A week ago, late on the night that President Obama announced he would be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan faster than the military had wanted, Gen. David Petraeus held a videoconference from Washington with his senior staff, who were assembled in Kabul for their 7:30 a.m. meeting. He assured them their campaign plan was still “doable,” even with fewer numbers over time, and told them to stay on the offensive.
The call was a classic Petraeus move — a show of optimism and determination, combined with realpolitik. He must have been disappointed, but he kept it well hidden, explaining to his team that the president’s decision had been shaped by broader factors than the military’s preferred timetable.
Petraeus will leave his command of NATO forces here in July with the outcome of the Afghanistan war far from certain. He hasn’t achieved the same decisive turnaround as in Iraq, where he led a surge of U.S. troops that pulled the country back from the brink of civil war. The Afghan conflict has proved more intractable.
Petraeus says he knew from the beginning that a quick “flip” in Afghanistan was impossible. But he’s still confident that his counterinsurgency strategy can work here, even as the United States draws down its troops. He says the definition of success will be the transfer of responsibility for security to the Afghans by 2014, when U.S. combat troops will leave.
Politicians from both parties are already writing off Afghanistan as a lost cause. But Petraeus argues that Obama’s December 2009 troop surge is beginning to pay dividends, even as Washington sours on the war: The level of violence in recent weeks has been down about 5 percent from a year ago, and Taliban fighters have failed to regain control of Kandahar and Helmand strongholds that were cleared in 2010. Afghan troops are performing better, he insists, and they are suffering three times as many deaths as NATO forces.
The negatives are also obvious to many observers. The government of President Hamid Karzai remains grossly corrupt, and governance around the country is somewhere between poor and nonexistent. Afghanistan is a battered and dysfunctional country.
The Petraeus legacy will be debated by military historians for years to come. He is the most prominent general of his generation, celebrated as a miracle worker after the rescue of Baghdad but still resented by some colleagues as too political. Somehow, he has been the favorite military commander of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who is plucking him from Kabul to head the CIA.
During an interview in his office here, Petraeus offered an unusual self-assessment when I asked him to list his strengths and weaknesses as commander.
At the top of his list of positives was creation of the Afghan Local Police, a bottom-up security initiative that recognized Afghanistan’s tribal makeup and was initially resisted and then embraced by Karzai. He also mentioned the anti-corruption campaign headed by his longtime adviser, Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster. And he cited development of the framework for transition to Afghan security control, province by province, that will commence next month.
I asked Petraeus about the broader issue of his leadership style, which is intense and focused, even by military standards. A small example is the way he cleaned up the NATO coalition’s headquarters, which was a dilapidated mess under previous commanders. What he did was simple but decisive: He says he walked around the compound with the base commandant for 30 minutes and told him what to fix. The brooms and paintbrushes followed quickly.
Petraeus’s self-critique focused on areas that led to friction with the Afghan population, undermining the counterinsurgency goal. He says he should have moved more quickly to rein in private security contractors, whose presence was a major irritant to Afghans. And he should have worked harder to reduce coalition-caused civilian casualties, which declined on his watch but still angered Karzai and the nation.
What’s hard to imagine is that after 37 years in the Army, Petraeus is finally taking off the uniform — one so heavy with the battle ribbons that symbolize his ambition and achievement. He says it will be easier because he is joining another “family” of service at the CIA. It would be harder, he says, if he were heading to the beach to contemplate lucrative business or book-writing offers. Next week he will celebrate the Fourth of July in a combat post for the seventh time in the last nine years. He says that “taking the final pass-in-review” may “start to weigh more heavily in the weeks ahead.”