For the second time in four years, a president has asked Gen. David Petraeus to ride to the rescue.
Having sacked Gen. Stanley McChrystal for disrespectful behavior, President Obama turned to Petraeus to save the effort in Afghanistan, just as George W. Bush got the general to bail him out in 2007 in Iraq. Already, the Web is abuzz over whether Petraeus can do for Obama what he did for his predecessor.
The answer depends on whether Obama recognizes that Petraeus is potentially a natural ally — not a rival trying to outsmart him. Only then is the president likely to give the general the support he needs to succeed.
Petraeus’ close relationship with Bush, and his superstar status, did not endear him to the Obama team. Some believed Petraeus wanted to run as a Republican for the presidency in 2012, no matter how many times the general denied such ambitions.
Jonathan Alter writes in The Promise: President Obama, Year One that Obama worried about being boxed in by Petraeus on Afghanistan, and tried to turn the tables by stipulating a July 2011 deadline for troop withdrawal.
However, last week, Obama had to turn to Petraeus as the only general who could ensure continuity after McChrystal’s departure, and who might be able to rescue the Afghanistan effort. This has renewed speculation that the general might maneuver Obama into an endless troop commitment.
I think, however, that the president and Petraeus have the basis for a solid alliance. If Obama grasps this, the two may achieve an outcome in Afghanistan that’s better than most Web pundits foresee.
As Thomas Ricks pointed out in the Washington Post, Petraeus is much more like Obama than he is like Bush. The African American commander in chief and the Dutch American general are both sons of immigrant fathers. Both are highly intelligent and coolly cerebral.
I’d add: Both men’s reputations will be defined by how the Afghan conflict ends.
Petraeus has accepted a technical demotion to take on this strategically critical assignment. (At present, as head of Central Command, he is in charge of U.S. troops in all of the Middle East and South Asia.) The reputation he earned in Baghdad, along with that of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy he developed, is now on the line.
As for Obama, the Afghan war has become his war. Sure, a messy pullback in 2011-12 might please his base. But it won’t help him at the polls if he leaves behind a country controlled by the Taliban, where jihadis are training to attack Western targets - and to take over nuclear-armed Pakistan next door.
So both men badly need a solution in Afghanistan that is not a patent failure. Moreover, both are pragmatists, skilled at divining what’s possible and jettisoning unrealistic goals.
As he demonstrated in Iraq, Petraeus is capable of modifying counterinsurgency strategy to fit the circumstances, and of taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. He well understands that the U.S. public won’t tolerate a war that drags on indefinitely. (He wrote his doctoral thesis on the Vietnam War.) He also knows that Afghans won’t tolerate an endless presence of foreign troops.
If President Obama recognizes that his interests parallel those of Petraeus, he can take essential steps to help the general. First, he needs to shape up his civilian team working on Afghanistan and ensure it can work with the military. (Petraeus believes strongly in such partnership, as he showed in Iraq.)
Obama says he won’t be making more changes to this team, but he may have to. The U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, was openly at odds with McChrystal over strategy. And the clumsy mechanism of having a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, has often been more disruptive than helpful. Perhaps Petraeus’ diplomatic skills can help unify this group; if not, a further shake-up is needed — soon.
Second, Obama should stop talking up his July 2011 deadline and have his security team do likewise. Vice President Biden said that in July 2011 “you’ll see a whole lot of people moving out” of Afghanistan, but Petraeus has downplayed this date. The president has been vague on his interpretation. The uncertain meaning of 7/11 is undercutting the war.
That’s because the heart of Petraeus’ COIN doctrine revolves around changing the perceptions of insurgents and tribal leaders. If Afghans think Americans are headed for the exits, they won’t stand up to the Taliban. If the Taliban think they are winning, they won’t come in from the cold.
Conversely, a stronger U.S. commitment to the fight may persuade tribal leaders to push back against the Taliban, and make a U.S. drawdown more feasible. That’s Petraeus’ goal.
Democrats criticized Bush for throwing his full weight behind Petraeus, yet that support enabled the general to save Bush from an Iraq debacle. Without similar backing, Petraeus can’t salvage a decent outcome in Afghanistan. Much hangs on whether Obama and Petraeus can bond.