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New Army Leadership Faces Familiar Challenges in Afghanistan Efforts

May 12, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he needed new thinking and new approaches when he shuffled the top military leadership in Afghanistan on Monday. Analysts examine how new leadership could impact the war and the future of the Army.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, the command shake-up in Afghanistan raises the “What kind of Army?” question, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he needed new thinking and new approaches from the military when he shuffled Army commanders yesterday in Afghanistan.

Out was General David McKiernan, a one-time tank officer who headed the ground forces during the 2003 Iraq invasion. In were two generals with careers in counterinsurgency warfare, Stanley McChrystal and David Rodriguez.

But as far back as 2007, Gates told the Army it faced new challenges. “Current and future conflicts,” he said, “will be fundamentally political in nature and require the application of all elements of national power.”

He added, “The Army must learn how to incorporate the latest in technology without losing sight of the human and cultural dimensions of the irregular battlefield.”

For more on the Army and its new wars, we turn to two retired generals. Wesley Clark was NATO commander during the Kosovo War in 1999. Like General Clark, Dan Christman began his Army career as a platoon leader in Vietnam. His final post was superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

And, General Christman, is this change in command in Afghanistan an Afghanistan-specific story or does it represent some new place that Secretary Gates is trying to take the Army?

LT. GEN. DANIEL CHRISTMAN (Ret.), U.S. Army: I think it’s a spot on a transition, Ray. The Army has been transitioning, and I think appropriately, for years from a force that was really focused on a conventional, heavy, wartime environment to an Army that was really fairly described, I think, by Bob Gates, in the summary that you just read, an Army that’s focused on asymmetric warfare, on irregular warfare, on counterinsurgency, and nation-building, stability operations.

So what we’re seeing in this transition, I think, is just a spot on the wall of a year-, almost decade-long transition, arguably begun by General Shinseki, continuing now, and driven, motivated in great part by the two wars that we’re in the middle of fighting.

Focus is on Afghanistan

Gen. Wesley Clark (Ret.)
U.S. Army
I think there was an inadequate strategy in the previous administration. I think it was put on the backburner. It was neglected. The resources were pulled out shortly after we went in there in 2001 to prepare for the war in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: General Clark, when you look at this story, is it more about Afghanistan or General McKiernan?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (Ret.): I think it's about Afghanistan. I mean, this is the point of main effort of the Obama administration. It's the war that has to be fought, and it's not just a military battle.

All the generals, and I think everyone in the administration, certainly, understands that this has to be coupled with -- the military has to coupled with diplomatic, economic and political measures inside Afghanistan. Relations with Pakistan and throughout southwest Asia are critical.

And so there are a lot of issues coming together here of which the military's only one, but the military has to get it right and has to be able to interface and effectively operate in a larger arena.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this illustrate for you, General Clark, just how tough a nut Afghanistan has been for the Army, period? I mean, we've been there more than seven years now.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Well, I think there was an inadequate strategy in the previous administration. I think it was put on the backburner. It was neglected. The resources were pulled out shortly after we went in there in 2001 to prepare for the war in Iraq.

And it was only belatedly that the person -- really, Secretary Gates recognized that this was becoming a major problem. I think it's to General McKiernan's great credit. He did advocate enough troops to keep from being forced off the battlefield.

Now it's going to be up to General McChrystal and General Rodriguez to be able to put those troops together into an effective counterinsurgency strategy that's a little bit different from what we did in Iraq.

Debate over army's resources

Lt. Gen. Dan Christman (Ret.)
U.S. Army
When I fought in Vietnam, as General Clark did, we looked to USAID, to the State Department, to other organizations to handle civil-military operations. Our focus, our training was almost exclusively on warfighting.

RAY SUAREZ: General Christman, you heard your colleague use an entirely different vocabulary to answer the question. What do you think of his point that this is more about Afghanistan than about who David McKiernan was or what he was capable of?

LT. GEN. DANIEL CHRISTMAN: Well, it's about Afghanistan for sure. The point I was trying to make is, it's also part of where the Army's going. There is this doctrinal debate that still pervades a lot of the Army itself in terms of, how we will concentrate our equipment, our doctrine, and our training in the out-years?

By and large, that answer has been provided. I think Gates has given us the summary here.

But General Clark, I think, hits the nail right on the head in terms of the real challenges that we're facing in Afghanistan, and that is a strategy now that arguably is much more holistic than we saw before. It's just not Afghanistan. It's Af-Pak. It's Pakistan, as well.

Further, we want the whole expeditionary team on the field, meaning the executive branch has to deploy Agriculture, attorney general, State, not just the intelligence services in the military.

Those two ingredients are hugely important to understand the outcome here in Afghanistan and Pakistan both.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me stop you right there. How different is that from the war you learned how to fight when you were a young officer in the United States Army?

LT. GEN. DANIEL CHRISTMAN: Sure. The issue of nation support, stability operations was always somebody else's responsibility. When I fought in Vietnam, as General Clark did, we looked to USAID, to the State Department, to other organizations to handle civil-military operations.

Our focus, our training was almost exclusively on warfighting. The young captains and majors now who are experiencing both the crucible of combat and the lessons learned from that are putting all of this together in their training centers, at the service schools, so that they understand side by side they will not succeed, as General Clark says, unless we understand that the civil-military team has got to be united in a single unity of effort.

