Petraeus fights on a second front -- inside the Beltway
The Taliban are not the only insurgents Gen. David Petraeus must battle. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan is fighting on a second front inside the Washington Beltway, battling anonymous policymakers who seem to be waging an insurgency against his preferred war strategy. The "key terrain" of this battle is the mind of President Barack Obama. The president's looming decisions on who will fill numerous key vacancies inside the Pentagon will play a major part in who wins the war over Afghanistan policy.
The latest exchange of fire occurred in late October when Petraeus declared that an operation to clear Taliban insurgents from key strongholds west of Kandahar was proceeding "more rapidly than was anticipated." A few days after his Kandahar briefing, anonymous Pentagon snipers fired back at Petraeus's rosy assessment, concluding that "[t]he insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience" and that inside the White House there is "uncertainty and skepticism" over the general's account of the operation. For Petraeus, it is apparently easier to chase the Taliban from Kandahar province than it is to suppress resistance in Washington.
But Petraeus has been gaining ground as well. While in Australia, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that come next autumn, the Taliban may be in for a rude surprise when they find "American forces are still there, and still coming after them." Even more importantly, a story this week from McClatchy revealed that the Obama administration has a new message about its timeline for Afghanistan. The administration's new spin is that U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan through 2014, downplaying the previous emphasis on the July 2011 start time for withdrawals.
Although Petraeus should take comfort from this change in the White House message, the upcoming NATO summit in Portugal also likely played a role in the new spin. By emphasizing its troop commitment to Afghanistan through 2014, the U.S. delegation to the summit hopes to bolster its case for other NATO countries to re-up their participation in that same tour of duty.
After his long deliberation in 2009 over what to do about Afghanistan, Obama largely granted the Afghan Surge Faction (Gates, Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen) what it wanted. But he also made clear his resistance to a long-term commitment: "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."
Is he now abandoning that resistance? We don't know. But we will know much more in the months ahead, when Obama announces who will replace Gates and Mullen, along with his picks for the next Joint Chiefs of Staff vice-chairman and Army chief of staff.
"Personnel is policy," goes the Washington dictum. Obama found himself unable to reject the Afghanistan policy advice he received from Gates and Mullen, holdovers from George W. Bush's administration. In 2011 he will have his own choices for those billets. Who he picks for the Pentagon's top jobs will say a lot about how Obama intends to deal with Afghanistan during the remainder of his term -- and whether Petraeus or his critics will win the Battle of the Beltway.