WASHINGTON — Since 2001, a dozen commanders have cycled through the top jobs in Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. Central Command, which oversees both wars. Three of those commanders — including the recently dismissed Gen. Stanley McChrystal — have been fired or have resigned under pressure.
History has judged many others harshly, and only two, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, are widely praised as having mastered the complex mixture of skills that running America's wars demands.
For the military, this raises a vexing question: What is wrong with the system that produces top generals?
Much of what top commanders do in 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. They play dominant roles in the internal politics of the countries where their troops fight.
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When support for long wars inevitably flags back home, the White House often depends on its generals to sell the administration's approach to lawmakers and a skeptical American public. To the military's extreme discomfort, its generals often act like shadow cabinet secretaries.
"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 media. Adm. William Fallon, once commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, resigned after he made offhand remarks trashing the Bush administration's Iran policy.
Other commanders, including Gen. Tommy Franks and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, spent most of their careers studying conventional battles and couldn't grasp the protracted wars or the shadowy enemies that they were fighting. "A year from now, Iraq will be a different country," Franks wrote in his 2004 autobiography. "Our steady progress in Afghanistan is one factor that gives me confidence that Iraq will be able to provide for its own security in the years ahead."
A few top commanders started out well enough but found themselves exhausted and out of new ideas by the end of their tours. With sectarian violence spinning out of control in spring 2006, Gen. George 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 in the months that followed. After more than 30 months in command, he was forced out to make way for Petraeus and a new approach.
Explanations for the shortage of good generals abound. 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 knowledge about Afghanistan and Iraq. "In all previous wars, promotions were accelerated for officers who were effective," a senior Army official said.
Instead of speeding promotions, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld slowed them down so officers wouldn't cycle through complex jobs so quickly. As a result, there are many three-star generals with limited counterinsurgency experience and a large pool of colonels and one-stars who have done multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. The lower-ranking officers are years away from even being considered for senior slots in the wars.
Other experts say the military must cast a wider net in its search for creative commanders who can balance the military and political demands of their job.