Changes in military strategy

Gen. Wesley Clark (Ret.)
U.S. Army
At the time, our colleagues said, 'What do you mean, full-spectrum dominance?' We said, you not only have to win a high-intensity war, you have to be better at a low-intensity war, a counterinsurgency.

RAY SUAREZ: General Clark, how has your Army been changing since you first learned what to do on a battlefield?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Well, we were in Vietnam fighting a counterinsurgency when I came into the Army, as when Dan Christman did. But we had delegated, as he said, many of the responsibilities to an organization called CORDS, Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, headed by a three-star equivalent civilian named Robert Komer.

And there were some military people who were in it, but, by and large, for those of us in American units, we weren't too concerned with it.

And then we focused on the Soviet threat to Western Europe through NATO. And we were prepared for operations in Korea, again, a conventional war in which a million North Koreans would storm across the border.

We have a whole set of skills we developed for that, everything from how to conduct tank operations against enemy tanks to how to call for artillery, how to build minefields to stop tanks, and so forth. We developed equipment for it.

Now, without losing the heritage of those skills, artillerymen still have to shoot artillery, tankers still have to be able to drive a tank and load the gun and so forth, how do you then take this organization and adapt it to the reality of the battlefield we're facing in Afghanistan?

And that's the challenge the Army's facing. Build on the strong foundation, the training models, the leadership development, the personnel development, the schooling system that we put in after Vietnam, but you've got to adapt it.

It's something that, when General Christman and I were three-stars together on the Joint Staff, we created Joint Vision 2010 under General Shalikashvili's leadership.

And Dan Christman himself came up with the phrase "full-spectrum dominance." And at the time, our colleagues said, "What do you mean, full-spectrum dominance?" We said, you not only have to win a high-intensity war, you have to be better at a low-intensity war, a counterinsurgency.

And, really, our whole Defense Department has spent the last 15 years, 12 years trying to struggle with this, how to do it without losing the skills to still prevail in other conflicts in other parts of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Can you maintain that heritage that General Clark talked about and still fight a war that's totally unlike that at the same time?

LT. GEN. DANIEL CHRISTMAN: I think you can, but it's not easy. General Clark's illustration of artillery is a perfect example of this.

Both General Clark and I have been to the combat theater in Iraq several times. It's very, very common to see artillerymen, officers and NCOs and soldiers, who were trained to fight 155-millimeter artillery tubes doing -- patrolling in villages, stability operations in the traditional sense that light infantry would do.

This Army is tremendously adaptable, but it also requires us, as I was mentioning at the beginning, to not lose the important element of our combat dominance in those areas like artillery and armor, if there is a contingency that emerges that requires the utilization of those. That's a very demanding requirement for any commander to balance those twin tasks.

Preparing junior officers

Lt. Gen. Dan Christman (Ret.)
U.S. Army
The armed forces are very serious institutions. They can't be jerked around. It takes years and years to train and build, organize and equip these forces. And so you have to move carefully.

RAY SUAREZ: General Clark, Secretary Gates made headlines earlier this year when he got rid of some weapon systems, changed the emphasis of others, started to redirect spending. Is this the human equivalent of changing the acquisition of weapon systems, changing who's running the show on the ground?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Well, it's a really tough process that Secretary Gates has undertaken, because there's support for all those weapons systems and there are legitimate military requirements for them.

It's a question of priorities. And on the one hand, the most important war we'll ever fight is the war we're in right now. But on the other hand, the armed forces are -- they're very serious institutions. They can't be jerked around. It takes years and years to train and build, organize and equip these forces.

And so you have to move carefully. And I think Secretary Gates has done that in the procurement sense, and now we're going to have to see these resources applied effectively to help us succeed in Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a sufficient supply, General Christman, of officers, not just at the very top, McChrystal and Rodriguez, but just below them, who are ready to fight this new kind of war, which the secretary is saying and you gentlemen have both been saying we need to be ready to fight right now?

LT. GEN. DANIEL CHRISTMAN: The Army faces two change, Ray, with respect to junior officers. One is to keep in the service those whom we have, those wonderfully qualified ROTC and service academy and OCS graduates that are there now, keep them.

Their retention rate is not promising. The return to the combat theater by multiple times, three or four repeat tours to combat assignments, inevitably leads to resignations.

And so, on the one hand, we are desperately trying -- we, the Army -- to attract and retain those officers whom we've already graduated and commissioned.

But, secondly, we're also growing. The Army is going up another 35,000 or 40,000 to about 570,000. You need more officers to do that. You need ROTC to be more robustly funded and manned. The service academy, West Point in particular, is growing slightly to man this force.

So of those two, Ray, I think the most important is the retention of those whom we have already commissioned. That worries me greatly.

One of the reasons why Secretary Gates decided to increase the size of the Army is to improve the dwell time. When these officers return from overseas, they need at least a year, ideally longer, with their families to rest, recover and retrain. And the longer they have in that environment, I think, the more conducive it's going to be for them to say, "I'll stay in."

RAY SUAREZ: General Christman, General Clark, gentlemen, thank you both.

LT. GEN. DANIEL CHRISTMAN: Thank you.