[Update: On June 22, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan was summoned to the White House to explain remarks he made in a Rolling Stone profile in which disparaged and questioned the competence of senior Obama administration officials.]
Retired Thai General Khattiya Sawatdipho was dramatically shot in the head on May 17 while giving an interview to a reporter on the street in Bangkok. Khattiya was once one of the most prominent commanders in the Thai military, and claims to have worked closely with the CIA in the 1980s to root out communist rebels in the country's south. But after his friend, former Prime Minsiter Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed, he defected to join the country's anti-government "red-shirt" protesters. This case of a government losing control over a prominent military commander is hardly an isolated incident.
Governments may derive their power from the "legitimate use of physical force," as sociologist Max Weber argued, but there's a natural tension between the leaders who directly command that force -- the generals -- and the political leaders to whom they report in civilian governments. Even the United States is not immune from civil military tensions -- consider Alexander Hamilton's feud with John Adams over the fate of the Continental Army, or the highly public feud between President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, for instance -- but the problem is far more serious in countries where political institutions are weaker. Here are five cases in which military commanders have, for better or worse, threatened the stability of the very governments they pledged to serve.
Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Current status: Under house arrest in Rwanda, on trial
Rebellion: Few military commanders can say they've fought in as many wars, armies, sides, and countries as the warlord Laurent Nkunda. An ethnic Tutsi from Eastern Congo, Nkunda studied psychology at university before heading off to Rwanda to fight with the Tutsi rebels who eventually overthrew the country's Hutu-dominated government during the 1993 genocide.
Afterwards, Nkunda returned home and fought with Rwandan-backed Tutsi rebel armies in the first and second Congo civil wars. After his group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy, joined the government in 2003, Nkunda joined the national army as a colonel and was soon promoted to general. But Nkunda chafed under Kinshasha's leadership and formed his own militia to hunt down Hutu rebels in Eastern Congo.
Nkunda's forces now stand accused of killing thousands, displacing hundreds of thousands, conscripting child soldiers, and using rape as a weapon of war during what has become known as the Kivu Conflict in Eastern Congo. Despite this, the current Tutsi government in Rwanda is believed to have supported Nkunda as protection against the return of the Hutu militias who perpetrated the genocide. In late 2008, however, Kigali shifted positions, agreeing to hunt down the Hutus in cooperation with the Congolese government. This made Nkunda, who categorically rejected cooperation with Kinshasha -- a liability, and he was arrested in a joint Rwandan-Congolese operation in January 2009.