Obama Picks Petraeus To Replace McChrystal

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President Obama has accepted the resignation of the top commander in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal stepped down after a magazine article quoted him and aides insulting the president's national security team. Gen. David Petraeus has been chosen to replace McChrystal. Petraeus is currently head of the U.S. Central Command. Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne talk to NPR's Rachel Martin and Greg Jaffe, of The Washington Post, about the change at the top.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Steve Inskeep.


And Im Renee Montagne.

President Obama has studied the life of Abraham Lincoln, who replaced troublesome generals, again and again, during the Civil War. So perhaps it's no surprise that the president has twice removed commanders in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: The latest general to leave is Stanley McChrystal. He's gone after a Rolling Stone article filled with disparaging remarks. David Petraeus will takeover a strategy that is just a few months old.

MONTAGNE: And we're going to talk about that now, beginning with NPR's national security correspondent Rachel Martin. Good morning.

RACHEL MARTIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin by listening some of the president's announcement yesterday.

President BARACK OBAMA: And I say to the American people, this is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy. General Petraeus fully participated in our review last fall, and he both supported and helped design the strategy that we have in place. In his current post at Central Command, he has worked closely with our forces in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: And thats President Obama, speaking yesterday, about the new commander, David Petraeus.

Okay, as he said, David Petraeus was heavily involved in crafting the strategy. But how much really has he been involved in the day-to-day running of this counter-insurgency strategy?

MARTIN: Well, you know, he is technically Stanley McChrystal's boss. So even though he sits at a distance - Central Command is actually based in Tampa, Florida - General Petraeus has been in the region extensively during his time in that role. So while he hasnt been there on a day-to-day basis, he has spent time developing relationships with leaders in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan. And it's important to remember that he is the architect of the counter-insurgency strategy.

INSKEEP: That was the basis for the Army and that was used as well in Iraq, and has become an inspiration in some ways for whats being done in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Indeed.

INSKEEP: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post is in our studios this morning. He's author of a book on four American generals, one of whom is David Petraeus.

Greg, welcome to the program.

Mr. GREG JAFFE (Journalist/Author, The Washington Post): Thanks very much.

INSKEEP: If Petraeus was part of the team, what change if any does he bring?

Mr. JAFFE: You know, I think one change he'll bring may be in the relationship with President Karzai. One thing Petraeus was very effective in Iraq was pushing Prime Minister Maliki to do things that were sort of out his comfort zone.

Now, McChrystal had a very positive relationship with Karzai and Karzai was sad to see him go. I think you might see a stormier relationship between Petraeus and Karzai, but I think it might be a more productive relationship for the U.S.

INSKEEP: Oh, now thats really interesting. Isnt that the essence of the problem here - at least as Americans see it - as an Afghan government thats not standing up very well?

Mr. JAFFE: Yeah, I think an Afghan government thats unable to extend its influence in a positive way, beyond, you know, really anywhere in the country. And Petraeus really is a master of sort of politics and governance, which is a rarity in a general. It's something we dont train our generals to do and it's something that Petraeus kind of, throughout a very long career, trained himself to do.


MONTAGNE: Rachel, let me turn to you for a moment and ask - Petraeus is probably the best-known general in America. But his selection, oddly you might say, was something of a surprise.

MARTIN: His selection to this post, indeed, a surprise. You know, I spoke with many people inside the Pentagon and folks on the ground in Afghanistan, who said if there is anyone who could replace Stanley McChrystal it'd be David Petraeus - but he'd never take that job, he's done his time in the field. He's kind of, you know, earned his promotion to command CentCom.

So this did take people by surprise, you know, General Petraeus as well. This is not something he had anticipated doing. But as anyone close to him will tell you, he is a man committed to serving his country, committed to the works. And when the president calls you to go to war, you do.

INSKEEP: Greg Jaffe just said that he's very good at the politics with working with a local working with a country, working with politicians from other countries. Is he also good at the politics here in Washington?

MARTIN: He has curried a lot of favor with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Again, a very unique kind of skill set that General Petraeus wields in the political realm. So this is a decision that garnered a lot of support from the right.

You heard Republicans come out yesterday - Senator Lindsey Graham, John McCain - saying that this was the right decision by president at the right time.

