WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus didn't sign on as the new Afghanistan commander because he expects to lose.
That's the boldest aspect of President Barack Obama's decision: He has put a troubled Afghanistan campaign in the hands of a man who has had the experience of bending what looked like failure in Iraq toward an acceptable measure of success. Obama has doubled down on his bet, much as George Bush did with his risky surge of troops in Iraq under Petraeus' command.
Here's a simple way to think about the change of command: If the Taliban sold stock, its price would surely have fallen after Wednesday's announcement. It's hard to see how Petraeus can rejigger the pieces of this puzzle, but as I've heard him say: "The thing about winners is that they know how to win."
Petraeus is, among other things, the most deft political figure I've seen in uniform. He has gone in the space of two years from being Bush's go-to general to being Barack Obama's. He accomplished that transition with some artful dancing, to be sure. But he never forgot that no matter how much of a military rock star he might have become, he still worked for civilian leadership, one president at a time.
If I were Petraeus, I would have bargained for one thing before agreeing to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — the time needed to succeed. This means a flexible, conditions-based interpretation of Obama's July 2011 timetable for beginning to withdraw troops.
Petraeus offered a carefully worded, deliberately ambiguous formula when he testified before the House and Senate Armed Services committees last week: "It's important that July 2011 be seen for what it is, the date when a process begins based on conditions, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits." The administration is still split on what this means — and it's Petraeus' biggest potential problem.
Petraeus has watched McChrystal's troubles with mounting concern. For someone as attuned to political nuance as Petraeus, it was a shock to see McChrystal stumble in his public statements — and allow his aides to speak to Rolling Stone in language that bordered on insubordination. Petraeus, surely the most media-saavy commander in uniform, will not make those mistakes.
I've traveled extensively with Petraeus over the past six years in Iraq and Afghanistan. What stands out, beyond his extraordinary ambition and willpower, is his willingness to experiment — especially when the chips are down. In putting together the surge strategy, he gathered a team of iconoclasts — officers who were willing to think outside the box.
Creativity will be crucial in Afghanistan, where the strategy McChrystal devised is, frankly, spinning its wheels. I would bet that Petraeus will put more emphasis on bottom-up experiments. He's good at working both sides of the street — placating presidents and prime ministers while he dickers with local militia leaders.
Petraeus is also an operator, in the sense that he likes to use back-channel emissaries to communicate with a wide range of players. Such a strategic edge has been missing in our Afghanistan policy, and it will become crucial next year, as we enter a likely phase of contact with the Taliban and its allies to explore a possible reconciliation deal. Nobody is better in the U.S. military at the mix of fighting and talking in such ambiguous situations.
Petraeus must now bring order to the discordant characters in Obama's "team of rivals" on Afghan policy. The new commander understands, too, that this strategy might better be called "Pak-Af," since the key to success is Pakistani willingness to close the Taliban's safe havens in the tribal areas. He has a clear vision, too, of how the Kandahar campaign must unfold, with U.S. and Afghan forces working together in "joint security stations" across the city, as happened in Baghdad during the surge.
Traveling with Petraeus in Afghanistan last October, I watched as he turned a routine visit to the wondrously named village of Baraki Barak into a lesson in hands-on counterinsurgency. He drank glass after glass of tea from a dirty mug, scarfed down loaves of flatbread, literally breathed in the place — to give the local residents a personal sense of the American mission. That's the creative, manipulative, media-age commander that Obama has chosen for Kabul.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group