Obama's War: Petraeus Appointment a Coup with Risks

By Marco Evers, Marc Hujer, and

With the dismissal of his commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus as his successor, US President Barack Obama has tied the success of his presidency to progress in the war in Afghanistan. He has also deftly sidelined a potential competitor in the next presidential campaign.

Photo Gallery: Obama's Hope for Afghanistan Photos
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It is a Monday evening, at about 8 p.m., when US President Barack Obama's press secretary makes his way from the West Wing of the White House to the president's private quarters, a copy of the now infamous article in the music magazine Rolling Stone in hand. When he reaches the president's quarters, he immediately starts looking for Obama, who is normally having dinner with his family at this time. Mr. President, he says as Obama meets him on the ground floor, there's an article here that you have to see. In the article, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, is quoted as making inappropriate remarks about everyone and everything.

Obama begins reading the article, but he doesn't have to read much more than the first two or three paragraphs, in which the general is described on a trip to Paris, where he behaves like a teenager, engaging in coarse male humor with his staff, and, referring to a scheduled dinner with a French cabinet minister, says: "I would rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner." One of his aides characterizes the dinner engagement as "fucking gay."

After reading the first few paragraphs, Obama looks irate, says a member of his staff. At this point, it is already clear to him that McChrystal will have to go, and he hasn't even read the disrespectful passages in which he himself is mentioned. "The president wasn't furious about the things that were said about him," says the staff member. Instead, his immediate concern, apparently, was over how such insults could affect the US's allies in Afghanistan, like the French, who have supported the war for years.

Obama's aides like to tell the story of that decisive evening, when the president saw the Rolling Stone article for the first time and read how his supreme commander in Afghanistan humiliated him, his country and his administration. They see it as evidence of how quickly Obama took the initiative that evening, because he understood immediately how dangerous a general can be who insults his allies in the middle of a war and makes snide comments about the civilians on the White House's Afghanistan team.

'Now Is the Time for All of Us to Come Together'

Obama fired the disrespectful general 40 hours later. Now Obama is standing in the White House Rose Garden with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the United States Central Command for the entire Middle East and Afghanistan, a position in which he was McChrystal's superior. Now he will also become the general's successor. Obama seems cool and decisive when he says, momentously: "War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president … now is the time for all of us to come together."

Until this moment, Petraeus was probably the most unlikely candidate for the position, because, in complying with Obama's request, he is not only taking a step down in the hierarchy to run the war from Kabul. Petraeus has political talents, and some say that could even run against Obama as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012. If he had any such intentions, taking a step that aligns him more closely with Obama would not have been expedient. For the president, it was a successful coup that hardly anyone had expected. The Washington Post offered sardonic praise for the president, writing that the scene at the White House had been "rare enough to be worth the suffering (through temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the Rose Garden): The commander in chief was being commanding."

Is this the break Obama has been waiting for, a "stroke of brilliance, an unassailable move, politically and strategically," as Fred Kaplan writes in the online magazine Slate? Or has Obama just become even more embroiled in a war that could already be unwinnable?

In appointing Petraeus to success McChrystal, Obama has chosen the strongest proponent of the troop surge strategy. But if the war continues to drag on, he will come to be seen as a war president and, when he runs for reelection, could have trouble gaining the support of voters who already hold it against him that the Afghanistan campaign has already lasted longer than World War II.

Can the War Still Be Won?

The war in Afghanistan is not just controversial among Americans. There are growing doubts among Obama's allies over whether they should continue to support the war in Central Asia by sending their own troops. No European government "can afford to sustain a foreign policy that is so deeply unpopular at home ... for very long," Pakistani strategist Ahmed Rashid recently warned in an essay in SPIEGEL.

On the Sunday before last, the increasingly war-weary British mourned the death of their 300th fallen soldier since the beginning of the Afghanistan mission. During the course of the week, another seven young Britons lost their lives. Such losses reinforce doubts over whether the conflict can still be won militarily.