INSKEEP: Greg Jaffe, do you have any sense from your reporting, whether David Petraeus will arrive in Afghanistan as somebody who thinks a lot of things need to be changed in the strategy there?

Mr. JAFFE: I dont think so. I mean General Petraeus tends to believe in bringing in a kind of a few big ideas to a campaign. My sense is that a lot of the big ideas that General McChrystal adopted, which really focused on protecting the population, extending governance rather than focusing on the enemy, those track with a lot of what Petraeus believes in.

I think one thing we can expect to see, is a lot more, sort of, bottom-up solutions. Petraeus is a risk taker. I mean he's a funny combination of a control freak and a risk taker. And in Iraq, what you saw was really reaching out to, sort of, former enemies in the Sunni insurgents, and fomenting a bunch of local solutions that worked in our favor but were real big risks at the time. So, I think you can expect some of that in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Although, there's an interesting thing because there's comparisons being made between Iraq and Afghanistan. And Petraeus and McChrystal, before him, have also emphasized these are not the same countries. How complicated is it to move from overseeing that war in Iraq to the different challenges in Afghanistan?

MARTIN: Well, I think it's going to be...it is a very different war and it's worth pointing out that these are vastly different countries with different infrastructure, different political histories. But again, David Petraeus is a student of military history. He knows an awful lot about this region. It's different than being involved in the day-to-day, but his learning curve is going to be less steep than anyone else's.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, can you give you an example, Greg Jaffe, perhaps you can, of what the difference is?

Mr. JAFFE: I mean, one big difference is, you know, in Iraq it was primarily an American in show. In Afghanistan, it's, you know, he's got a NATO command. So, he's not just sort of focusing on sort of changing the culture of the U.S. military, or focusing this sprawling U.S. military on the problem, he's really got, you know, a whole host of militaries that he's got to bring to his strategy.

INSKEEP: A couple of other quick things before we go here. We put out a call for questions on Twitter and Facebook, and one interesting question came in from Brent Pratt Keys(ph). It's a very simple question. Simply: what's the goal in Afghanistan and how will we know when we reach it?

MARTIN: Well, I'll just chime in on this. You know, Stanley McChrystal, well, he was forward about giving metrics. He didn't like to do it, and aides close to him will say, you know, he liked to act from the gut. He wanted more freedom to say to his higher-ups, give me the leeway to make kind of subjective decisions. Because no one really knows what the end game looks like. And I think generals, including David Petraeus, don't want to be tied to any kind of definition about what victory will look like.

Maybe Greg can chime in on that.

Mr. JAFFE: Yeah, no. I think that these wars sort of demand sort of improvisational skills, and I think that's one thing Petraeus demonstrated in Iraq. You know, the playbook that he sort of brought, wasn't necessarily the playbook he executed there.

INSKEEP: Well, that maybe raises another key question: is General Petraeus supportive of the president's determination - comfortable with the president's determination to start withdrawing troops in 2001?

Mr. JAFFE: I'd be very surprised if we saw big withdrawals in 2011. I think Petraeus is a believer that counterinsurgency campaigns tend to proceed slowly and erratically, and require a tremendous degree of patience. So, I would be surprised if he took the job thinking that there would be big withdrawals in July 2011. I'm sure there will be some, but I doubt they will be big.

MONTAGNE: Although, of course, there's a strong contingent in the White House that is pushing for that, including the vice president. I mean, very briefly, does Petraeus have the standing to maybe, you know, make his vision work?

MARTIN: If anyone does, he does. He is the biggest star in the U.S. military, and so it's likely that he will - what he wants he will most likely get.

INSKEEP: Greg Jaffe, couple of seconds.

Mr. JAFFE: Yeah, no. I think that's absolutely right. He's got more credibility right now than anyone. And I think Obama's selection of him, you know. I mean, we called the surge a doubling down. This is yet another sort of doubling down on this current strategy.

MONTAGNE: Well, we can keep talking about this but we've got to go now. Thank you both very much for joining us.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

Mr. JAFFE: Thanks.

MONTAGNE: National security correspondent for NPR, Rachel Martin. Also, the Washington Post's Greg Jaffe. Also, he is the author of a book about America's top generals. That book is called "The Fourth Star."

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