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Can Obama and Petraeus Work Together?

10 minute read
Joe Klein

It is amazing how quickly General Stanley McChrystal became an afterthought. It happened minutes after he was removed from command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan for idiocy above and beyond the call of duty. He became an afterthought because of the brilliant, and in some ways diabolically clever, decision that Barack Obama made in naming his successor: General David Petraeus, the dominant U.S. military figure of our time.

It was the nature of McChrystal’s blunder that made the reascension of Petraeus inevitable. It was the insular, locker-room puerility of McChrystal’s team, spewing in a recent Rolling Stone article — the stone-cold belief that they had all the answers; that the civilians in charge, especially those who were members of the Democratic Party, were just a bunch of feckless chin pullers — that made the incident so dangerous; it cut far too close to the bone. It raised timeless questions about civilian authority over the military in wartime and a nagging one that has shadowed American politics since Vietnam: whether Democrats are too soft, too removed from the realities of military life, to pursue an effective national-security policy.

(See pictures of the rise and fall of Stanley McChrystal.)

And that is why the Petraeus appointment is at once brilliant and clever — because his prickly relationship with the President has been the symbolic heart of this problem, and now it will take center stage, in Washington and on the battlefields of Afghanistan. How it is resolved, if it is resolved, will determine the fate of Obama’s presidency.

Barack Obama’s problems with Petraeus began in their very first meeting, in Baghdad during the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama was joined in that session by then-Senators Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel. Petraeus laid on one of his epic PowerPoint slide presentations, which annoyed members of the group. “It was propaganda, assuming we didn’t know anything,” one of those present told me. “We wanted to ask questions, and when we did, Petraeus treated us badly, interrupting Obama continually, taking a very hard stand.” The meeting dissolved into a heated exchange between Obama and Petraeus over Obama’s stated intention to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by 2010. Ultimately, Obama’s general view on the withdrawal prevailed; even Petraeus eventually came to believe Obama’s policy was right, although he also believed it wouldn’t have been possible without his 2007 surge in Iraq, which Obama opposed.

(Watch TIME’s video “Iraq’s Parliament Elections: Fragile Democracy.”)

And now these two men are locked together for the foreseeable future, perhaps for history. In an odd way, their relationship — with its equal rations of respect and mistrust — reflects positive changes that have taken place in the Democratic Party and the U.S. military. For several decades after Vietnam, most Democratic politicians were antiwar by reflex and antimilitary by instinct. Even now, many Democrats — who come from the coasts, the big cities, the slums — are unfamiliar with a military culture rooted in the Appalachians, the South, the Plains. A moderate Democratic group called the Truman National Security Project offers a course called Military 101 to teach incoming Democratic members of Congress things like the difference between a battalion and a brigade.

Campaigning for the presidency, Obama was very much aware that a solution to his party’s perceived military weaknesses was necessary after the Sept. 11 attacks. His answer had the virtue of being politically adept and substantively valid: Iraq had been the wrong war. Afghanistan was the right one, because it had been the home of al-Qaeda, and it had been neglected by George W. Bush. As President, Obama has abided by his campaign talk and has shown himself amenable to targeted but relentless use of force, in a manner that dismays his party’s base. He won quiet praise from the people in uniform by retaining Bush’s popular Defense Secretary Robert Gates and appointing Jim Jones, a retired Marine four-star general, as National Security Adviser. And Obama was applauded for supporting Petraeus, who was promoted from commander of the multinational forces in Iraq by Bush, in his new job as Centcom commander, a position that oversees American security interests in the most sensitive region in the world. He did so in large part because Petraeus was the exemplar of the creative new thinking that had, at least partly, transformed the U.S. military.

(Read “Obama Changes Generals: A Sign of Political Confidence.”)

It isn’t well remembered now, but Petraeus was an outcast midway through the Bush Administration. Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s wildly incompetent Defense Secretary, didn’t like him; neither did many of his peers, who remained enamored of the Army they knew, a rumbling array of tanks and trucks and heavy artillery constructed to fight the Russians on the plains of Central Europe. Rumsfeld sent Petraeus out to pasture at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which among other things serves as an Army think tank. There, Petraeus and a group of military intellectuals concocted the military’s counterinsurgency field manual — a strategy waiting to be implemented as everything else in Iraq failed. The irony about counterinsurgency (which carries the unfortunate, jingling acronym COIN) is that it is a theory of warfare that should be more acceptable to Democrats — and it was, to smart ones like Hillary Clinton — because it emphasized protecting local populations, providing them with services like schools and health clinics and jobs. When Bush turned to Petraeus and COIN was implemented in Baghdad in 2007, it looked an awful lot like community policing and social services on the South Side of Chicago. And it worked.

