The war leader running the conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, U.S. CentCom Commander Gen. David Petraeus, spent some quality time in Washington last week.
He was needed to attend President Barack Obama's summit with Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, on coordinating their countries' separate and interlinked war strategies. That done, DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources report the general turned to his overmastering concern: confronting the president, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen with a near-ultimatum for the removal of Gen. David McKiernan from the top command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and his replacement with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, ex-chief of the undercover US Special Operations forces from 2006 to 2008.
Changing commanders in the middle of a war is unusual, especially when Gen. McKiernan was only 11 months into his stint, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources cite Petraeus as arguing that he had fallen down so badly in Afghanistan that he would be deemed unfit for any alternative commission.
Petraeus bolstered this argument in his public reading of the crisis besetting the Afghanistan War and its prospects.
The Taliban, he told an interviewer, were “moving weapons and forces into areas where the US is adding troops, planning a surge of their own to counter the US plan.”
The US had intelligence that they were “deploying new fighters to southern Afghanistan, appointing new local commanders, and prepositioning weapons and other supplies.”
McKiernan blamed for Taliban advances
All this was happening, said Petraeus in private conversations, because McKiernan had not obeyed orders to reorganize American forces in Afghanistan and retool their tactics. Taliban had thus won a head start for its own surge before even the 17,000 extra troops allotted by President Obama reached Afghanistan over summer.
These troops, he suggested, might not have the right training or skills to match enhanced Taliban capabilities – in which case, they might need retraining or replacement by different kinds of fighting men.
McKiernan had been taxed with getting US troops out of their fortified bases and forming them into small, swift raider units armed with massive fire-power, armor and air cover, for sorties against al Qaeda and Taliban.
His failure to carry out orders had robbed US troops of the element of surprise, relinquishing this tactical asset to Taliban which monitored their movements with the help of Afghan informants at the base.
The CentCom chief warned Obama, the secretary of defense and National Security Council that if this downturn in US military fortunes is not arrested forthwith, US and NATO forces may be forced to retreat from southern Afghanistan, especially the Helmand and Kandahar provinces bordering on Pakistan, spelling the biggest American defeat in its war on terror.
Any Pakistani military effort against Taliban and al Qaeda would then cave in. If its commanders saw Americans on the run from Taliban, they would turn tail too.
Gates saw the declining war situation for himself
Gates and Mullen initially hoped to avoid a drastic changeover of top war commanders by providing McKiernan with a chief of operations more receptive to Petraeus' directives as a sort of go-between. This plan fell through when no competent general was willing to take on the job.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's situation assessment was alarming enough to convince the White House to force the defense secretary's hand before even he returned from his tour of Egypt and Gulf states last week (where he failed to persuade their leaders that Washington's Iran policy would not be at their expense).
Gates paid a quick trip to Afghanistan to decide for himself where matters stood.
Neither Gen. McKiernan nor any of the officers who greeted him had the slightest inkling that he had come to check out Gen. Petraeus' complaints of the way they were conducting the war and decide on his recommendation to the president.
He finally decided to confirm Petraeus' assessment that McKiernan must go during a tour they made together of the new US mega-base Camp Leatherneck under construction for the incoming 17,000 combat troops near Helmand and the battlefields of southern Afghanistan. He saw then that the top commander had no intention of adjusting his war tactics to meet the CentCom chief's directives.
On his return to Washington, Gates informed the President that the personal and professional differences between Petraeus and McKiernan were impossible to bridge. The US commander in Afghanistan would have to be replaced.
But even that may be too late, say our military sources. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal must go through Senate hearings for his confirmation and cannot therefore expect to take up his post before the end of summer, a delay which may prove singularly critical for the outcome of the Afghanistan War.