Gen. David Petraeus: ‘The troops can’t quit’

January 23, 2012

“It’s ‘open the envelope time,’ ” Gen. David Petraeus told his security team as his SUV approached the White House on June 21, 2011, for his final meeting with President Obama on the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan. Petraeus had returned to Washington from his command in Kabul for consultations with Obama on the drawdown, and for a Senate committee hearing on his nomination to become the next director of the CIA. On the way from the Pentagon, retired Army general Jack Keane, a mentor and former vice chief of staff of the Army, e-mailed Petraeus with rumors of what he was hearing: The White House was going to recommend 10,000 troops depart by the end of 2011, with the remaining 23,000 surge forces out by the summer of 2012, a far more drastic timetable for withdrawal than Petraeus had recommended.

Keane was protective of his prodigy. Obama’s decision “not only protracts the war but risks the mission,” Keane said in the e-mail, then asked: “should you consider resigning?”

“I don’t think quitting would serve our country,” Petraeus responded. “More likely to create a crisis. And, I told POTUS I’d support his ultimate decision. Besides, the troops can’t quit. . . .

During a review of Afghan policy in the fall of 2009, Obama’s senior advisers had come to see Petraeus as an inflexible commander who only wanted as many troops as possible. They had suspicions that he was a Bush general, given his close personal relationship with the former president. Petraeus had worked hard since then to win Obama’s trust. He did not want to make the president feel he was trying to limit his drawdown options. Quitting was out of the question. But being candid about the drawdown, he thought, was a matter of duty.

Petraeus refused to discuss his interactions with the president for this account, but officials briefed on the White House meeting confirmed that Obama, Petraeus, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior national security officials engaged in a lengthy debate, tense but respectful, over the pace of the drawdown.

Obama expressed his gratitude that there had been no leaks and said the frank exchanges during the group’s two prior meetings had been a great help to him. The president believed that Petraeus and the international coalition he commanded had made gains that justified his commitment of extra forces, but that now it was important to signal to the American, Afghan and international communities that the coming year would be one of transition.

There was general agreement with Obama’s desire to draw down 10,000 troops by the end of 2011, though that was a larger figure than Petraeus and the military had recommended. But there was sharp disagreement over when the remaining 23,000 surge troops should leave Afghanistan. Petraeus had recommended that they stay in Afghanistan through November 2012, which marked the end of the annual fighting season.

Obama began the discussion by explaining that he wanted the 23,000 forces out of Afghanistan by July 2012, five months sooner than Petraeus had recommended. Mullen thought a drawdown by July would sacrifice virtually the entire fighting season. Both Gates and Clinton also expressed reservations. When Obama looked to Gates in an attempt to achieve consensus, the defense secretary demurred that there was a big difference between July and an “end of summer” drawdown.

After further discussion, Obama voiced a willingness to consider splitting the difference and leaving the troops in Afghanistan through the end of the summer, but he was against waiting until the end of 2012. Gates, Clinton and Mullen all then said they could support an “end of summer” timetable.

When Obama turned to Petraeus, the general was respectful, but he was not budging. He expressed concern that removing the troops before the end of the fighting season would increase risk considerably and could invalidate the campaign plan. Biden expressed the counterpoint, favoring the original July deadline—or one even sooner. Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, suggested being flexible about the exact drawdown timetable for the 23,000 by saying they would leave in “mid- to late summer” of 2012.

As momentum seemed to shift toward a late-summer drawdown, Petraeus again made it clear that he remained in favor of keeping the troops in Afghanistan until the end of the year in order to achieve the president’s objectives. The mission in Afghanistan, he said, was not transition to Afghan forces; it was achieving conditions that allowed for successful transition. Obama asked whether those three extra months would make that much difference; Petraeus said he thought they would.

Petraeus again assured the president that he would faithfully support and execute his decision, but he noted that he would have to say, if asked at his confirmation hearing in two days, that the timeline was more aggressive than he had recommended. The president understood the obligation of military witnesses at congressional hearings to provide their personal views on issues when asked. Nonetheless, it was a tense moment. Finally, the president made his decision: 10,000 forces would leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, and the remaining 23,000 surge troops would be out by the end of summer 2012.

More stringent reactions

When Petraeus left the White House, he felt he had been heard. His recommendation had not been adopted, but he believed in and supported the process, and he recognized that only the president could truly weigh all the factors — many of which went beyond the military’s purview. He accepted the president’s decision — and was ready to execute.

“Biden wins, Petraeus loses” was the headline the following morning as news of the president’s decision began to leak. “That’s not the issue,” Petraeus told one of his confidants. “This is not about one person’s rep; it’s about achieving our national objectives.”

Keane, the retired general, denounced the decision and told Petraeus in another e-mail that it appeared to undermine his counterinsurgency campaign just as it was finally gaining momentum. “My god, Dave, they just pushed your recommendations aside and changed the war fundamentally. What a mess,” Keane wrote. Petraeus did not respond.