But it was not the only thing that worked in Iraq. Petraeus’ decision to purchase the Sunni tribes in Anwar province — the Bush Administration had considered tribes “part of the past” until then — undermined the insurgency and separated the professional, al-Qaeda terrorists from the indigenous population. Most important was the untold story of the spectacular success that the special-operations forces led by McChrystal suddenly began to have in rooting out the bad guys (this was, in large part, attributable to the resources President Bush devoted to cultivating human intelligence assets). The success in Iraq was attributable to what the military calls full-spectrum warfare, the use of all the tools in its kit, but it was COIN that emerged as the headliner — an oversimplification that has had dire ramifications in Afghanistan.

See pictures of the U.S. Marines’ offensive in Afghanistan.

See pictures of the U.S. troops in Iraq.

By 2009 the gospel of COIN had helped revive the phlegmatic Army. Its two chief promoters, Petraeus and McChrystal, seemingly could do no wrong. They stormed into Obama’s extended Afghan-policy review intent on having their way. They sort of got it: 30,000 more troops, on top of the 20,000 Obama had initially dispatched — after a series of pitched battles between Petraeus, who was the most vocal military participant in the process, and Vice President Joe Biden, who was the most vocal civilian.

But the policy featured two caveats that have been misinterpreted — purposely, in some cases — by the military and oversold by the Obama Administration to the Democratic Party base. The first was the deadline of July 2011, at which time a transition would begin to Afghan control of the war. Petraeus, McChrystal and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen agreed to this because it wasn’t really a deadline. There was no intention of actually pulling troops from the real Afghan war zones in the south and east in July 2011; the assumption was that if things were going well, some forces would stay for years, in gradually diminishing numbers, doing the patient work of counterinsurgency. The other caveat was more problematic: there would be another policy review in December 2010, to see how well things were going. “I wouldn’t want to overplay the significance of this review,” Petraeus told the House Armed Services Committee recently.

(See pictures of President Obama in Afghanistan.)

But Petraeus is wrong; in fact, the review is crucial. The implicit agreement was that if things aren’t going well by December, the strategy will have to change. And things haven’t been going well. So the military has been quietly working the press, complaining about the July 2011 transition date, pressing for more troops, complaining about the lack of civilian progress in Afghanistan — the failure of the Afghan government and U.S. State Department to provide security and programs for the populace — complaining about the failure of Richard Holbrooke to get all the recalcitrant neighbors (Pakistan, India, Iran and China, among others — what a bunch!) on board with a coherent regional strategy. A lot of this griping was at the heart of the Rolling Stone story. “When the military says withdrawals should be conditions-based, here’s what they mean,” says Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “If things are going well, we shouldn’t withdraw, because the policy is working. If things aren’t going well, we should add more troops. What they really want is no decision on anything until July 2011.”

The problem with the military position is that what worked in Iraq is not working in Afghanistan. The policy of funding the tribes is of limited value in Afghanistan because the enemy isn’t led by foreign terrorists; it is a native insurgency. Funding some tribes and not others simply aggravates the feuding between them. And COIN depends on having a reliable local government running the security and social programs, which simply isn’t going to happen so long as Hamid Karzai is President. The only part of the military spectrum that has worked in both Iraq and Afghanistan is McChrystal’s special ops, which is stripping out midlevel Taliban leaders on a nightly basis.

(See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)

This is the sort of moment that people write books about, a moment when the size of the personalities matches the scale of the stakes they’re wrangling over. The real question is whether this Democratic President and the military, symbolized by Petraeus, can make the adjustments necessary to live with each other. It seems obvious that Obama is going to have to be less coy with the public about what is really going to happen in July 2011, even if that risks alienating his party’s vestigial antiwar base. He is going to have to make it clear that “significant” troop withdrawals — a word bandied about in recent weeks — are not in the cards unless the situation on the ground changes dramatically, for good or ill. And Petraeus is going to have to reconsider whether the crown jewel in his tiara — the counterinsurgency doctrine — is really feasible in Afghanistan and what strategic modifications will have to be made in order to leave the place in the most stable, humane fashion.

These adjustments should not be difficult; they simply require the good faith and respect from both sides that have been lost, as McChrystal’s crushing indelicacy so clearly demonstrated.

Read “Obama Tries to Shift Focus from McChrystal to the War Effort.”

Watch TIME’s video “The Challenge on the Ground in Afghanistan.”

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