Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Switch to Petraeus Betrays Afghan Policy Crisis

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Switch to Petraeus Betrays Afghan Policy Crisis

Article excerpt

DESPITE President Barack Obama's denial that his decision to fire Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan and replace him with Gen. David Petraeus signified any differences with McChrystal over war strategy, the decision obviously reflects a desire by Obama to find a way out of a deepening policy crisis in Afghanistan.

Although the ostensible reason was indiscreet comments by McChrystal and his aides reported in Rolling Stone, the switch from McChrystal to Petraeus was clearly the result of White House unhappiness with McChrystal's handling of the war.

It had become evident in recent weeks that McChrystal's strategy is not working as he had promised, and Congress and the U.S. political elite had already become very uneasy about whether the war was on the wrong track.

In calling on Petraeus, the Obama administration appears to be taking a page from the George W. Bush administration's late 2006 decision to rescue a war in Iraq which was generally perceived in Washington as having become an embarrassing failure. But both Obama and Petraeus are acutely aware of the differences between the situation in Iraq at that moment and the situation in Afghanistan today.

In taking command in Iraq in 2007, Petraeus was being called upon to implement a dramatically new counterinsurgency strategy based on a major "surge" in U.S. troops.

Obama will certainly be put under pressure by the Republican Party, led by Sen. John McCain, to agree to eliminate the mid-2011 deadline for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal and perhaps even for yet another troop surge in Afghanistan.

But accounts of Obama administration policymaking on the war last year make it clear that Obama caved in to military pressure in 2009 for the troop surge of 2010 only as part of a compromise under which McChrystal and Petraeus agreed to a surge of 18 months' duration. It was clearly understood by both civilian and military officials, moreover, that after the surge was completed, the administration would enter into negotiations on a settlement of the war.

Petraeus' political skills and ability to sell a strategy involving a negotiated settlement offers Obama more flexibility than he has had with McChrystal in command.

Contrary to the generally accepted view that Petraeus mounted a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, his main accomplishment was to make the first formal accommodation with Sunni insurgents.

Petraeus demonstrated in his command in Iraq a willingness to adjust strategic objectives in light of realities he could not control. He had made it clear to his staff at the outset that they would make one last effort to show progress, but that he would tell Congress that it was time to withdraw if he found that it was not working.

As commander in Iraq, Petraeus chose staff officers who were skeptics and realists rather than true believers, according to accounts from members of his staff in Iraq. When one aide proposed in a memorandum in the first weeks of his command coming to terms with the Shi'i insurgents led by Moqtada al Sadr, for example, Petraeus did not dismiss the idea.

That willingness to listen to viewpoints that may not support the existing strategy stands in sharp contrast to McChrystal's command style in Afghanistan. …

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