President Obama addressed the nation at 8 p.m. from the White House. Petraeus watched it with his wife, Holly, from their home at Fort Myer.

. . . Starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point,” Obama said. “After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security. . . .

Conservative writer Max Boot, whom Petraeus respected, was outraged by the speech. He told Petraeus that if he wanted to quit and run for president, he would work on his campaign. Petraeus told him quitting was not the answer. He certainly didn’t intend to run for president, either. As a student and practitioner of civil-military relations, Petraeus had thought at length about the subject of resignation in protest, turning it over in his mind many times. He was well steeped in the theory and practice and pitfalls of civil-military relations. Military decision making and the use of force as they related to civil-military relations had been foundations of his doctoral research.

Petraeus strongly believed that “military leaders should provide advice that is informed by important nonmilitary and military factors beyond their strict purview, but is driven by the situation on the ground and military considerations.” In other words, a military leader’s advice was premised first and foremost on his or her areas of expertise — military affairs, not political ones.

Petraeus fully subscribed to the oath of office, including obeying “the orders of the President of the United States and the officers appointed over me.” Obama’s decision to draw down forces faster than he had recommended did not, in his mind, begin to approach the threshold for such an extraordinary action as resignation. He thought it would have been a selfish, grandstanding move with huge political ramifications. He had had ample opportunity to provide input and give his best advice, and now it was time to salute and carry on.

Other supporters of the war were not as sanguine. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and his Republican colleague and fellow Afghan war booster, Senator John McCain of Arizona, strongly disagreed with Obama’s decision. “This is now his policy; he needs to own it,” Graham told McCain. “He did not take the advice of his military advisers, and it has put the mission in jeopardy. This assumes too much risk. His decision was political, and we need to pin it on him.” Graham was livid. “You know, as a ranking GOP member, I have supported the war and the president’s position, but he is about to lose that support and the rest of those in the party who have backed this war,” he said.

Petraeus was determined to avoid getting sucked into the politics of either side. He knew some senators would question the drawdown decision during his confirmation hearing the following day. He needed to keep the troops in Afghanistan focused, to give them energy and reassurance that the president’s decision did not call for such doomsday political rankling. He thought the best point of influence as the battlefield commander was for him to be with them, to the extent that he could from D.C.

He had his communications team arrange for him to deliver a personal message via a secure video teleconference from his Fort Myer home that evening at 11 p.m. Whatever he may have felt about the decision that day, there was no trace of disappointment on his face or in his message. His staff officers in Kabul watched him at their regular briefing on the morning after the president’s address.

“Needless to say, with the decision being announced, all of us will support the decision and strive to execute it effectively. That is our responsibility as military leaders,” Petraeus told his command staff. “ . . . In short, this is not a time to start thinking about going home. Rather, we need to stay focused on protecting the Afghan people from all threats and on helping our [Afghan military] partners develop the ability to defend their people. We need to continue to take the fight to the enemy. We need to remain on the offensive, to ensure that we do not allow the enemy any breathing space or respite.”

CIA hearing

By the time Senator Dianne Feinstein gaveled to order the hearing on his nomination as CIA director that afternoon in the Hart Senate Office Building, Petraeus had met privately or spoken with every member of the committee and to all former living CIA directors except one.

He began his prepared remarks by recognizing his wife, Holly, his partner for “37 years and 23 moves.” He then addressed, up front, some of the skepticism about his move to the CIA and what it meant. Responding to some who had wondered in print whether he would be able to “grade my own work,” he said he was “keenly aware” that as CIA director he would be an intelligence officer, not a policymaker.

By far the most dramatic moment, and a lesson for students of civil-military relations, came at the end of the hearing when Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, asked Petraeus whether he supported the president’s drawdown plan and what would have to happen before he would ever consider resigning his command. “I obviously support the ultimate decision of the commander in chief,” Petraeus said. “That is, we take an oath to obey the orders of the president of the United States and indeed do that.”

“And if you couldn’t do that — if you couldn’t do that consistent with that oath — you would resign?” asked Levin.

“Well, I’m not a quitter, chairman,” Petraeus said. “I’ve actually had people e-mail me and say that I should quit, and actually this is something I’ve thought a bit about.”

“I’m sure you have,” Levin said.

“And I don’t think it is the place for a commander to actually consider that step unless you are in a very, very dire situation,” said Petraeus. “ . . . I actually feel quite strongly about this. Our troopers don’t get to quit, and I don’t think commanders should contemplate that, again, as any kind of idle action. That would be an extraordinary action, in my view. And at the end of the day, this is not about me, it’s not about an individual commander, it’s not about a reputation. This is about our country. And the best step for our country, with the commander in chief having made a decision, is to execute that decision to the very best of our ability.”

Excerpted from “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus” by Paula Broadwell with Washington Post staff writer Vernon Loeb, to be published by Penguin Press on Monday.

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