Leadership selection in war time

Washington Post:

Since 2001, a dozen commanders have cycled through the top jobs in Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. Central Command, which oversees both wars. Three of those commanders -- including the recently dismissed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal -- have been fired or resigned under pressure.

History has judged many others harshly, and only two, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, are widely praised as having mastered the complex mixture of skills that running America's wars demands.

For the military, this record of mediocrity raises a vexing question: What is wrong with the system that produces top generals?

Much of what top commanders do in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq bears little relation to the military skills that helped them rise through the ranks, military officials said. Today's wars demand that top commanders act like modern viceroys, overseeing military operations and major economic development efforts. They play dominant roles in the internal politics of the countries where their troops fight.

When support for these long wars inevitably flags back home, the White House often depends on its generals to sell the administration's approach to lawmakers and a skeptical American public. To the military's extreme discomfort, its generals often act like shadow cabinet secretaries.


Over nine years of war, top commanders have fallen victim to their own ignorance of Washington politics and the press. Adm. William J. Fallon, once commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, resigned after he made offhand remarks trashing the Bush administration's Iran policy.

Other commanders, including Gen. Tommy Franks and Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, spent most of their careers studying conventional battles and couldn't grasp the protracted wars or the shadowy enemies that they were fighting. "A year from now, Iraq will be a different country," Franks wrote in his 2004 autobiography. "Our steady progress in Afghanistan is one factor that gives me confidence that Iraq will be able to provide for its own security in the years ahead."

A few top commanders started out well enough, but they found themselves exhausted and out of new ideas by the end of their tours. With sectarian violence spinning out of control in the spring of 2006, Gen. George. W. Casey scribbled the words "must act" in the margins of an intelligence report that warned of even worse killing in the weeks to come. Yet he did little to change the military's approach in the months that followed. After more than 30 months in command, he was forced out to make way for Petraeus and a new approach.

Explanations for the shortage of good generals abound. Some young officers blame the Pentagon's insistence on sticking with its peacetime promotion policies. Military personnel rules prevent the top brass from reaching down into the ranks and plucking out high-performers who have proved themselves especially adept at counterinsurgency or have amassed significant knowledge about Afghanistan and Iraq. "In all previous wars, promotions were accelerated for officers who were effective," a senior Army official said.


The criticism of Franks is unfair, since the circumstances changes dramatically after he left the Army. Sanchez did seem to be in over his head, although he had some field grade officers who did understand what was happening and reacted well. Gen. Petraeus had a terrific team of officers supporting him some of which would make outstanding commanders. Some are still in the Army and others have left the service. It is curious that Gen. Mattis has not been given a command since he helped to craft the counterinsurgency doctrine used in Iraq and to be used in Afghanistan.

One of the problems with Gen. Casey was his commitment to using local forces before they were ready to assume that responsibility. I fear we may make that mistake again in Afghanistan, although I think Gen Petraeus has the clout to stop that kind of transfer despite pressure from Obama and the Democrats in Congress.

Besides Gen. Mattis, Army Brigadier General McMaster should be fast tracked to a major command position.


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