President Obama is being widely praised for his selection of General David Petraeus to replace General Stanley McChrystal as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan. Some observers--the kind who once got a leg tingle when Mr. Obama spoke--have even described his choice as "brilliant."
Of course, these are the same people who suggested that General Petraeus was "betraying" Congress (and the American people) when he was architect of the U.S.-led surge in Iraq. Indeed, there was no shortage of irony at the White House ceremony where Petraeus was introduced as the next military leader in Afghanistan. There he stood, shoulder-to-shoulder with two of his fiercest Senate critics from 2007, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Three years later, the general who was once pilloried by Senate Democrats was being summoned to save the Afghan war effort.
To be fair, General Petraeus is already invested in that strategy. As the head of U.S. Central Command for the past year, Petraeus was McChrystal's nominal boss, and approved the counter-insurgency strategy put in place by our former commander in Afghanistan. So, General Petraeus will another chance to put his plans, tactics and ideas to the test.
But that's not why Dave Petraeus agreed to leave CENTCOM and run the show in Kabul. His loyalty lies with the troops charged to execute U.S. strategy. As our campaign enters a decisive phase, they deserve the best possible leadership from someone who won't need two or three months to get up to speed. That's why General Petraeus is moving from Tampa to Afghanistan.
As for President Obama, he clearly made the right call, but some would say it was the only realistic choice he had. Despite the wealth of talent among our senior military officers, there are only a handful of generals capable of taking on a make-or-break campaign in mid-stride, and seeing it through to completion.
The names on that rather short list include General Ray Odierno, current commander of U.S. forces in Iraq; General Martin Dempsey, head of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Virginia; Lieutenant General Rick Lynch, former commander of the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq and current commander of the Army's Installation Management Command; Lieutenant General William Caldwell, McChrystal's deputy in Afghanistan, and General James Mattis, the Marine who directed the Fallujah campaign in 2004.
All are exceptionally capable officers, and all (with the exception of General Caldwell) would need time to adjust to their new mission--a luxury we currently don't have in Afghanistan. General Caldwell also has the disadvantage of being "just" a three-star; the commander's job in Afghanistan was elevated to a four-star post because the last Lieutenant General to hold to billet (David McKiernan) was viewed as "not having enough horsepower" to hold his own against diplomatic, political and military heavy-weights in the chain of command.
Needless to say, General Petraeus meets all the requirements for leading the war in Afghanistan. His credentials as a military leader and strategist are impeccable; he knows the region and he knows the various political and diplomatic personalities that come with the assignment. And, he's proven adept at handling the press, granting access (when required), while keeping the media hordes away from his inner sanctum. It's safe to say that no reporter from Rolling Stone--or any other publication--will get to "hang out" with Petraeus and his staff, a decision that cost McChrystal his career.
Mr. Obama should be thankful that David Petraeus agreed to take on the challenges in Kabul. Having served his country faithfully for almost 40 years, Petraeus had every right to say no. Instead, he assumed the greatest challenge of his military career, trying to win a war that some say is already lost. General Petraeus has heard those cries before--and proven his critics wrong. Now, he has an opportunity to do it again, in the employ of "leaders" who once ridiculed him because of political expedience.
And yet, he willingly accepted the challenge. But not for the White House, and not for his own reputation, which was secure long before he moved to CENTCOM. General Petraeus's loyalty lies with the country he serves and the soldiers he leads. Nothing more and nothing less.
In James Michner's The Bridges at Toko-ri, a worn-out Navy admiral, leading a carrier task force during the Korean War, marvels at the willingness of ordinary Americans to tackle nearly-impossible jobs, giving their lives, if necessary.
"Where do we find such men?" he wonders. Where indeed.