The running joke about Obama defenders says that whenever Obama makes one his horrendous moves or continues yet another terrible policy started under George W. Bush, the defenders will claim that he is a master tactician, working many moves ahead of us, sometimes even in dimensions we can’t possibly perceive. With today’s decision by Obama to accept the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal and to ask General David Petraeus to step down one level to assume command of US forces in Afghanistan, Obama has made what I think finally is a good strategic decision on the political front.
Up front, I work from the historical fact that Afghanistan is the ultimate military quagmire. In their continued pursuit of whatever "victory" might be in Afghanistan, the Obama administration and the US military are fighting against the evidence of repeated failures by virtually every force that ever tried to take it. Putting Petraeus in charge of the final few Friedman units of this failure will spell the political end of a figure who had been seen as possibly Obama’s Republican opponent in 2012.
The political success of Petraeus has always been a mystery to me. Consider Gareth Porter’s recounting of Admiral William Fallon’s first meeting with Petraeus:
In sharp contrast to the lionisation of Gen. David Petraeus by members of the U.S. Congress during his testimony this week, Petraeus’s superior, Admiral William Fallon, chief of the Central Command (CENTCOM), derided Petraeus as a sycophant during their first meeting in Baghdad last March, according to Pentagon sources familiar with reports of the meeting.
Fallon told Petraeus that he considered him to be "an ass-kissing little chickenshit" and added, "I hate people like that", the sources say. That remark reportedly came after Petraeus began the meeting by making remarks that Fallon interpreted as trying to ingratiate himself with a superior.
Further, it is especially important to note that in the context of removing McChrsytal from his command, as noted by Marcy Wheeler, Obama was reinforcing the democratic institutions of strict chain of command and civilian control of the military. Closely related to those concepts is the idea that military figures are not to become engaged in political debates. Petraeus violated that concept in September of 2004, when he published an Op-Ed in the Washington Post touting the terrific progress he was making in Iraq, especially in terms of the training of Iraqis for military and police roles. Coming so close to the 2004 elections, Petraeus’ op-ed was interpreted by many as supporting Bush’s reelection campaign, which was pushing back at the time against charges that the war in Iraq was going badly.
Unfortunately, in the media hubbub over the MoveOn "General Betrayus" ad in September 2007, attention was deflected from the real charges in the ad that Petreaus repeatedly has played loose with numbers in describing metrics of his success and from the real fact that the training Petraus was proposing to begin in 2007 was an admission that all of his "training" of Iraqis in the 2004 op-ed was a total failure.
Petraeus inherits an Afghanistan where the war effort is heading straight toward quagmire, and he is facing the situation without his "secret weapon" McChrystal, who won’t be planning night raids and massive arrests of civilians any longer. There is already a well-established UN reporting program in Afghanistan that measures violence and deaths, so it will be much more difficult for Petraeus to fudge the numbers this time.
The only downside to Obama’s decision is that many Afghan civilians and military fighters on both sides will die before a serious US withdrawal begins. But if the war is to continue, it is best for it to take Petreaus’ political aspirations into oblivion with it.