Fixing What is Wrong With Our Generals

The only miracle of the whole Afghan fiasco is that General Kenneth McKenzie still has a job.

When he committed all his remaining aircraft carriers to the Battle of Midway during World War II, Admiral Chester Nimitz did so with the expectation to be relieved of command if the battle had been lost.

Likewise, General Dwight Eisenhower took full responsibility for the Normandy invasion on D-Day. He went so far as to pen what amounted to a letter of resignation if the landings failed.

Apparently, that sense of personal responsibility no longer holds true for officers of four-star rank. Four months after the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal, there have been no firings and no resignations over the greatest American military humiliation since Pearl Harbor.

Ultimate Responsibility

Defeat may be an orphan, but this one had a lot of absentee daddies, including the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, the officer ultimately responsible for planning and executing the Afghan withdrawal was the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Central Command.

General Kenneth McKenzie allowed the disestablishment of the four-star command in Afghanistan in July; therefore, he became directly responsible for what happened in August. He misread the intelligence, allowed for a clearly indefensible evacuation site, and then oversaw a drone strike that needlessly killed civilians including children.

The only miracle of the whole Afghan fiasco is that McKenzie still has a job.

CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth F. McKenzie
US Marine Corps General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Commander US Central Command. Image: @ActingSecDef/Twitter

Ken McKenzie was originally a product of the Naval Service which still maintains a tradition of accountability. When a ship runs aground, even if the captain is asleep in his cabin at the time, they are routinely relieved.

A commander is held responsible for everything the command does or fails to do. Somewhere along the line, General McKenzie drifted into the joint world where those rules no longer apply.

The selection of the Kabul airport as the key evacuation center over the Bagram air base is a case in point. Bagram was defensible; Kabul Airport put the Americans in the position the French were in at Dien Bien Phu.

McKenzie’s defenders claim that Kabul was chosen by the Department of State. This is doubly damning for the general. If he agreed with the decision, he is military incompetent. If he disagreed and stayed quiet for political purposes, he is morally deficient.

The question is, where do we get such men?

The answer lays in the congressionally mandated military reform initiatives of the 1980s, particularly the Goldwater-Nichols (G-N) legislation that established joint system that we have today creating people such as Mark Milley and McKenzie not to mention Lloyd Austin, our current Secretary of Defense.

It is a system that rewards ticket punching, creates bloated joint staffs where accountability is lost, and produces general officers who are jacks of all trades and masters of none. Afghanistan is the result.

A social worker would say that McKenzie is not guilty; he is merely a product of his environment. Congress created that environment and should take responsibility for fixing it.

Institutionalized Military Incompetence

How do we prevent any more leaders such as Austin, Milley, or McKenzie? Congress let all three off the hook with a toothless round of questioning in September. All will likely go out with bands playing and end-of-tour medals all around.

Unfortunately, that is probably water under the bridge. The institutionalized military incompetence that created the humiliation of Afghanistan will continue unless Congress reexamines what its predecessors created four decades ago.

Taliban fighters
Taliban fighters stand on an armored vehicle before parading along a road to celebrate after the US pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan. Photo: Javed Tanveer/AFP

Something is badly wrong with the military education and promotion system for senior officers, and the public is increasingly aware of it. A recent opinion poll conducted by the Regan Institute shows that confidence in the capability of the military is decreasing.

I suspect that faith in the young men and women in uniform remains strong, and that lack of confidence in the senior leadership is the cause of the decline. In this, the American public is way ahead of Congress.

We need a congressionally mandated study of what is wrong in the joint military promotion and education system that allowed us to spend billions to create an Afghan military that would crumble immediately when we tried to cut it loose on its own after two decades of trying.

Many of us on the ground tried to tell a series of ticket punching joint commanders that they were pursuing a flawed strategy, but we were ignored. Having figured out what is wrong, Congress should enact bipartisan legislation to fix it.

Our senior military leaders have a vested interest in protecting their perks; they are incapable of reforming themselves. Congress needs to act before we get into a real war that the pampered princes of the Pentagon are incapable of winning.

Headshot Gary AndersonGary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who was a Special Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and spent a total of 30 months as civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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