You are here

Examining the Implications of the Change of Command at ISAF

Commentary, 14 May 2009
International Institutions
ISAF’s Commander, General David McKiernan, was unceremoniously replaced on Monday 10 May 2009 with General Stanley McChrystal. The decision by the Obama Administration is a signal of intent to change the strategic landscape in Afghanistan and also tackles head-on the challenges that hampered ISAF’s effectiveness in the past.

ISAF’s Commander, General David McKiernan, was unceremoniously replaced on Monday 10 May 2009 with General Stanley McChrystal. The decision by the Obama Administration is a signal of intent to change the strategic landscape in Afghanistan and also tackles head-on the challenges that hampered ISAF’s effectiveness in the past.

A Briefing Note

According to his announcement on Monday, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided to remove General David McKiernan not for any particular failings but in order to clear the ground for fresh thinking in Afghanistan. With a new president, new strategy, new ambassador and, to be frank, with the campaign not going particularly well on the ground, it is unsurprising that McKiernan, the US’s under-resourced military commander in Afghanistan, has become the latest ‘casualty’ of the conflict.

Looking forward, it would have been difficult to forecast this change of command even just a few weeks ago, but, with hindsight, it now seems an inevitable consequence of the new US Administration’s desire to freshen things up across the board. General McKiernan is no doubt a very good soldier but sadly for him, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time- Secretary Gates did say after all that McKiernan had done nothing wrong.


As a former boss of General David Petraeus, it is easy to see how the relationship between the two generals might have been a difficult one, particularly with Petraeus fresh from success in Iraq, with the latest thinking on counter-insurgency. The timing of the change is interesting, and one can only wonder if the most recent and highly regrettable incident in western Afghanistan, in which significant numbers of civilians were evidently killed, might have had some bearing on the final decision to replace McKiernan even though according to media reports McKiernan knew about the planned changes to command up to two weeks ago. The civilian casualty incident happened at the very moment when the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US were meeting to discuss the region, and resulted in an apology from Hillary Clinton, none of which could have gone down well in Washington.

Challenges for the new Commander


New thinking may well be needed, but it is also obvious that the current strategy has been under-resourced on the ground. McKiernan knew this and sought additional resources which are only now, rather belatedly for him, forthcoming, at least from the US. However, despite the US’s calls for greater support and contributions from its alliance partners, significant additional commitments have not been made to date. The recently announced decision to boost UK force levels by 700, for example, is a temporary move and will only last for the duration of the Afghan elections. More significantly, the number of permanent troops on the ground in southern Afghanistan were insufficient to deliver McKiernan’s current ‘shape, clear, hold and build’ strategy.

Special Forces

General McChrystal is an acknowledged special forces expert who comes with counter-insurgency experience from Iraq and experience of the conflict in Afghanistan. It is clear that the Obama Administration want to demonstrate leadership and make progress in Afghanistan and, crucially, to do it quickly. McChrystal will have the comparative advantage over his predecessor of the luxury of additional troops, but how will he use them? The majority of those already deploying to Afghanistan will not be special forces soldiers, so their modus operandi cannot be significantly different from those currently serving. It is also widely known that it is not planned and targeted air strikes that are causing the civilian casualties which are so damaging to public opinion in Afghanistan, and so unpopular with President Karzai – who has been increasingly vocal in criticising the US for the strikes. Instead, it is special force operations which can require extraction at short notice, that tend to lead to the unplanned air strikes which cause civilian casualties. McKiernan knew this and gave specific instructions, which he made public, on the conduct of air strikes and general behaviour of his forces in relation to the Afghans in the form of a Tactical Directive. It will be interesting to see if McChrystal can achieve the delicate balance between continuing, and perhaps increasing, effective special force operations and the need to reduce and ideally eliminate civilian casualties.

Strategic Communications

As this war continues, the longest since Vietnam, it will be hugely important to keep the US public onside as well as maintaining public support in the forty-two nation international coalition and Afghanistan itself . Achieving this will require greater transparency about the operations in Afghanistan and regular factual updates. McKiernan well understood this need. From the time he first took up his post, he was very proactive in engaging the media both internationally and within Afghanistan in trying to get the message out about the situation on the ground. He was also forthright in seeking and eventually obtaining from his US leaders the deployment of more boots on the ground, perhaps to his ultimate cost.

The special forces are traditionally less keen to engage the media and rather more likely to hold information close to their chests. The Obama strategy emphasised the need to do better in strategic communications as did Gordon Brown’s UK equivalent. So it will be interesting to see how General McChrystal addresses this important issue of keeping the US public abreast of developments on the ground in a timely, open and transparent manner. In Vietnam the US administration got this very badly wrong with ultimately very serious consequences for the overall campaign and the eventual downfall of the then president. Concerns have already been raised about McChrystal’s involvement in the handling of information relating to the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Whilst the matter was investigated and no wrong doing established, it should serve as a reminder to all military officers and public servants of the need to be truthful at all times. It should also be noted on the subject of strategic communications that the morning after the announcement, there was nothing on the ISAF or NATO websites about the change of command, yet the Taliban had found time to comment on the change of command and represent its point of view in the media. This is perhaps an indication of how far the coalition must go in improving its strategic communications capability if it is to match the agility of the Taliban propaganda machine.

Rationalising ISAF command structure

General McChrystal, if confirmed, will bring with him a new deputy commander US Forces Afghanistan, General Rodrigues. This makes a great deal of sense. General McKiernan was in the unenviable position of running US Forces Afghanistan without a dedicated deputy as well as running ISAF albeit with a Three Star British deputy, currently General Jim Dutton Royal Marines: this will have left little time for the strategic thinking which is essential if real progress is to be made. Throughout the latter part of 2008 it was interesting to see the US build up begin with the standing up of the US Forces Afghanistan Headquarters within the ISAF compound. Over time, there is significant potential for NATO to be marginalised, if it is not already, and no doubt this is occupying minds in Brussels, particularly in light of General McKiernan’s recent criticism of Alliance nations over their national caveats.

Writing in the latest issue of the RUSI Journal, General McKiernan argued:

‘For military commanders caveats inhibit the flexibility to employ scarce forces for maximum effectiveness, again ceding an advantage to the insurgents. Most importantly, when a nation employs caveats to limit the use of its forces, it sends an unambiguous signal to the Afghan government and people that its participation in the mission to help Afghanistan is half-hearted at best.’

For the British military, having only recently handed over to the US in Basra, a perceived takeover by the US in southern Afghanistan could be seen as a further blow to its ability to fight and win in Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter, without US assistance. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the United States would wish to undermine and devalue the contribution of the second largest troop-contributing nation that, after all, has been involved in some of the fiercest fighting of the campaign to date.

These are very interesting times in Afghanistan. History as ever provides some useful insights. Successful counter-insurgencies take time. Afghanistan is not an easy country to control -- the British and the Soviet Union have both tried and failed. It will be interesting to see how the new approach unfolds over the coming months. One thing is for certain McChrystal does not have time on his side. As McKiernan found out, President Obama and his new team will want to see results and quickly.

The views expressed in this Briefing Note do not necessarily reflect the independent, corporate view of RUSI.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research