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 resigned under pressure.
Only two, Gens. David Petraeus and Ray Odierno of the Iraq war, are widely praised as having mastered the complex mixture of skills that running America'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 places such 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 oversee military operations and major economic development efforts. They play roles in the internal politics of the countries where their troops fight.
When support for long wars flags back home, the White House often depends on its generals to sell the administration's approach to lawmakers and a skeptical 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 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 the past nine years of war, commanders have fallen victim to their 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."
With sectarian violence spinning out of control in Iraq in the spring of 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 significant knowledge about Afghanistan and Iraq. In 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.
Other experts maintain the military must cast a wider net in its search for creative commanders who can balance the military and political demands of their job. One day after McChrystal was dismissed from leading the war in Afghanistan, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described how hard it is to find the right general to lead U.S. troops in battle. "One of the most difficult things we do is pick people," Mullen said. "We spend an extraordinary amount of time on it."
He offered the same observation a year earlier in explaining the move to sack McChrystal's predecessor in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan.
Petraeus, who was picked to succeed McChrystal, spent time working for three top generals. Two of his tours were in the Pentagon, where he worked directly for the Army chief of staff and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the late 1990s. The experience is now seen as having given him the political savvy he has needed to be successful in the latter part of his career.