Petraeus could provide calming influence after leadership change

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010; A01

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.

His comments drew a direct inquiry from White House officials, who sought and received reassurance that they were all in accord.

Although the White House has firmly stuck by the withdrawal date, senior administration officials have acknowledged that reductions of coalition forces will probably be limited to those areas of the country where insurgents are already scarce.

During the three-month review leading up to Obama's Afghan strategy announcement in December, Petraeus sparred with Vice President Biden, who advocated a lighter military footprint. Petraeus appeared to find Biden too cavalier about what it had taken to succeed in Iraq, according to officials inside the meetings.

Biden implied that U.S. forces had "bought off the Sunnis, and got lucky" in reconciling sectarian differences, one official said. Petraeus countered that a complex "intellectual construct" underlay every action he took in Iraq and that success "didn't drop in our lap."

When some in the sessions began to chafe at Petraeus's frequent Iraq analogies, Obama turned to the general to ask "how you did it" in Iraq and what lessons could be applied in Afghanistan. By the next White House meeting, Petraeus had prepared a paper for the president outlining lessons for targeting and reconciling with insurgent leaders, along with adjustments to be made for Afghanistan's particular circumstances.

There was speculation during Obama's presidential campaign that he would seek to sideline the popular Petraeus, who makes little effort to dissuade those who hail him as the architect of success in Iraq and who did not demur when then-President George W. Bush said that his war policy was based on the advice of his generals. In an interview in early 2008, Obama said that as president he would "make my own assessment" of war strategy.

Petraeus is a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has assiduously developed personal relationships with senior lawmakers and opinion shapers that have served him well. He has been relied upon by the Obama administration to defend its Afghan policy on Capitol Hill, a job he also performed for a different war: He almost single-handedly rebuffed congressional pressure on Bush to scale back the mission in Iraq.

"Getting Petraeus doesn't just keep us on the path we were on; it will help solve some festering problems," said a senior military official involved in the war.

McChrystal had a frosty relationship with the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired three-star general who had previously served as military commander there. Petraeus, though, has sought to forge close bonds with U.S. diplomats. Although many thought him far more powerful than his diplomatic partner in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, Petraeus considered their close working relationship a model of civilian-military cooperation and a key aspect of counterinsurgency.

"Petraeus is more of a diplomat, as opposed to a war fighter," said a senior civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. "He tends to be a little less abrasive."

Petraeus has given no indication that he would seek to fundamentally transform the war effort. As Centcom commander, he signed off on McChrystal's campaign plan and has remained a staunch defender of the counterinsurgency strategy being implemented by the military. It is, after all, drawn heavily on the 2006 Army counterinsurgency manual he wrote and implemented in Iraq.

"The strategy McChrystal put together is a counterinsurgency strategy, and Petraeus is the godfather of counterinsurgency," the adviser said. "It's putting Yoda in charge of running the war."

But as Bush did during the darkest moment of the Iraq war, the White House is once again turning to Petraeus.

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