The most dangerous man in U.S. foreign policy...
...is Gen. David Petraeus.
I meant to warn you at the time that replacement of the sacked Gen. Stanley McChrystal with David Petraeus will be trouble for Obama. Petraeus, desperate to prove the merit of his doctrine of counter-insurgency ("COIN"), will not be satisfied with Obama's avowed drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan beginning July 2011 if COIN is failing at that point. And Petraeus expects it will be failing, or he wouldn't already be pressuring Obama - just as McChrystal did - to relax the exit strategy.
Going public in defense of endless U.S. military entanglement in Afghanistan cost McChrystal his job. But firing the much higher-profile Petraeus will be tougher, akin to the popularity hit that Truman took in firing MacArthur.
Recall that the failed McChrystal was following mentor Petraeus's COIN strategy to the letter - and without success. I can't see Petraeus faring any better. Recall too that Petraeus' vaunted success with COIN in Iraq, upon which his popularity with key figures on the Hill rests, is an elaborate fiction. It worked, and in only limited regions, because U.S. forces began paying off dissidents. Who, for their part, had come to recognized in rival ethnic groups a more fearsome enemy than a U.S. with which it decided to ally rather than continue fighting.
America now has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, a sizeable two-thirds its troop commitment at the height of the Iraq invasion-occupation. Obama's responsible for putting most of them there, mistaken in believing the "central war on terror" is Afghanistan. It once was, just prior to 9/11. Today, the principal havens of U.S.-hating terrorists (as opposed to terrorist groups in the Middle East, the Philippines and so on) are Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, in rough order of importance. And there are al-Qaeda cells in more than 60 nations.
There really isn't a central front in the war on terror. But there really is a crisis in neighbouring Pakistan. And That chaotically governed, nuclear-equipped nation has enormous potential for malevolent impact on its densely populated region and far beyond. (India, of course, swears Pakistan is culpable for the Mumbai massacre, scant evidence notwithstanding.) To the extent Petraeus in Afghanistan bogs down the substantial and urgently needed U.S. work in Pakistan, this general could drag U.S. foreign policy back into the mire -even as Obama honors his vow to extricate the U.S. from Iraq.
Sorry to be so late with this post, but as regular readers know, home-front upheaval has been playing havoc with Everybody's Business. And better late than never: Petraeus's elaborately choreographed media and Hill campaign pitting him against Obama is just getting underway. "Just" is an odd word, I concede, given that it has started so soon after Petraeus' appointment.
Bottom line: this guy is dangerous. Handling him will be one of Obama's biggest tests.
Petraeus and Gates differ on delaying Afghan war pullout. (Sydney Morning Herald)
Petraeus casts doubt on timeline for U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. (Christian Science Monitor)
The Economist and NYT's Bob Herbert each cite Jonathan Alter's account in The Promise (2010) of Obama-Petraeus agreement on mid-2010 Afghan pullout. Herbert says Obama was snookered - a long tradition, going back to LBJ-Westmoreland and Lincoln-McClellan.Here's the passage from Alter:
Obama had already learned something about no room for ambiguity with the military. He would often summarize his own meetings in a purposeful, clear style by saying, "Let met tell you where I am," before enumerating points ("One, two, three") and finishing with, "and that's my order."
Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, "David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in eighteen months?"
"Sir, I am confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame," Petraeus said.
"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can't do the things you say you can in eighteen months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"
"Yes, sir, in agreement," Petraeus said.