The White House surprised Washington by saying that his command would be cut short by a move to Brussels as NATO's supreme commander.
Gen. Allen, however, got caught up in the Petraeus scandal over an exchange of emails with a married Florida socialite, Jill Kelley, and he opted not to take the NATO job. Fox News reported that the White House pushed him into retirement.
Gen. Dunford relieved Gen. Allen of the Afghanistan command on Feb. 10, after having served as assistant Marine commandant.
'Withdrawal strategy' decision
It was another head-scratcher in the military retirement community: Gen. Dunford, an Iraq veteran, never served in the 11-year-old Afghanistan War, and there were plenty of other generals who had.
The Times reported that the Army had endorsed Gen. David Rodriguez, who ran day-to-day operations in Afghanistan, to succeed Gen. Allen, but the White House preferred Gen. Dunford.
Retired generals speculate that the Obama administration settled on Gen. Dunford because it believed it would have an easier time in pressing for further troop cuts in Afghanistan with him as the top commander.
In a nine-page analysis of Afghanistan, Gen. McCaffrey said the early planned shift of Gen. Allen to NATO and the passing-over of Gen. Rodriguez have meaning.
"This is a 'withdrawal strategy' personnel decision," he wrote.
The president has announced that 34,000 troops will leave Afghanistan this year after the Taliban "fighting season" ends in the fall, leaving about 30,000 troops.
Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, U.S. Central Command chief, has recommended that 13,600 troops stay after 2014, when most international troops are expected to leave the country.
The high turnover rate in leadership in Kabul perhaps explains why the blogosphere explodes with conspiracy theories when four-stars are replaced at other commands.
There is no exact science for replacing the chiefs of the so-called geographic combatant commands, such as Central, Pacific and European.
Unlike the service chiefs, who serve for four years, and the Joint Chiefs chairman, who normally stays for two, two-year terms, the four-star combatant commanders typically preside two or three years.
The timings of their departures can depend on who is queued up behind them, awaiting their turn at a prestigious "joint" command. At some point, a sitting four-star has to make way for a budding four-star.
When the Pentagon announced that Gen. Rodriguez would replace Army Gen. Carter Ham as head of U.S. Africa Command, bloggers announced that Gen. Ham was sacked over the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 that left an ambassador and three other Americans dead.
But reliable sources told The Times that there is no truth in the theory. The White House needed to find a joint posting for Gen. Rodriguez, a highly respected combat leader, after denying him the command in Afghanistan.
To boot, Gen. Ham is a White House favorite: He led the major in-house 2010 study that resulted in an Obama goal — lifting the ban on open gays in the ranks.
The same conspiracy theories enwrapped Gen. Mattis, a blunt-speaking warrior who led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conjecture is that he is being ousted from U.S. Central Command for his hawkish views on striking Iran to disable its quest for nuclear weapons.
When Gen. Mattis is relieved by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin on March 27, he will have stayed in place two years, six months — about the average for CentCom.
Army Lt. Col. T.G. Taylor, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told The Times that Gen. Mattis denies any rift with the White House over Iran.
"CoCom commanders serve at the whim of the president and the secretary of defense," Col. Taylor said. "There is no right, wrong, early, late. There's no set time line for when somebody takes over and somebody leaves. Now, if somebody took over a CoCom and three months later was removed, that would be a little strange."
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