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 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.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

[…] Reuters Blogs, […]

Posted by American Security Project | Report as abusive

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Onnik Krikorian and Katherine Tiedemann, Pakistan Now Never. Pakistan Now Never said: Afghanistan: Petraeus, personalities and policy […]

Posted by Tweets that mention Afghanistan: Petraeus, personalities and policy | Analysis & Opinion | — | Report as abusive

[…] Afghanistan this year. If confirmed, it could herald a policy shift. Read the original here: Afghanistan: Petraeus, personalities and policy | Analysis & Opinion | Share and […]

Posted by Afghanistan: Petraeus, personalities and policy | Analysis & Opinion | | Afghanistan Today | Report as abusive

[…] Reuters, Myra MacDonald speculates that Petraeus, who’s ramped up the campaign against the Taliban, is being phased […]

Posted by Report: Petraeus to be relieved of command in Afghanistan before end of year? « Hot Air | Report as abusive

[…] what could be next for Petraeus? Petraeus has been talked about for a while as a possible successor to Admiral Mike Mullen, […]

Posted by General Petraeus to Leave Afghanistan by End of Year | The Stafford Voice | Report as abusive


The Afghan war is one big mess, it will continue to be a brutal stalemate between the the world best funded military and the world most ruthless insurgent force, in one of the harshest terrain. Additionally, it has spilled over to Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Personalities are not important, people will come and go. The strategy should be correct. No one must pull the strings, let the Afghans decide themselves how they would like to live and govern their country. We can sure mentor them and shape them in a positive outlook. But ultimately, peace is something until the Afghans themselves do not sought it, no one can sell it to them. New faces, new strategy, new course, everything must change so that this unfortunate war comes to an end and a new chapter can begin.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

[…] experts say a major drawdown in Afghanistan (and Iraq) is the only way those goals can be reached. Reuters looks at the issue this way: (Petraeus’s) departure, especially with (Defense Secretary […]

Posted by Petraeus Leaving Post: Breaking News | Home Post | Report as abusive

[…] is going to replace Mike Mullen as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Reuters is among those reporting that speculation. It has the virtue of being […]

Posted by Report: David Petraeus Out As Commander In Afghanistan By End Of The Year | Report as abusive

[…] no official decision has been made, Reuters reports that the four-star general’s name has been thrown around as a potential successor to Adm. Mike […]

Posted by It has been Reported: Gen. David Petraeus Leaving Post in Afghanistan? | Tennesseans Watching Federal & State Government | Report as abusive

It’s amazing that Reuters is maintaining such a conspicuous silence on the Raymond Davis affair and all its implications. A spotlight needs to be turned on the role of security contractors in recent US military strategy, and the interplay between their role and those of diplomats and spies.

The Davis incident is a manifestation of a much larger set of issues, and it’s not easy to sweep them under the carpet. BTW, the Western media has taken a very partisan line on the Davis issue and refuses to budge from the official US position, riddled though it is with ambiguity and contradiction. This article in a Pakistani news outlet ( highlights the hypocrisy of the US position on the diplomatic immunity it is willing to grant foreign consular officials on US soil. And when US officials don’t even confirm the man’s name, one has to wonder.

Can we see something on this from Reuters?

Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive

[…] reports: Petraeus has been talked about for a while as a possible successor to Admiral Mike Mullen, […]

Posted by General Petraeus Out In Afghanistan By End Of Year: Report | Vicksburg Daily News | Report as abusive

[…] Reuters reports: 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. … 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. […]

Posted by Defense Department Official: Reports Patraeus Is Quiting As ISAF Commander Are False | Double Dutch Politics | Report as abusive

The Afghan war has become a bundle of contradictions for the US. As far as I recollect the US went in to get OBL and defeat his AQ network. To achieve that, it had to first rid the county of Taliban rule, which treated OBL as an honoured guest. By smashing the AQ network the US hoped to secure itself against future terror attacks from this part of the world. As events unfolded, it got rid of the Taliban but did not eliminate the AQ or OBL and so the threat remained. It did however corner OBL and the AQ to some extent. Why it did not persevere then but shifted focus away from Afghanistan will remain a mystery and was perhaps their biggest failing.

Like a dog running around in circles chasing its own tail – US operations have come full circle. Fight the Taliban, oust them, let them regroup, negotiate a return of the Taliban with promises of good conduct but also prepare for a spurt in anti American attacks in future.

We come back to the basic questions – what has the US achieved in Afghanistan after 10 years? What did it want to achieve? Petraus, Gates, Holbrooke et al are not the issues. The issue really is the absence of any political aim in the Afghan operation. There has been too much shifting of goal posts.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

Settlement in Afghanistan with a rag tag bunch of tribals will be like settlement in Kashmir. Pakistan will never allow any settlement that does not suit its interests. Any time the two parties seem to near a settlement, Pakistan will rattle it and derail it. We have seen this trend for the past 60 years in the context of Kashmir. The same thing will happen here. Pakistan will deceive the US and will prevent it from taking stern actions against it. Its rapid build up of nukes could be to get a bargaining chip in case it feels cornered. This whole Afghan war has dragged on due to Pakistan’s wily tactics that has exploited the ignorance of the Americans to the hilt. While the US thinks it is controlling Pakistan, in reality it is the other way around. It will use the paranoia of a nuclear armed nation spinning out of control into the hands of radicals as a means to keep the US at bay. In reality, its military is fully in tact and healthy. The nation might appear to be in turmoil, but the military seems to be doing just fine. If Pakistani citizens suffer from lack of justice and resources, it is hardly a concern for the military which sees it as an advantage. It has figured out a way to run Pakistan from behind the curtain. It is a lot more effective than direct rule. The US can change as many generals as it wants, nothing will settle until Pakistan is fixed. But that is the headache for the Americans and no one else. They have helped Pakistan become this monster. Let them figure out a way to contain it. Afghanistan is only the symptom. Pakistan is the real sickness. If the US tries a cold medicine to suppress the symptom without addressing the source of the symptom, it is going to be in for a long haul. If they do not get serious about fixing Pakistan, they will never find a solution to the Afghanistan and Al Qaeda menace.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

