By Thomas E. Ricks
Sunday, June 27, 2010; B04
This week's confrontation between a senior Army general and the president of the United States may have signaled the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan. In a year or two, President Obama will be able to say that he gave the conflict his best shot, reshaping the strategy and even putting his top guy in charge, the general who led the surge in Iraq -- but that things still didn't work out.
Then he can begin pulling out.
This is not a vote of no-confidence in Gen. David H. Petraeus, whom the president has selected to lead the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, replacing the disgraced Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. It is a simple recognition that the conditions Petraeus enjoyed in Iraq are far from present in Afghanistan, and that the key skills he brought to bear in the first war won't help him as much in the second.
What allowed Petraeus to succeed in Iraq was not the troop surge itself; after all, a city as big and sprawling as Baghdad, with 5 million people living in two- and three-story homes, can swallow 30,000 troops without a burp. Nor was it his development of a counterinsurgency doctrine for the Army. The key tenets -- such as focusing on protecting the population, while still going after the diehard insurgents, and splitting rather than uniting the enemy -- were familiar stuff to anyone who had read the relevant books. It seemed novel only in the context of Iraq, where for many years the American commanders had terrified families by knocking down doors in the middle of the night, treating locals not as the prize to be won but as the playing field on which they confronted the insurgents.
Rather, Petraeus's critical contribution in Iraq was one of leadership: He got everyone on the same page. Until he arrived, there often seemed to be dozens of wars going on, with every brigade commander trying to figure out the strategic goals of a campaign. Before Petraeus arrived, the top priority for U.S. forces was getting out. After he took over, the No. 1 task for U.S. troops, explicitly listed in the mission statement he issued, was to protect the Iraqi people.
Of course, establishing cohesion in the U.S. effort in Iraq took a lot more than issuing statements. In spring 2007, I watched Petraeus work hard to establish a consensus about what the goals should be and how to achieve them. "There are three enormous tasks that strategic leaders have to get right," he told me one day in Baghdad. "The first is to get the big ideas right. The second is to communicate the big ideas throughout the organization. The third is proper execution of the big ideas." An astute bureaucratic operator, he used a variety of studies and panels convened in his Baghdad headquarters to pull together the big ideas of how to deal with the insurgency and how to better protect the Iraqi people. These had the useful side effect of getting buy-in from civilian American officials in Iraq.
Just as important, he worked tirelessly with his military subordinates, going out and talking not just to the division commanders below him, but to their brigade commanders and even to the battalion commanders an echelon below them. He issued letters to the troops explaining the new approach of living among the people and protecting them with small, vulnerable outposts. He walked the streets and talked to Iraqis. He also hired a leading counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen, an Australian infantry officer turned anthropologist, to coach American commanders, making sure that they not only talked counterinsurgency but that they also learned how to practice it. In a series of interviews I conducted with Petraeus in 2007 and 2008, one of his favorite words was "relentless." It is the best one-word summary of his approach.
Finally, Petraeus took a much more humble stance, in which Iraqis were not told what to do and how and when to do it, but were asked their advice about what to do, and the best way to do it. It was notable that three of the most important advisers around Petraeus as he took command were foreigners -- Kilcullen; a pacifistic British political adviser named Emma Sky who had been against the war; and Sadi Othman, a Palestinian American who became Petraeus's personal envoy to the Iraqi government. A sharp contrast to the frat-boy atmosphere around McChrystal depicted in a Rolling Stone profile that led to his dismissal.
Petraeus was aided enormously by Ryan C. Crocker, one of the savviest American diplomats and one of the most experienced in the region, having served in Pakistan, Lebanon and in Iraq decades prior. Early in the war, friction between Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez had crippled the U.S. effort and confused Iraqis. Bremer was all about transforming Iraq politically, an inherently turbulent mission, while the U.S. Army decided on its own that its job was to produce stability.
Repelled by such persistent friction, Petraeus and Crocker were determined to coordinate their actions. Word went out to subordinates that neither of them would tolerate infighting between civilian and military officials. When the two returned to the United States to testify before Congress in September 2007, they showed a united front, key in winning them more time for the war at a moment when congressional leaders such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. were saying it was time to "stop the surge and start bringing our troops home."
In Kabul, alas, Petraeus will find no such useful ally in the American ambassador. Instead, the top U.S. diplomat there is Karl W. Eikenberry, who relentlessly opposed McChrystal's initiatives. Unlike Crocker, Eikenberry has no strong base in the State Department and is not steeped in the history and culture of the region. Rather, he is a retired general who in fighting with McChrystal over the past year used many of the same arguments that another American commander, John Abizaid, had used in opposing Petraeus's approach to Iraq. That is no coincidence -- Abizaid and Eikenberry have been close friends since they were West Point roommates in the class of 1973.
On top of that, Petraeus will have to deal with Richard C. Holbrooke, who seems to have achieved little as a special presidential envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the general will face a host government even more troublesome than what he dealt with in Baghdad. Indeed, the two biggest problems the United States faces in Afghanistan are the Karzai government and the Pakistani government -- and neither of those really can be addressed by military operations.
McChrystal was dismissed because of the magazine article that laid before the world the sniping and backbiting between U.S. military and civilian officials in the Afghan war. That is not going to end just because Petraeus goes to Kabul, or even because the president has said he doesn't like it. It might end only when one person is put in charge of the overall American presence in Afghanistan, with the power to hire and fire. Obama has not taken that step, so it is likely that the same nettlesome quarrels that exasperated McChrystal also will fatigue his successor.
For the second time in three years, Petraeus has come to the rescue of a president beleaguered by a faraway war. President George W. Bush came to rely enormously on Petraeus in 2007, when the general's credibility on Iraq far exceeded that of the White House. It will be interesting to witness how the relationship between the new president and his new general evolves. Petraeus is much more like Obama than he was like Bush. The Dutch American general and the African American commander in chief are oddly similar. Both are the sons of immigrant fathers; both are intelligent and ambitious; both are more cool, cerebral and distant than most of their peers.
But in Bush, Petraeus had a president willing to take huge risks, such as putting Iraq's Sunni insurgency on the American payroll and taking far heavier casualties as U.S. troops moved off big bases. Obama has not shown a willingness to gamble that much in Afghanistan. Perhaps not even Petraeus could talk this president into rolling the dice.
Thomas E. Ricks, a former Washington Post reporter, is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the author of two books about the Iraq war, most recently "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008."