But hardly anyone dares to openly express these doubts. There is, however, one person who has repeatedly questioned the Afghanistan strategy. Unlike McChrystal, Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's envoy to Afghanistan, has pushed for negotiations with the Taliban. Last week, the British Foreign Office abruptly announced that Cowper-Coles had taken "extended leave" from his position in Afghanistan, and it appears unlikely that he will return to Afghanistan.

The Poles, the seventh-largest contingent in Afghanistan, also recently announced their upcoming withdrawal from the mission, following on the heels of the Canadians and the Dutch, who decided to bring home their troops months ago.

Germany, however, where the majority of citizens also oppose the war, is not expected to announce its withdrawal -- not yet, at any rate. Although McChrystal frequently made derisive remarks about the German troops in Afghanistan, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg regretted the departure of the ousted general: "I have always had an excellent working relationship with McChrystal and see few reasons to make any changes to his strategy."

With his decisive move, Obama undoubtedly scored an important victory at home. Petraeus is America's most popular general and uncontroversial across the political spectrum. Even Obama's Republican adversary John McCain praised the president's decision and said that he would do whatever he could to ensure that the Senate confirmed Petraeus this week. Newsweek wrote: "By replacing a general who was universally criticized with a general who almost can't be criticized, President Obama pulled a political masterstroke."

The military leadership can't complain about the personnel change at the top, even though the Pentagon and its top brass held McChrystal in high regard. A change was already overdue in Obama's Afghanistan team. McChrystal was too much at odds with the US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, with the national security advisor, General James Jones, and with the special envoy for Afghanistan, the choleric Richard Holbrooke.

McChrystal was too proud of his men and their unceremonious behavior, men who were leery of diplomatic tactics. In the backslapping macho world in which McChrystal felt at home, politeness borders on flattery. Beleaguered Afghan President Hamid Karzai was one of his only allies, and for Karzai, McChrystal was the last American in whom he had full confidence.

