Petraeus faces new policy challenge

September 2, 2011


— When David Petraeus takes over as CIA director next week, he will confront a tricky problem: CIA analysts who will be working for him concluded in a recent assessment that the war in Afghanistan is heading toward a “stalemate” — a view with which Petraeus disagrees.

The analysts made their judgment in “District Assessment on Afghanistan,” completed in July, the same month Petraeus quit his post as U.S. commander there. He disagreed with the analysts’ pessimistic reading, as does Gen. John Allen, the new commander in Kabul; Gen. James Mattis, the Centcom commander; and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The CIA assessment is “pretty harsh,” said a military official who is familiar with its contents. He noted that the document used the word “stalemate” several times to describe the standoff between NATO-led forces and Taliban insurgents. Even in areas where the U.S. has surged troops over the past 18 months to clear insurgents, the CIA analysts weren’t optimistic that the Taliban’s momentum had been reversed, as President Obama and his military commanders have argued.

“Everyone looking at Afghanistan today recognizes that the challenges are real and that progress isn’t easy,” said a civilian official familiar with the assessment, adding that it was coordinated carefully with the military. This is the CIA’s seventh such district-by-district examination of the country.

The analysts’ skepticism about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which has been deepening over the past several years, presents challenges for both Petraeus and the White House.

The test for Petraeus will be whether he can give the analysts the independence they need to provide a sound evaluation of Afghanistan strategy, which he himself created. Petraeus has his own strong views about the war, and has made clear that he will continue to say what he thinks. But if the analysts are taking a different view from the boss, there’s bound to be tension.

How Petraeus manages this inevitable friction — reassuring the analysts while remaining faithful to his own views — will be closely watched within and outside the CIA. This isn’t a military chain of command: Intelligence analysts resent efforts by outsiders (and even superiors) to shape their reporting. If they think Petraeus is trying to steer assessments, they’re sure to protest.  

Petraeus maintained during his June 23 Senate confirmation hearing that he would give the analysts proper latitude in areas where he had been a commander, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “In the Situation Room with the president, I will strive to represent the agency position,” he said, adding that he would be “keenly aware that I am the leader of an intelligence agency, and not a policymaker.”

Gossip about a supposed rift between Petraeus and the analysts has been circulating in Kabul during the past week, as word spread of the skeptical CIA assessment. Some speculated it was a pre-emptive strike by the agency bureaucracy; others saw it as a harbinger of impending change in White House policy. From my reporting, neither seems to be true. The analysts have long been skeptical on Afghanistan, but Obama has continued to support the military.

The larger challenge is for Obama. In 2009, he signed on to the limited objective of stopping al-Qaida in Afghanistan and reversing the Taliban’s momentum — but using a broad counterinsurgency strategy to achieve that mission. If the CIA analysts’ view becomes widely shared, and there’s growing sentiment in Washington that the $100 billion-plus annual campaign is only buying an expensive stalemate, Obama will have to re-examine the plan and the troop levels. Ironically, if he chooses a more limited counterterrorism approach, Petraeus as CIA director would once again be at the center of the fight.

The White House for now seems comfortable with its gradual drawdown through 2014. The troubled relationship with President Hamid Karzai has improved slightly, thanks to a “reset” by the new U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker. There’s broad agreement, too, with the judgment of Obama’s sometime adviser, John Podesta, who argued after a July visit to Afghanistan for more emphasis on a political and economic transition strategy.

As with so many aspects of Afghanistan, there are echoes here of Vietnam — where CIA analysts were early and emphatic in their warnings that U.S. strategy wouldn’t succeed, but were countered by generals who insisted the U.S. could prevail with sufficient military power.

In a technical sense, Petraeus crossed the threshold between military and intelligence roles when he took off the uniform this week, but the real transition is ahead.

David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is


grammaddy 1 year, 10 months ago

Bring ALL of our troops home. Let them police their own poppy fields.


Crazy_Larry 2 years, 7 months ago

You are more likely to be struck by lightening than you are to be the victim of a terrorist attack.


