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May. 28 2009 - 9:27 am | 16 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

McKiernan: A Victim of the Myth Makers?

For those who haven’t already forgotten, we decided to swap commanders in Afghanistan a couple of weeks back. General David McKiernan got unceremoniously removed. He’s going to be replaced by a gent named General Stanley McChrystal.

Anyhow: this week, military advisor Paul Farnan came to the defense of McKiernan in the Washington Post. (If you recall, I had wondered if anyone was going to stick their neck out and publicly defend McKiernan.)

The most interesting part of the Op-Ed is how Farnan pushes back against the narrative that quickly formed saying McKiernan “didn’t get” counterinsurgency. Farnan says, on the contrary that:

Over the past year, I have seen our focus in Afghanistan shift from kinetic military operations to one of engaging the population, building the capacity of the Afghan government, and ensuring that the military’s top priority is the training and mentoring of the Afghan army and police. Integrated strategic planning with the United Nations and the Afghan government is now the rule rather than the exception, as it was when McKiernan arrived last June. The general has traveled around the country and has held countless forums, known as shuras, with Afghans in various localities. He has engaged local and provincial leaders one on one to hear their concerns and ensure that they understood the intentions of the international coalition. All of our Special Forces operations combined cannot win the support of the Afghan people the way these shuras do.

Which all sounds like a pretty good understanding of “counterinsurgency” to me.

This jibes with what I was told that McKiernan was doing, as well as what he said he was doing. So, to say he didn’t get COIN, wasn’t really accurate. It missed the real story about why he was actually removed: General Petraeus bringing in his own guy, McChrystal. “Didn’t get it” was just an easy way to justify it.

But you also have to look at the political motives of the COIN supporters for pushing the McKiernan “didn’t get it” narrative. It’s in line with the larger media narrative surrounding the rise of COIN:  a band of brothers who bucked the system, with stark lines drawn between those who saw the light of counter insurgency strategy and those who didn’t. Though there is some truth to this narrative, there’s also a lot of myth-making involved. (See Celeste Ward here, for an example.) There’s this tendency for COIN supporters to present their doctrine as a kind of misty eyed theological set of beliefs that only the PHD’s in officialdom can grasp. This of course, also serves a political purpose–it makes the COIN folks who’ve risen to prominence over the past three years indispensable in divining the proper strategy for the future.


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    I'm the author of "I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story" and a regular contributor to GQ. Previously, I was the Baghdad correspondent for Newsweek magazine. My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, Foreign Policy, the L.A. Times, and other publications of repute. This blog will focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other newsy foreign-ish things.

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