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US military upset over changes at top in wars

Since 2001, a dozen commanders have cycled through the top jobs in Iraq, Afghanistan and the US Central Command, which oversees both wars.

world Updated: Jun 28, 2010 01:02 IST

Since 2001, a dozen commanders have cycled through the top jobs in Iraq, Afghanistan and the US 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.

Only two, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, are widely praised as having mastered the complex mixture of skills that running US’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. 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 American public.

"What we ask of these generals is a very unusual skill set," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has advised both Petraeus and McChrystal.

"It is a hard thing for anyone to do, much less than someone who comes to it so late in life."

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 US forces in the Middle East, resigned after he made offhand remarks trashing the Bush administration's Iran policy.

A few top commanders started out well enough, but they found themselves exhausted and out of new ideas.

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. After more than 30 months in command, he was forced out to make way for Petraeus and a new approach. 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.

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