Obama May Gain `Breathing Room' on Afghan Strategy
President Barack Obama may have bought time to carry out a counterinsurgency strategy that has faced resistance in Afghanistan amid concern that his timetable to begin withdrawing U.S. troops by next year may be set back.
The president appointed General David Petraeus, a winning warrior and seasoned diplomat, to lead the military mission in Afghanistan, a move that may make it harder for critics to challenge the war strategy.
The appointment of Petraeus “will allow us to maintain the momentum and leadership that we need to succeed,” Obama said yesterday at the White House.
Obama named Petraeus, who led a surge of American troops in Iraq that helped defeat an insurgency there, to replace General Stanley McChrystal as head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after McChrystal and unnamed aides belittled administration officials.
McChrystal has been commanding 142,000 troops from the U.S. and 45 allied nations and was in the midst of leading the biggest, and possibly most decisive, military offensive of the war in Kandahar Province, the Taliban’s heartland. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen told a Senate panel last week, “As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan.”
The U.S. plans to reassess the strategy in December and train enough Afghan soldiers to allow a drawdown to begin in July 2011. That date has drawn criticism from Republicans, while some Democrats have voiced concern it won’t be met.
The appointment of Petraeus “will give the president breathing room during what could have been a tumultuous time,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security analyst for the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Threat to Unity
Petraeus, 57, commander of American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, must be confirmed by the Senate. The Armed Services Committee is likely to hold hearings as early as June 29, said panel chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.
Obama’s decision to remove McChrystal, 55, was triggered by an article in Rolling Stone magazine that quoted the general and aides who weren’t identified criticizing the president and other civilian leaders of the war. The uproar threatened to fracture the unified front Obama has sought to build for the war and the international coalition doing the fighting.
The profile, “The Runaway General,” quotes McChrystal and aides mocking Vice President Joseph Biden and criticizing special envoy for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry. Most of the critical comments were attributed to the unnamed aides.
Obama reacted with anger upon reading the article, said spokesman Robert Gibbs, and officials from the White House to the Pentagon to Congress called McChrystal’s remarks a serious lapse in judgment.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had urged Obama to retain McChrystal, accepted the president’s decision to remove him, spokesman Waheed Omar said in a telephone interview.
“President Karzai respects his decision,” Omar said in Kabul.
“General Petraeus is a very experienced soldier who knows Afghanistan and the region and has a great understanding of the situation here,” Omar said.
Petraeus has been head of U.S. Central Command, which includes oversight of operations in Afghanistan, since October 2008. He took over there after his predecessor, Admiral William Fallon, resigned amid a controversy over his comments in an Esquire magazine article that exposed differences with then- President George W. Bush over U.S. policy toward Iran. Prior to that, Petraeus commanded U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, where he carried out Bush’s revised strategy for that conflict.
Praise From Lawmakers
Petraeus’s name first came up as a replacement for McChrystal on Tuesday night during talks with Pentagon representatives, an administration official said. He was offered the job after Obama met with senior White House and military advisers, following the president’s morning meeting with McChrystal, said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
McChrystal’s deputy, British Lieutenant General Nick Parker, will lead the coalition in Afghanistan and Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, who runs day-to-day operations, will be top U.S. commander until the Senate confirms Petraeus.
Obama’s decision on Petraeus won praise from Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said at a joint news conference that McChrystal had left Obama with no choice.
Obama “made the right decision,” said Lieberman. “We have a higher probability” of success “with David Petraeus in charge.”
The lawmakers, all members of the Armed Services Committee, said the administration must now work on making non-military efforts in Afghanistan more effective.
Obama has staked a major piece of his foreign policy on the outcome in Afghanistan. He reconfirmed his commitment to the war in December, when he authorized the deployment of 30,000 additional troops, even as support from the public and other nations flagged.
The president stuck with that strategy in his announcement yesterday. “This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy,” he said.
In removing McChrystal, Obama ousted a man he entrusted a year ago with salvaging the war effort.
“As difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe it is the right decision,” Obama said. The belittling comments the general and aides made do “not meet the standards that should be set by a commanding general.”
McChrystal issued a statement after Obama spoke, saying he backed the president’s approach in the conflict.
“I strongly support the president’s strategy in Afghanistan and am deeply committed to our coalition forces, our partner nations, and the Afghan people,” McChrystal said. “It was out of respect for this commitment -- and a desire to see the mission succeed -- that I tendered my resignation.”