WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's decision to fire Gen. Stanley McChrystal will create new complications for the troubled U.S. effort to stabilize Afghanistan, but selecting Gen. David Petraeus to replace him represents an attempt to minimize disruptions resulting from a change in command.
In his year as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, McChrystal forged the closest relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai of any senior American official. He selected the officers who populate senior ranks of the multinational headquarters in Kabul. And he created a campaign plan that outlines a series of troop movements and operations reflecting his interpretation of the strategy set by Obama and his national security Cabinet last year.
With McChrystal gone, much of that will have to be built anew — at a moment when the military and civilian government agencies have little time left to generate the momentum needed to convince Afghans and Americans alike that the U.S. strategy, backed by 30,000 additional troops, will be able to marginalize the Taliban. Obama made clear as he deployed the new forces that some of them would begin to come home next summer.
Although Petraeus has met Karzai on multiple occasions, the two men will need to develop a better understanding of each other. Petraeus will have to form his own team; McChrystal's inner circle was responsible for some of the most incendiary comments in the magazine article that led to his downfall. And Petraeus may want to put his own tactical refinements on the war plan, even though overall counterinsurgency strategy remains largely unchanged.
But Petraeus has a jump-start in dealing with all of the challenges. As commander of the U.S. Central Command, he was one of McChrystal's two bosses, and he is more steeped in the Afghan war than any other four-star general. He has been a regular visitor to Kabul and knows not just Karzai but many other senior Afghan government officials — last month he met for two hours with Karzai's half-brother, the chief power broker in the violent province of Kandahar. He also has worked closely with top U.S. civilian officials responsible for Afghanistan, including special envoy Richard Holbrooke, and he was an active participant in a three-month-long White House policy review that culminated in Obama's decision last fall to send the additional troops.
"The decision to name Petraeus is the least disruptive way of removing McChrystal," said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and leader of an Afghan strategy review team for Obama in early 2009. "Petraeus knows the strategy inside and out, he knows the plans — he is as much of an architect of this as Gen. McChrystal."
But, Riedel added, "It's still going to be a setback because disruption is inevitable any time you change a commander."
By all accounts, Petraeus would not seek to fundamentally transform the war effort. As CentCom commander he signed off on McChrystal's campaign plan, and he has remained a staunch defender of the counterinsurgency strategy being implemented by the military. It is, after all, drawn heavily on strategic changes he promulgated and then implemented in Iraq during the troop surge there.
Petraeus also will be able to draw upon his large CentCom staff to help fill positions in Kabul that will be vacated by McChrystal's team, and he should have little problem picking up where McChrystal left off in changing the way the 46-nation coalition addresses the Taliban insurgency. Petraeus, even more than McChrystal, is the military's foremost advocate for combating insurgencies by emphasizing the protection of civilians over killing enemies.
Petraeus, who spends most of his time on the road, has developed deep relationships with leaders in neighboring Pakistan and beyond, including in Central Asian capitals that have become important transit hubs for the war effort and in the Persian Gulf states that could play a key role in reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In Washington, he is well-known and highly respected; in 2007, he almost single-handedly rebuffed congressional pressure on then-President George W. Bush to scale back the mission in Iraq.
Despite those advantages, Petraeus will nonetheless face a set of challenges that appear even more difficult than what he encountered when he assumed command of the foundering Iraq war.
An operation to pacify the onetime insurgent sanctuary of Marja, which was supposed to demonstrate new momentum in the fight, is taking longer — and proving bloodier — than expected. An upcoming mission to improve security in Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, has been delayed and scaled back because of opposition from Afghan leaders, including Karzai. And efforts to get the Afghan government to take more responsibility for helping its population have faltered.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Petraeus insisted that the strategy was starting to demonstrate results in Afghanistan. He argued that "the conduct of a counterinsurgency operation is a roller-coaster experience. … This is an up-and-down process. And that defines the experience of counterinsurgency, where there's no hill that you can take and plant the flag and then go home to a victory parade. Rather, progress is almost the absence of something."
It is essential, he said, "that people do realize there has been progress, but there clearly have also been setbacks."