Petraeus could provide calming influence after leadership change

With Gen. Stanley McChrystal's resignation, Gen. David Petraeus would move from overseeing all U.S. forces in the Middle East to running operations in Afghanistan.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010

By selecting Gen. David H. Petraeus to take charge of the war in Afghanistan, President Obama has minimized the turmoil of a leadership change and built at least a temporary buffer against growing concern that his strategy is not demonstrating enough progress against the Taliban.

But in turning to the nation's most prominent general, Obama has embraced a commander who may become a formidable advocate for slowing, or arresting outright, the pace of troop reductions next summer.

In the short term, choosing Petraeus to replace Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal avoids many of the problems associated with removing the commander of a war effort involving 120,000 U.S. and NATO troops, billions of dollars in reconstruction projects and sensitive diplomatic negotiations.

As the head of the U.S. Central Command, Petraeus is more steeped in the Afghan war than any other four-star general in the military. He has played an active role in shaping the overall strategy as well as McChrystal's tactical plans, and he knows Afghan President Hamid Karzai and many other senior Afghan government officials. During a recent trip, he met with the Afghan leader's half brother, the chief power broker in the violence-plagued province of Kandahar.

"The decision to name Petraeus is the least disruptive way of removing McChrystal," said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the leader of an Afghanistan-strategy review team for Obama in early 2009. "Petraeus knows the strategy inside and out, he knows the plans -- he is as much of an architect of this as General McChrystal."

If confirmed by the Senate, Petraeus will bring new strengths to the war effort. He has developed deep relationships with leaders in neighboring Pakistan and beyond, including in Central Asian capitals that have become important transit hubs for supplies and in the Persian Gulf states that could play a key role in reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

But Petraeus will face challenges that appear even more difficult than what he encountered when he assumed command of the foundering Iraq war in early 2007.

An operation to pacify the insurgent sanctuary of Helmand province, which was supposed to demonstrate new momentum in the fight, is taking longer, and proving bloodier, than expected. An upcoming mission to improve security in Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, has been delayed and scaled back because of opposition from Afghan leaders, including Karzai. Efforts to get the Afghan government to tackle corruption have also faltered.

Called to testify before uneasy lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week, Petraeus appeared far less committed to an early, substantial drawdown of U.S. forces next year than Obama, who said in announcing his strategy in December that "after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."

(Watch video of the Senate hearing where Petraeus briefly fainted)

Counterinsurgency, he said, is a "roller-coaster experience" that does not lend itself to a strict timeline. Although he said he supported Obama's strategy, Petraeus sought to play down the deadline. He said that Obama told members of his national security team that July 2011 was the date "when a process begins . . . not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits."

Petraeus, who initially resisted the size and speed of a drawdown in Iraq, also minimized the importance of an end-of-year review of the Afghan war that Obama has described as crucial to assessing its progress and whether adjustments need to be made in the strategy. Petraeus said the military "would not make too much" of it.

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