Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why the unexpected Petraeus pick is incredibly savvy (UPDATED)

UPDATE: I have no idea why comments were disabled up until this point, but they're not anymore. We're trying out a new system, so let us know how you like it.

The news is in: McChrystal out, Petraeus in. There's tons of analysis out there already, so I'm not going to waste your time and mine by parroting the same sorts of things everyone's writing. But here's my brief take on why this is an inspired pick, from both the political and practical perspectives.

  1. If King David can't do it, no one can. The president tapped the one guy more tightly associated with our chosen operational approach than GEN McChrystal was. If Afghanistan goes bad, it will look like it was because of an impossible mission... not a bad plan. The White House can complain that the COINdinistas sold them a bill of goods, an they didn't know any better. The president has put himself under GEN Petraeus' flag; as afpakchannel noted on Twitter, P4 "would probably have to punch Joe Biden in the face before Obama would fire him." Daddy's home from work, and he's gonna take care of everything.
  2. The right has to shut the hell up. Republicans trip over themselves to compliment Petraeus, and none of them have the nads to publically question whether his success in Iraq is transferrable to other theaters. If the president sticks to his guns and his withdrawal timeline, or even reverses course and speeds up the drawdown, the right won't be able to suggest that he's sabotaging the effort or failing to support the troops. After all, he sent the number one guy!
  3. GEN Petraeus is already on the record with his commitment to the drawdown timeline. Jonathan Alter reported on a conversation where P4, Secretary Gates, and Admiral Mullen all agree to the president's plan, and pledge not to come back for more troops in 18 months. GEN McChrystal did, too, but you'd expect the theater commander to say just about whatever he needed to to get his resources. GEN Petraeus has said he thinks it can be done, which insulates the president when it comes time to make the drawdown happen.


  1. We already know how GEN Petraeus does business. Look, there's always going to be a little bit of lag time while a new CG gets up to speed, especially in a coalition command the size and complexity of ISAF. Not too many people have ever done a job like that. P4 has. He's got a system, he's got a routine, he's got a way of doing business... and there are dozens, even hundreds of people who saw it up close.
  2. CENTCOM's regional responsibility will help keep Afghanistan in perspective. GEN Petraeus has spent his time in Tampa looking at how Afghanistan fits into a broader regional picture, both with regard to Pakistan and to wider central and south Asian security. This perspective will hopefully help mitigate against the theater commander's natural tendency to think that his war and his command is the only thing that matters, and to ignore the consequences of his efforts on the bigger picture. Petraeus is going to do his damnedest to succeed in Afghanistan, but we can reasonably hope that his definition of success will be bigger than just that country.
  3. There's no doubt about P4's COIN credentials. Whether you think it's good or bad, GEN Petraeus is the leading light of the COINdinista movement in today's American military. McChrystal could always be criticized as a door kicker, a special operator, a guy who "got it" because he had to, but didn't really get it. (Some have fairly criticized the outgoing COMISAF for trying to slap on the COIN template without really understanding the whys and wherefores. I don't know if this is true or not, but I do suspect that McChrystal's ideas about what was rhetorically necessary and what is tactically required were probably a touch out of synch.) You can't say that about Petraeus. If the execution of this COIN enterprise in Afghanistan fails, you can't say it's because of user error. So it's a win-win for critics and proponents: if we're successful, then great! If we're not, then it will demand a critical look at the failings of our doctrine and operational methods.

Like I wrote before, this is just a quick take. I know it's not exactly novel to say "Petraeus is a good pick!," but hopefully this helps illuminate why this is precisely so.

Do you agree?


  1. Point 3 on politics strikes me as a bit off. Was it not just last week Petraeus was testifying that the administration had not specified the *number* of troops to be withdrawn? (Or as the nastier folks put it - they will send a platoon home and say they have begun withdrawal.)

  2. T. Greer -- I take your point, but I think this illustrates a general misunderstanding of what the president actually said. The mission's not ending, but the surge of additional troops is. GEN Petraeus is on the record as being committed to that timeline for withdrawal of the first units. I'm not sure it matters how many come out. At this point, everyone knows we're not talking about the bulk of the force.


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