Gen. David McKiernan is leaving U.S. Army Europe to become the top commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Gen. David McKiernan is leaving U.S. Army Europe to become the top commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. (Nancy Montgomery / S&S)

HEIDELBERG, Germany — He’s been a soldier for 36 years. Unlike all but a handful of professional warriors, he’s run the land invasion of an actual country.

After earning four stars for his shoulders, after navigating some perilous Pentagon political waters and after taking on a downsizing command in the orderly country of his wife’s birth, Gen. David McKiernan could have retired.

He wanted something else.

In weeks, the former commander of U.S. Army Europe will leave Heidelberg to be the top commander in Afghanistan.

“I feel good about the opportunity to get back in the fight,” McKiernan said last week. “I feel it’s my turn. I can’t ask soldiers and families to be strong during repeated deployments if I’m not willing to do the same thing.”

McKiernan is taking command of the NATO-led force of some 47,000 troops from 40 countries in Afghanistan. Concerns for the effort there have spiked, along with suicide bombings, roadside bombs and an assassination attempt against Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.

More U.S. troops have been promised; how many hasn’t been specified, although a story Saturday in the New York Times said 7,000 were being considered. The total is contingent on Iraq troop levels. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said last month that the number also depends in part on McKiernan’s impact.

That would seem like a lot of pressure. But McKiernan, low-key and still enigmatic to many within U.S. Army Europe, is difficult to ruffle. “It’s not pressure that I haven’t experienced before,” he said flatly during an interview Tuesday in his Heidelberg office. “I’m going to go there and try to bring to bear my experiences and the capabilities I have.”

Asked how he’ll proceed in Afghanistan — against al-Qaida terrorism and Taliban fighters, complicated by myriad factors like tribal ties, warlords, opium production, drug running and a way of doing business different than in the West — he declined to say.

“I need to get in the saddle for a little while and make an assessment,” he said. “I’m not going to jump out further than that. It would be presumptuous of me to say I’m going to do X, Y and Z.”

But he has told Congress that he needed more combat and aviation forces, greater intelligence and surveillance capability and more training teams. McKiernan also has discussed his desire for reducing NATO nations’ caveats, which keep many of those forces from combat roles and leaves most of the fighting to the U.S., Canada, Britain and the Dutch.

“Those caveats … to a large degree reflect political will,” he said. “If you have caveats, in most cases, there’s a domestic issue with popular or political support.”

But if the caveats remain, McKiernan said countries should contribute in other ways, such as providing trainers, equipment and funding.

In 2003, McKiernan commanded Iraq’s ground invasion in what has been widely viewed as a great success, as opposed to the following occupation. His code name for the invasion, “Cobra II,” became the title of a book whose authors, a journalist and retired Marine lieutenant general, said that “tactical brilliance” by McKiernan and other military leaders came despite strategic missteps by civilian and higher military leaders.

McKiernan had wanted more troops than he was given, the book said — a judgment nearly universally agreed upon now.

He also expressed his concern when the Iraqi army was disbanded by Paul Bremer, President Bush’s appointed viceroy, saying that creating a large pool of unemployed young men could cause trouble. That judgment has also been borne out.

McKiernan emphasized that he’s a “glass-is-half-full guy.” So, although some say Afghanistan is “slipping towards failure,” as Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., wrote last month in the New York Times, McKiernan sees it differently. He sees problems — the continuing operation of al-Qaida, for instance, seven years after the United States went into Afghanistan to eradicate its influence — but also progress.

“There’s the beginning of a central government, the beginning of professional Afghan security forces,” he said. More children attend school, he said, and the standard of living has improved. “Is there a long way to go?” he said. “Absolutely.”

McKiernan has agreed to stay up to two years in Afghanistan, he said. With the recent addition of 3,500 U.S. Marines, there are now 32,500 U.S. troops in the country, the most since 2001.

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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