Paul R Getto 2 years, 7 months ago

Get out of both wars as soon as possible. Iraq will be an interesting mess, but it's now their mess. As for the Afghanis, meet them at the border once a year, pay market value for the opium and destroy it. Keep funding organizations that build schools and educate the girls. They will tame the men in a generation or two once they realize they are people too. We could stay another generation or two (and probably intend to because the generals like to play with their toys) and the outcome would be about the same. Good people in Afghanistan, but we are not likely to turn them into Jeffersonian democrats (note the small d.)


Richard Heckler 2 years, 7 months ago

No other nation in the world has the ability to take over the USA by military power?

Why do americans support USA military occupation of other countries?

Would americans welcome military occupation of the USA by another foreign military super power?

Would americans support the mass killing of our families by another foreign super power? Millions of innocent people have died since the mideast invasion began including close to 7,000 of our own soldiers. WHY?

Ten's of thousands of our soldiers have become disabled since the mideast invasion began which is no fun for them or their families. The estimated cost to support these unfortunate families for the next 40 -50 years is $4-$5 trillion dollars.

Isn't it time to bring the troops home to their families and devote war dollars toward rebuilding our nations economy,create new industry and put 20 million people back to work making money instead of making war?

Do we want to bury the USA in arrogance and debt to other governments?

CIA Veteran: How Robert Gates Cooked the Intelligence


Richard Heckler 2 years, 7 months ago

Bring ALL the troops home = leave none behind!

Cut all of the private mercenary killers from the tax dollar payroll!!! Isn't it odd how the USA government legitimized the mercenary at big $$$ per day = gone nuts.


Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 7 months ago

First, I have to qualify all of this by saying that I really don't understand the culture of the Middle East or of Islamic countries. What I know is what I read here, and what the citizens of the Middle East know is what they read there. And both are very biased.

The following are not my ideas, I was only told the argument, and I can't think of any way to counter it. It sounds very realistic to me.

It goes like this:

A friend of mine thinks that the invasion of Afghanistan was a big mistake in trying to counter Al-Qaeda. And following that, the invasion of Iraq was also.

His argument was that instead of that military decision, which was hardly a solution, the USA should have attacked the very base of Al-Qaeda.

He claims that Al-Qaeda's agenda in furthering destruction in the United States is only due to a lot of popular anger at how the USA is, or was, supporting a few governments that Bin Laden wanted to be overthrown. I don't know what he wanted in place of them, that's a question for future historians to argue about.

And, he claims that the biggest one of all is the House of Saud, the last medieval kingdom in the world. No dissent is allowed, and the vast majority of the country's wealth is concentrated in the hands of the members of the Saud family. There are a lot of people in Saudi Arabia that don't like that situation, and they want it changed. They want the wealth more spread around, which makes sense to me.

So, the argument goes that Bin Laden wanted the House of Saud to be overthrown, and there we are, supporting them with clandestine military intelligence, military power, political power, and total recognition of the authority of the Saud family and that's why Bin Laden formed Al-Qaeda in the first place.

So, the claim goes on that Bin Laden formed Al-Qaeda for only that one reason, and that is to overthrow the House of Saud. And the best way to do that is to try to destroy those who support it, and that is the USA.

It goes on even further in the claim that the actual price of a gallon of gasoline in the USA is about $7 or $8, because for every gallon that comes from the Middle East, our very expensive military power is required in the area of the biggest conflicts in the world in order to get crude oil.

So, our agenda concerning that is cheap gasoline for the public of the USA. But it's not cheap at all, if you consider the total price, which includes our military forces over there.

I don't know if his assessment is correct or not.

But, it is a fact that we're pretty much stuck with supporting the House of Saud because we need their crude oil for now.

So, we're at a stalemate, and the only way out of it is to come up with energy sources of our own, stop buying crude oil from the Middle East, and withdraw all of our military forces.

Then, if Al-Qaeda still has a problem, it will be with China, and that won't be any of our business.


uncleandyt 2 years, 7 months ago

My assessment is that we invaded countries. Many, many,many,many,many,many people have been killed. Why do folks continue to die ? Will the survivors learn to love us ? All support for this insanity needs to stop.


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