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1. From Alexander to Von Clawsewitz: a mountanious region requires mobile operations
Norberto_Tyr 06/29/2010
From Alexander to Von Clausewitz: ‘a mountainous region requires mobile operations since forts and static positions are easy to surround and overcome’, and this is not NATO’s adopted strategy, in fact it is the opposite, namely concentrating the effort in the main cities. Upgrading the amount of troops and establishing a short deadline (2011) to complete the operation is another strategic mistake, Taliban only needs to wait. Petraeus ‘success’ in Iraq is another mass media myth, suicide bombs and sabotaging oil infrastructure have escalated recently. Strategically, Iraq and Afghanistan are quite different, one was a centralized tyranny and now is a chaotic competition between different civilizations and interests to control resources, the other, a loose confederation of tribes; it would be rather strange if the same recipe works in both cases, nevertheless, reality indicates the opposite, it failed in both. An even bigger mistake is to assume that the Afghan population would appreciate the ‘modus vivendi’ imposed by foreigners. No, they will not. “I like baseball, you will like it as well once I teach you” is a dangerous extrapolation and a blatant violation to the rules of syllogisms. In my view, it is easier for the American people becoming Taliban than Taliban becoming ‘Americans’, whatever the term ‘american’ could mean in the XXI century. Regarding the new David Petraeus’ appointment, it will not change a thing from the political perspective, in the first place I doubt he will move to Afghanistan permanently, and in the second place, the mass media apparatus can fabricate another victory 'Iraq style' at any moment just for TV. Norberto
2. The unfinished works of Clausewitz: counter-insurgency
saltywalt 06/30/2010
Clausewitz most influential treatise, On War, was a work in progress at the time of his death. He was in the process of studying and examining counter-insurgencies and non-traditional warfare, or war not between states during his later years. His work on non-traditional warfare ended abruptly after succumbing to cholera; as a result, the later work, not complete, was never published. Clausewitz was pragmatic in military practice. He was instrumental in cobbling together the unlikely coalition of Russia, Prussia, and Britain to challenge and ultimately defeat Napoleon. He was similarly ready to do the same in regards to the threat of untraditional warfare, which sprang from the abstract forces of political turmoil. The career of Clausewitz, in both his writings and military career, is one of a man steeped in the realpolitik of war and diplomacy. President Obama has a powerful grasp of realpolitik; more powerful than any American president in quite some time. That McChystal has a firm grasp of the impolitic goes without saying. The pedestrian yet practical Petraeus is the most capable commander in dealing with insurgency. He is no Clausewitz but good enough The so-called success of the surge is often attributed to the effects of having more boots on the ground in an area plagued by insurgency. While more troops may have had some effect in Iraq, Petraeus' plan to pay local families and any small form of assistant with a small bribe (5-10 dollars or so) would pay dividends in goodwill and useful contacts. Insurgents who defected were given money, but more importantly, they were supplied with machine guns of high repute in the country and were enlisted to fight with the marines against the more radicalized holdouts. Abstract concepts like local prestige and militaristic totems combined with practical considerations like cash money were the real factors behind the surge and the sizable drop in U.S. casualties. The expectations of the American public concerning Afghanistan are practical. Nobody in America gives a damn about turning Afghanistan into America, and nobody believes that modernization or even instituting baseball is possible or practical. Gone are the days when news stations prattled about the education of Afghani girls and gender equality in a culture and atmosphere completely different from their own. America is having enough trouble funding its own schools at the moment. The decisive victory of Barrack Hussein Obama in 2008 is indeed a reflection that the American public understood that their elected government erred in many things on the international scene, especially Iraq. Obama is still not politically liable for Afghanistan, Iraq, or economic recession; his protest of the invasion of Iraq has also not been lost on the American public. People trust his acumen in international affairs, and people understand that the Bush administration was really, really bad. Political trends and attitudes will continue to buck conventional wisdom for quite some time. Political science and similarly the science of economics fall to wayside when they are needed most. Obama has more political capital at stake Afghanistan, but at the same time the troops are arriving in Afghanistan, the unpopular war in Iraq has and will be winding down. Those factors are conducive to mitigating military setbacks in Afghanistan conflict. At any rate, foreign policy has a negligible effect on domestic politics at the moment. Merkel's defiance to international criticism and pressure regarding Germany's economic decisions is an indication that domestic economy trumps everything in times of depression. People are worried about important personal matters like finding or keeping a job and providing for their families; international squabbles-with the exception of China's devaluation of the Yuan-do not rank that high in importance. Still, Obama is a student of realpolitik and knows things can change. A real economic recovery in 2012 would naturally heighten the focus on foreign policy especially the war in Afghanistan. The boorish McChrysal was an obvious liability even if the war was successfully prosecuted. Obama is covering his back by placing the most respected and proficient commander in Afghanistan to do whatever is needed to get the troops get out of there.
3.
BTraven 07/02/2010
---Quote (Originally by saltywalt)--- President Obama has a powerful grasp of realpolitik; more powerful than any American president in quite some time. That McChystal has a firm grasp of the impolitic goes without saying. The pedestrian yet practical Petraeus is the most capable commander in dealing with insurgency. He is no Clausewitz but good enough The so-called success of the surge is often attributed to the effects of having more boots on the ground in an area plagued by insurgency. While more troops may have had some effect in Iraq, Petraeus' plan to pay local families and any small form of assistant with a small bribe (5-10 dollars or so) would pay dividends in goodwill and useful contacts. Insurgents who defected were given money, but more importantly, they were supplied with machine guns of high repute in the country and were enlisted to fight with the marines against the more radicalized holdouts. Abstract concepts like local prestige and militaristic totems combined with practical considerations like cash money were the real factors behind the surge and the sizable drop in U.S. casualties. ---End Quote--- I have enjoyed reading you article, however, I cannot share your opinion that Petraeus’ plan of “bribing” all those who up to now have worked together closely with Taliban will be successful. I hope it will turn out that my pessimism was wrong but I think it will be very difficult to control what happened after the money was handed out to the ones who were bribed. Without a strict military dominance it would be impossible to create a condition which will make it impossible for the Taliban to stay in the area because it has no chance to influence the population any more. A strategy where both delivering humanitarian aid and executing military can be provided is necessary. I am not sure whether the allies are able to implement it. By the way, it is not sure that a policy which worked in Iraq where the population is enlightened and where women had enjoyed rights the fair sex in other Arabian countries can only dream of will achieve some success, too.
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