From Thomas Rick, the former Washington Post reporter who is now a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. In an op-ed for today's edition of the Post, Ricks looks at General David Petraeus and his prospects for success as our new commander in Afghanistan. Ricks, who has written two books on the Iraq War and interviewed Petraeus on many occasions, is pessimistic about the general replicating his success in Afghanistan:
This week's confrontation between a senior Army general and the president of the United States may have signaled the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan. In a year or two, President Obama will be able to say that he gave the conflict his best shot, reshaping the strategy and even putting his top guy in charge, the general who led the surge in Iraq -- but that things still didn't work out.
Of course, establishing cohesion in the U.S. effort in Iraq took a lot more than issuing statements. In spring 2007, I watched Petraeus work hard to establish a consensus about what the goals should be and how to achieve them. "There are three enormous tasks that strategic leaders have to get right," he told me one day in Baghdad. "The first is to get the big ideas right. The second is to communicate the big ideas throughout the organization. The third is proper execution of the big ideas." An astute bureaucratic operator, he used a variety of studies and panels convened in his Baghdad headquarters to pull together the big ideas of how to deal with the insurgency and how to better protect the Iraqi people. These had the useful side effect of getting buy-in from civilian American officials in Iraq.
Petraeus was aided enormously by Ryan C. Crocker, one of the savviest American diplomats and one of the most experienced in the region, having served in Pakistan, Lebanon and in Iraq decades prior. Early in the war, friction between Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez had crippled the U.S. effort and confused Iraqis. Bremer was all about transforming Iraq politically, an inherently turbulent mission, while the U.S. Army decided on its own that its job was to produce stability.
Repelled by such persistent friction, Petraeus and Crocker were determined to coordinate their actions. Word went out to subordinates that neither of them would tolerate infighting between civilian and military officials. When the two returned to the United States to testify before Congress in September 2007, they showed a united front, key in winning them more time for the war at a moment when congressional leaders such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. were saying it was time to "stop the surge and start bringing our troops home."
In Kabul, alas, Petraeus will find no such useful ally in the American ambassador. Instead, the top U.S. diplomat there is Karl W. Eikenberry, who relentlessly opposed McChrystal's initiatives. Unlike Crocker, Eikenberry has no strong base in the State Department and is not steeped in the history and culture of the region. Rather, he is a retired general who in fighting with McChrystal over the past year used many of the same arguments that another American commander, John Abizaid, had used in opposing Petraeus's approach to Iraq. That is no coincidence -- Abizaid and Eikenberry have been close friends since they were West Point roommates in the class of 1973.
On top of that, Petraeus will have to deal with Richard C. Holbrooke, who seems to have achieved little as a special presidential envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the general will face a host government even more troublesome than what he dealt with in Baghdad. Indeed, the two biggest problems the United States faces in Afghanistan are the Karzai government and the Pakistani government -- and neither of those really can be addressed by military operations.
So in other words, if Petraeus fails, it will be the result of consequences beyond his control--but not beyond the control of the commander-in-chief. As various analysts have suggested, it's time for Eikenberry and Holbrooke to go; both have contributed little to the war effort, and Eikenberry (in particular) has been a divisive figure. There was no shortage of irony when Mr. Obama said he wouldn't tolerate division among his military and diplomatic team in Afghanistan--that's why General McChrystal had to go. By that standard, Ambassador Eikenberry should have been fired a long time ago and replaced by an experienced hand like Ryan Crocker.
But the final paragraph of Ricks' op-ed is the most fascinating. One of the biggest obstacles facing Petraeus, he writes, is the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a president who is simply unwilling to take risks:
in Bush, Petraeus had a president willing to take huge risks, such as putting Iraq's Sunni insurgency on the American payroll and taking far heavier casualties as U.S. troops moved off big bases. Obama has not shown a willingness to gamble that much in Afghanistan. Perhaps not even Petraeus could talk this president into rolling the dice.
Still, it would be a serious mistake to count out Dave Petraeus. He is a strategic thinker of the first order, a general who understands the constraints now hindering the war effort in Afghanistan. Various reports suggest that Petraeus is already working to loosen the restrictive rules of engagement that hamper U.S. troops, and attempting to walk Mr. Obama away from next July's scheduled draw down.
That suggests that General Petraeus is already looking to 2012--and beyond. Clearly, he wants to keep enough troops in Afghanistan to continue the fight and demonstrate measurable progress towards winning the war. Then, after the 2012 elections, Petraeus may have a commander-in-chief who is less risk averse, and willing to stay the course--with less regard for his political base and short-term electoral consequences.