Gen. David McKiernan looks out of his Black Hawk helicopter during a trip to Hohenfels, Germany. McKiernan, who completed his first year as U.S. Army Europe commander, is charged with transforming the footprint of U.S. troops in Europe even as America continues to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen. David McKiernan looks out of his Black Hawk helicopter during a trip to Hohenfels, Germany. McKiernan, who completed his first year as U.S. Army Europe commander, is charged with transforming the footprint of U.S. troops in Europe even as America continues to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Nancy Montgomery / S&S)

Since Gen. David McKiernan took command of U.S. Army Europe a year ago, his top priority — helping fight what the military calls the “GWOT” — hasn’t changed.

“USAREUR’s been a big player, and it’s a tough fight,” McKiernan said last week in an interview marking his one-year tenure, on the way to Hohenfels, Germany, aboard his Black Hawk helicopter. “At least 75 percent of U.S. Army Europe is at the fight or getting ready to go to the fight or has just come back from the fight.”

But what will happen next in that global war on terror has changed, going from “stay the course” to a big question mark.

Presidential advisers have called the situation in Iraq “grave and deteriorating,” the new defense secretary has agreed the U.S. is not winning, and the former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell said the U.S. “is losing.”

Some political leaders are calling for reducing troops; others say the answer is to send up to 30,000 more. As the Bush administration weighs its options, and violence in Iraq continues, all that’s agreed is that the U.S. strategy must change.

“I think there are a lot of analyses, debates and ideas swirling around in Washington,” McKiernan said. “The consensus is we need to do something differently, not just militarily though.”

Although McKiernan’s role as USAREUR commander is in support of the war — by providing, trained, capable troops — he’s far more than a casual, disinterested observer.

McKiernan lead the 2003 Iraq invasion, taking Baghdad in 16 days in an unqualified success. Even then, he was warning that lasting success in Iraq based solely on firepower wasn’t possible.

“So what’s very important in these operations is we come in with our civil affairs officers and provide projects, to fix up living areas, schools, bridges, water purification,” he said in one 2003 interview. “Make sure we go in there afterwards and provide support.”

‘We can’t go on forever’

U.S. generals, unless retired, are usually circumspect in any political criticism. McKiernan, who’s taken a lower public profile than his USAREUR predecessor and who seems to possess a low-maintenance, self-contained personality, is no exception. But he allowed that he looked forward to a different approach.

“I welcome initiatives the president will announce that will [include] other political, economic and informational means to bring us closer to achieving our objectives,” he said. “I think we can’t go on forever. At the strategic level, there’s got to be some measures taken.”

The debate about Iraq is a healthy one, McKiernan said, and, despite pointing out uncertainties and failures, one that’s not bad for troop morale.

“What does that mean to the soldier? In my trips there, their morale is still very good.” At the soldiers’ tactical level, there is daily success, McKiernan said.

“They’re very proud of what they do.”

Listening to the new Pentagon leadership

McKiernan’s next two years as U.S. Army Europe commander will be influenced by direction from the new defense secretary, Robert Gates, a former CIA director and member of the Iraq Study Group, which recently recommended phasing most U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by 2008.

What Gates’ ideas will mean in Iraq and other areas — transformation, the proposed Africa command, a recent Army proposal to increase its troop strength by the tens of thousands — remains unknown.

“Does he strategically see things differently? We don’t know yet,” McKiernan said. “I think we’ll see some changes.”

Add into the mix a new Democrat-controlled Congress, and the next two years of McKiernan’s command could mean the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“Will Congress not approve military construction in Wiesbaden? They might,” he said.

Would Bamberg, Schweinfurt or Baumholder stay open?

“Things change every year,” he said.

McKiernan has been reaching out to new Eastern European allies, as well as established European allies, to build coalitions against terrorism and for the future. He’s made several trips to Poland, for example, and took the Polish defense minister to Hohenfels with him to watch Polish troops train before their deployment to Afghanistan.

He’s also been to Romania and Bulgaria — where Spartan U.S. bases are expected to be built — and to Russia, although relations there have cooled this year.

McKiernan has also had his hands full with implementing transformation plans that halves the number of U.S. troops in Germany in the next few years. “I have to figure out what I want the forest to look like in the next six or seven years,” he said.

“I’m very determined to ensure at the end of the day we retain the right capabilities and presence in the European command: the right capability at the right location as we change from a Cold War footprint.”

Working with host nations, other services

Bringing the 2nd Stryker Regiment to Vilseck, he said, is an example of setting the right stance, as well as increasing interoperability between the Air Force at Ramstein and Army logistics at Kaiserslautern.

“I think we’re doing fine,” he said. “I think we’re working well with our host nations.”

But ensuring that USAREUR bases soon to close don’t become “have-nots” is a “constant effort,” McKiernan said. As part of that, he’s visited a number of communities to alleviate problems — schools and Book Marks closing, commissaries reducing hours and other business decisions he’s called “turning out the lights” before the people are gone.

“I will say in some communities that were not going to be enduring, that I found we needed to make some adjustments to give those soldiers and their families the same support and services that we find elsewhere,” McKiernan said. He said he has spent a good part of his time working with officials from the Installation Management Command and the Department of Defense Dependents Schools and others to make sure soldiers and their families have the right quality of life.

One example of that was McKiernan’s reversal a few months ago of an Army plan to lay off temporary workers to save money, scarce because of the huge costs of the Iraq war. The pink slips had been sent out.

McKiernan got on the phone, and the U.S. Army Europe temps — who often have no other job prospects — kept their jobs.

In keeping with his preference for working quietly behind the scenes, McKiernan declined then to be interviewed about his role in the temps’ reversal of fortune.

“USAREUR is a team event,” he said. “It’s all about we, our and us.”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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