It costs approx. 1 million per soldier in Afghanistan. We are too broke to repair our infrastructure, build new infrastructure, properly fund health care for all Americans (as Canada does), give all our children a good education K-12 and on and on. But, we have all the money in the world for the DOD to stumble around in AfPak where we are mostly unwanted and where we have had no real influence (e.g. drugs) or impact. Although Pakistan is a huge pile-up on an interstate, the bloated DOD, ambitious generals, shady contractors and congressional “hawks” just love fighting there. If Obama really wants to please his base, the voters and the rest of the civilized world, he will do the right and intelligent thing and get out of there. If not, he really is toast in 2012; the people who voted for him want out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The opposition won’t vote for him no matter what he does. He is perceived as weak because he is.

Posted by nocounty | Report as abusive

nocountry: “If Obama really wants to please his base, the voters and the rest of the civilized world, he will do the right and intelligent thing and get out of there. If not, he really is toast in 2012; the people who voted for him want out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The opposition won’t vote for him no matter what he does. He is perceived as weak because he is.”

Obama is toast already. He will not make it in 2012. Though he has tried to do the right thing, he came to power at the wrong time. If he had been President in 2001 instead of the idiot, he would have gone after the real culprits behind the whole thing. Iraq diversion would not have happened. The entire focus would have been on Afghanistan and to a larger extent on Pakistan. Bush administration dropped a lot of bombs in Afghanistan and lot of cash in Pakistan and dusted its hands off the whole thing. By the time Obama came on board, the rot had set in well. Now it is too difficult to stem the tide no matter how much he can try. Things have gained momentum.

Getting out now has dire consequences for your country (based on your words I get the feeling you are an American citizen).

The people in the Af-Pak region are different. They deal with only two things in this world – enemies and conflicts. There is no such thing as peace, negotiations and co-existing with others. They have lived at the cross roads where empires have clashed many times over. Their history is filled with wars, conquests and survival through those difficult times. To them, inviting them to a negotiating table and signing a peace treaty is tantamount to accepting defeat. They are not kind towards defeated people. They are on the other hand very kind to those who surrender to them.

If the US gets out of the place because of domestic issues, then that will become the future war strategy for groups like Al Qaeda – economic strain is another weapon that they can use. When economy hurts, the enemy is weak and more damage can be done. This is the mindset of an enemy who has been at the receiving end since 2002. From their stand point, they have nothing to lose. American presence in Af-Pak has worked to their advantage. That was their aim – draw the enemy closer to familiar ground and drag things to cause frustration to them. And that frustration would be directed at innocent civilians who now would begin to get alienated. Look at the love they have for Americans in Pakistan. If the US gets out of here with a half baked solution, these elements will be encouraged to go after the US and its allies. Remember that they claim that time is on their hands. They conduct a war of psychology where transitions happen over a generation or two. It is a slow poisoning of the enemy that helps win in the long run. They will be very happy to see America lose its support in Egypt and other Arab countries which have had dictators who have been staunch American allies. For them this is a Jihad that will span over a long time.

Getting out of Af-Pak now will lead to more attacks on the home front for Americans as well as abroad, wherever Americans are. You have no idea how much they hate America. If America signs out of Af-Pak now, they will be signing out their ultimate decline. And it won’t change anything on the domestic economy front. The problem that US faces today is a culmination of short sighted and greedy policies of the political-business nexus that shipped off jobs abroad to make hefty profits. And a generation of Americans have grown up in comfort and complete ignorance of the outside world. They love the quality of life they are getting, but have lost the realization that it takes hard work to sustain it.

Obama or not, the US will not get out of its troubled waters on the economy front for a long time to come. It will need to accept its position in the new world order as a secondary power and reduce its efforts to control the world affairs.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

@”If Obama really wants to please his base, the voters and the rest of the civilized world, he will do the right and intelligent thing and get out of there. If not, he really is toast in 2012; the people who voted for him want out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The opposition won’t vote for him no matter what he does.” Posted by nocounty

If Obama loses his re-election, it won’t be due to US presence in Af-Pak but if there’s a successful terrorist attack in the US on his watch, he almost certainly will lose. If Obama does not get re-elected, it will primarily be due to the economy & fortunately for him, the economy has been showing signs of revival & expansion over the last couple of quarters. IMO, the key statistic to watch here, is the rate of unemployment. By summer/fall 2012, if unemployment is still hovering around where it curently is (9% +), he’ll lose but if it’s below 8%, he’ll win. Looking at the trajectory of the economy, I believe it will be the latter. Of course, there’s a lot of time left between now & election day and many other variables will factor in but it’s very very pre-mature to write off Obama at this time.

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive

[…] Pentagon is already denying the story, but Reuters blogger Myra MacDonald says talk of the popular general’s departure is not that far-fetched. Acknowledging Petraeus […]

Posted by Report: Gen. Petraeus to Step Down? | Con Games | Report as abusive