Afghanistan: Petraeus, personalities and policy

February 15, 2011

chinook2Buried in the Washington Post story on Marc Grossman taking over as the new U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are some interesting references to the possible departure of U.S. commander General David Petraeus.

“… virtually the entire U.S. civilian and military leadership in Afghanistan is expected to leave in the coming months, including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the embassy’s other four most senior officials, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led international coalition, and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day-to-day military operations there,” it says.

“No final decisions have been made, but military officials said that Petraeus, who took command last July, will rotate out of Afghanistan before the end of the year,” it adds.

Petraeus has been talked about for a while as a possible successor to Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  (CJCS),  who is expected to retire in October.  Any move would be part of a broader shake-up in the administration, which will also see Defense Secretary Robert Gates retire this year.

The question is what this move, if confirmed, would mean for policy.  Petraeus, more than anyone else, has been identified with the intensified military campaign in Afghanistan which, according to critics of the policy,  has reduced prospects of a political settlement by alienating Taliban leaders who might otherwise be coaxed into peace talks

Petraeus has been a towering figure in Washington and difficult to challenge politically. He had what was seen in the United States as a good track record in Iraq. And he was backed by Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — making it very hard for those within the U.S. administration who disagreed with his assessment to win President Barack Obama over to their point of view. 

Moreover, Obama had already sacked two generals — Generals David McKiernan and Stanley McChrystal — and could hardly dismiss a third. (If I remember rightly — and no doubt someone will correct me if I am wrong — no president since Abraham Lincoln has changed his generals so frequently in wartime.) Promoting Petraeus would be far easier.

His departure, especially with Gates on his way out, could create the space for Obama to recalibrate Afghan strategy, backing away from the military surge and focusing more on a political settlement - if he wants to do so.

The Washington Post writes that, ”Retired diplomat Marc Grossman is expected to take over as the administration is facing a crucial year for its war strategy in Afghanistan, where it plans to begin U.S. troop withdrawals this summer and to move toward a political settlement, including negotiations with the Taliban, before the end of 2011.” (my italics).

Joshua Foust, who blogs at Registan.net and is now at the American Security Project in Washington, said in an e-mail that, “there is a growing sense on Capitol Hill that the war needs to change, right now, but no one knows how to do it. The rhetoric has backed everyone into a corner.  Obama knows he is toast in (the presidential election in) 2012 if he doesn’t do something to recover his base from the thwacking they got last year.

“… Even the GOP (the Republican Party) doesn’t know how it can call for negotiations with the Taliban when all the rhetoric has them casually conflated with al Qaeda. There is an enormous political cost to pay for calling for negotiations with our enemy, and neither side is principled enough to forego stomping on the other side if they call for it first. And everyone knows that.

“Finally, Obama painted himself into a corner with his rapid turnover of generals. When he put Petraeus, of all people, into Afghanistan, he guaranteed that he’d never be able to check his decisions or remove him … That leaves only one way of removing him from the war: promotion, above his old CENTCOM post into the CJCS.”

It’s early days yet — we don’t even know that Petraeus is actually moving on.

And before anyone imagines any dramatic changes in Afghanistan, let me add a health warning. When people speak about holding talks with the Taliban, nobody is expecting the United States and its allies, along with the Afghan government, to sit down in formal conference with the leaders of the insurgency and agree a peace deal overnight.  (One way to keep this in perspective is to remember that Britain held face-to-face peace talks with the Irish Republican Army in 1972 — the Good Friday agreement on Ireland was signed in 1998).

The debate on Taliban talks — at least as far as I understand it — is not about ending the Afghan war tomorrow.  It is about how you might structure talks this year with a view to reaching an end-phase by 2014 when the United States and its allies plan to pull out their troops.   The way you would approach those talks, and the nature of any eventual political settlement you might seek in Afghanistan — including how far the Taliban leadership would be included in the process — would in turn shape the way the war is fought today.

 You can fight and talk at the same time, but it helps if all sides are clear on what they are trying to achieve. And if everybody involved has determined in advance what is essential and what might be subject to compromise.

It is also, of course, about U.S. domestic politics. And personalities.

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