Generals Change But Afghan Strategy Doesn't President Obama's choice of Gen. David Petraeus as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan clearly signals that U.S. policy there won't change anytime soon. Petraeus was a key architect of the counterinsurgency strategy that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been implementing since last fall.
NPR logo Generals Change But Afghan Strategy Doesn't

Generals Change But Afghan Strategy Doesn't

President Obama walks with Gen. David Petraeus to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Wednesday. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Obama walks with Gen. David Petraeus to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Wednesday.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Obama's decision to name Gen. David Petraeus as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan was the clearest possible signal he could send that American policy there will not change anytime soon.

"What we see in effect is that the administration is doubling down its bet that counterinsurgency is going to work in Afghanistan," says Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University.

Petraeus, who ran military operations in Iraq before becoming head of U.S. Central Command in 2008, has been a primary architect of the counterinsurgency strategy, which seeks to win greater civilian support for the local government through increased security and engagement.

"He's the guy who actually wrote the counterinsurgency manual," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

Challenges Lie Ahead

Petraeus replaces Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was relieved of command in Afghanistan following publication of a Rolling Stone article in which he and members of his staff criticized and even belittled top civilian officials within the Obama administration, including Vice President Biden.

At A Glance: Army Gen. David Petraeus

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Army Gen. David Petraeus
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Born: Nov. 7, 1952; raised in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Recent experience: Took over as head of U.S. Central Command in October 2008 after serving 19 months as the top American commander in Iraq during the troop "surge" to combat the insurgency there. Led the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and capture of Baghdad.

Education: U.S. Military Academy, 1974; Princeton University, master's degree in 1985, doctoral degree in 1987

Source: U.S. Central Command

"Not only is Petraeus an expert at turning around failing counterinsurgencies, but he is also extremely knowledgeable about events in Afghanistan," says Max Boot, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "The transition to him means minimal disruptions."

Petraeus will have to be confirmed by the Senate before officially taking over the post. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a news conference that Petraeus would have no trouble winning confirmation, but added that his hearing will give GOP senators a chance to air their concerns about Obama's July 2011 deadline for beginning withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Petraeus would then face more serious challenges almost immediately — parliamentary elections in September; a scheduled administration review of progress in Afghanistan in December; and next summer's drawdown deadline.

Even supporters of the administration's approach worry that it may not succeed in time to hit that fast-approaching target.

"To believe that you can create a change of the magnitude that we're trying to create in Afghanistan in this short a time frame — I personally don't believe it's possible," Kori Schake, a Hoover Institution research fellow who served as director of defense strategy at the National Security Council from 2002 to 2005, told Robert Siegel on NPR's All Things Considered on Wednesday.

"Moreover," she added, "it doesn't look to me like the Afghans, the Pakistanis, the Taliban or others believe it's possible, either."

Since McChrystal began implementing the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan last fall, U.S. efforts have suffered numerous setbacks. Military missions in Marjah and Kandahar have met with frustration, while efforts to build up the Afghan army and police also have been slow going. Complaints about corruption within the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai are widespread.

Timeline: Afghanistan And The U.S.

From the U.S. invasion in 2001 through President Obama's ouster of top U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, trace important moments in one of America's longest-running wars. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The entire counterinsurgency strategy is based on certain assumptions, including being able to work with a local government that is a viable partner, retired Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes, a senior military fellow at the National Defense University, said on All Things Considered. In Afghanistan, he said, that is "a severely flawed assumption."

But Katulis, who agrees that Obama needs to rethink policy in Afghanistan, notes that the military is only about a third of the way through a planned 18-month phase pursuing this strategy. People inside and outside the administration will wait to see whether the counterinsurgency approach leads to tangible results on the ground within the next six to nine months, he says.

"It would be insane at this point to end the current strategy, if you don't have a new strategy in place yet," says Boot. "There would be a potentially dangerous sense of drift during these critical months of the summer fighting season."

Repairing Relations

One of Petraeus' chief tasks does not involve the Afghans, but rather other Americans. He must repair military relations with civilian authorities that were already badly stressed before the Rolling Stone article exposed the tensions to the world.

"This was both a way to assert civilian control — to send a clear message to the officer corps that this type of shenanigans is intolerable — yet minimize the disruptive effect of changing command of the war," says Bacevich, the Boston University professor.

As commander in Iraq, Petraeus had a close working relationship with Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador there toward the end of the Bush administration. Petraeus, who has shown himself to be a politically sophisticated officer, understands that the military needs to work hand-in-glove with civilian entities to pull off the counterinsurgency approach, Katulis says.

"He's attuned to the need to work in a collaborative fashion with the State Department and other civilian agencies to get his job done," he says.

Katulis also notes that Petraeus has amply demonstrated his skill at a job requirement that McChrystal bungled — knowing how to work the media to his advantage.

"He's been very adept at co-opting journalists who have written glowing books and articles about him," he says. "He knows how to deal with reporters and use them for his purposes, as opposed to the other way around."