Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 8:04
Yesterday, I was speaking to British high school students when one asked, "What are President Obama's three greatest challenges today?" After putting the economy Number One and listing (but dismissing) Republican opposition as a potential Number Two, I said:
But I'm concerned that it will be Afghanistan and Pakistan that will bring him down. I think he's being overtaken by his own military, especially General David Petraeus [the head of US Central Command] and their ideas of "strategy".
Before I got home, the news came through: the Obama Adminstration had replaced the commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan.
My initial reaction was, OK, generals get replaced. They are moved to other military posts or return to Washington for a break from the field. Then, however, the details piled in. McKiernan had done only 11 months of a command tour that normally last 18 to 24 months. He had been ousted, even as the US is planning to pour more troops into a "crisis", and replaced with General Stanley McChrystal, the director of the military's Joint Staff and, before that, head of US Special Operations Forces in Iraq.
All of which pointed to the re-branding of the Afghanistan conflict. This is not Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' war. This is not President Obama's war.
This one has been claimed by David Petraeus.
Gates, announcing McKiernan's departure, was not shy about kicking the general out the door. McKiernan had "probably" had his career cut short because “a new approach was probably in our best interest”. He added, "Fresh eyes were needed."
So what were wrong with those eyes? After all, the commander was no lightweight: he had led US ground troops in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Pentagon officials piled on the criticism, "General McKiernan...had been removed primarily because he had brought too conventional an approach to the challenge." His honour was to be "the first general to be dismissed from command of a theater of combat since Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War".
In contrast, the officials noted that General McChrystal had led the American forces who captured Saddam Hussein and later killed insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq: "his success in using intelligence and firepower to track and kill insurgents, and his training in unconventional warfare that emphasizes the need to protect the population, made him the best choice for the command in Afghanistan".
Translation? McKiernan is a "big force" leader. His background is an officer in armoured units, and he led the calls in Iraq for a much larger ground force than that used to occupy the country. McChrystal, on the other hand, is able to organise and direct small, elite units that can strike quickly.
Make no mistake, however. As The New York Times politely frames it, "The change also reflects the influence of Gen. David H. Petraeus." Their emphasis is on a personal battle: Petraeus served under McKiernan in Iraq but eventually overtook him in rank and, again according to Pentagon officials, "the two men did not develop a bond after General Petraeus inherited General McKiernan as his Afghanistan commander".
More importantly, Petraeus is preparing his supposed strategy for victory. His reputation has been built on the mythical or real success of the Iraq "surge" from 2007. While that relied on an increase in US troops, it emphasized the deployment of specialist units to work with local Sunni militias while using Special Forces in "surgical" strikes against the bad guys. The big military idea is that the same approach can work in Afghanistan. Hook up with some of the local leaders and use airstrikes and covert operations to capture or kill key figures in the insurgency.
This is not solely a Petraeus notion. The White House spokesman was quick to say the President agreed with Secretary of Defense Gates and Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that “the implementation of a new strategy in Afghanistan called for new military leadership". And, perhaps ironically, Obama has played into Petraeus' hands. Even though he effectively approved the military's request for an additional 30,000 troops this years, the President's hesitation reinforced the idea that the US will have to succeed with smaller but mobile units rather than overwhelming force.
To call this a fantasy too far would be kind. Iraq, a country of 25 million, could not be pacified by US operations in 2003. (Indeed, if McKiernan wanted to strike back at his critics and the compliant media, he could note: his complaint that the American force for post-Saddam occupation is now generally accepted wisdom.) Now Petraeus is pursuing the same goal in a country of 75 million. He is doing so with a Karzai Government that is trying to establish some independence from Washington and with little apparent knowledge of the intricacies of Afghan politics. Even the symbolic of General McChrystal's record with US special operations has a downside: "He will be confronted with deep tensions over the conduct of Special Operations forces in Afghanistan, whose aggressive tactics are seen by Afghan officials as responsible for many of the American mistakes that have resulted in the deaths of civilians."
In the end, little of this may matter to Petraeus, who could be in a no-lose situation: if his strategy checks the insurgency, he gets the credit. If it does not, he can put the blame on political superiors who didn't give him enough troops or on an Afghan Government that is beyond redemption.
For now, it's David Petraeus' war. But the beauty of his strategic move --- not in Central Asia but in Washington --- is that he can always hand it back if it goes wrong.