Gen. Petraeus needs the support his predecessor lacked

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S decision to accept the resignation of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal on Wednesday was justified -- and his choice of Gen. David H. Petraeus to take over as commander in Afghanistan was inspired. By handing control over the war to the architect of the surge in Iraq and the top U.S. general in the Middle East, Mr. Obama renewed his commitment to the strategy he decided on in December, and he gave that policy a fresh chance to succeed.

Mr. Obama's explanation for his decision was sound. He said that it was "not based on any difference in policy" or "any sense of personal insult," but on his judgment that Gen. McChrystal had not upheld "the standard that should be set by a commanding general." That Gen. McChrystal showed poor judgment in making disparaging statements about administration officials to a Rolling Stone reporter, and allowing his staff to make still more, is indisputable.

We argued that Mr. Obama would nevertheless be wise to retain Gen. McChrystal because of his role in directing a critical counterinsurgency campaign in southern Afghanistan and his strong relations with leaders in the region, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai. More than any other U.S. commander, Gen. Petraeus has the capacity to quickly take over those duties. As Gen. McChrystal's immediate superior at Central Command, he oversaw the preparation of the Afghan plan and has had extensive contacts with Mr. Karzai and with Pakistani leaders. Time and again Gen. Petraeus has shown himself to be a supremely capable officer, able to overcome extraordinary obstacles both in the field and in the political sphere.

He will face a challenge arguably as daunting as that of Iraq in 2007. The military campaign has proved tougher and slower than Gen. McChrystal hoped. A timetable set by Mr. Obama will require the beginning of troop withdrawals in just 13 months and caused Gen. Petraeus to express qualms in testimony to Congress just last week. There is also the legacy of acrimony among U.S. military and civilian leaders, whose unchecked feuding is the deeper problem behind Gen. McChrystal's departure.

Mr. Obama appeared to acknowledge the last of those problems, saying that he had "told my national security team that now is the time for all of us to come together" and that "I won't tolerate division." But such words may not be enough. The president should consider replacing civilian officials, such as U.S. ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, who have failed to work effectively with military commanders or with the Afghan government. He also should clarify what his July 2011 deadline means. Is it the moment when "you are going to see a whole lot of people moving out," as Vice President Biden has said, or "the point at which a process begins . . . at a rate to be determined by conditions at the time," as Gen. Petraeus testified? We hope the appointment of Gen. Petraeus means the president's acceptance of the general's standard -- without which he cannot succeed.

After his triumph in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus could have retired and spent the rest of his life collecting accolades; he could have encouraged the speculation about a presidential candidacy. That he would choose to take on the formidable and risky job of rescuing the mission in Afghanistan at this critical moment is, as Mr. Obama rightly put it, "an extraordinary example of service and patriotism." He deserves and will need the unqualified support of the president and his national security team.


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