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James Denselow

James Denselow

Posted: May 13, 2009 04:08 AM

Betting on Petraeus


During the Bush years a regular heard sound-byte concerning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was that 'commanders on the ground' were taking the lead in decision making. Unpopular wars were being fought by a popular military that the White House conveniently hid behind to mask its own failures of leadership.

The paradox of course was that when the Bush White House was finally persuaded to change direction in Iraq, the 'commander on the ground' General Casey was bumped upstairs. But Barack Obama is not George Bush and the decision to replace General McKiernan is evidence of a much more demanding White House that will look to actively involve itself and rapidly reconfigure tactics that don't bear fruit.

The decision to replace a Bush appointee marks the first time a civilian has fired a wartime commander since President Harry Truman ousted General Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for questioning Truman's Korean War strategy. Perhaps most surprisingly is how sudden his exit was, only last month McKiernan featured in Time magazine's top 100, with former Democratic Presidential nominee Wesley Clark describing him as "extraordinarily calm under stress, a clear thinker, tough and morally courageous". Indeed to read transcripts of McKiernan's press briefings it is hard to identify any clear water in policy terms between what him and Obama have been saying.

So does his sacking represent an attempt by a new White House administration, with a Commander-in-Chief with no military experience (not even in the Texas national guard), to assert itself over the military brass?

Perhaps not, despite initial concerns raised by General Petraeus when he hosted Senator Obama in Iraq in 2008, the decisions on troop numbers in Afghanistan and withdrawal timetables in Iraq are evidence of the politics of pragmatic compromise been the White House and the military.

Simon Tisdall is right that the shadow of Petraeus looms large over Mckiernan's dismissal. When Petraeus was running the show in Iraq Admiral Fallon, like Mckiernan considered to be a conventional thinker who regularly questioned the logic of the 'surge' and adoption of a new counterinsurgency manual, was also 'stood down' early in his term, albeit that he was allowed to fall on his own sword.

The key to Petraeus' thinking towards counterinsurgency is the primacy of protecting the population in order to suffocate the support given to an insurgency campaign. That Mckiernan oversaw what is describing as a rolling series of airstrikes that Afghan sources claim killed 147 civilians on, of all days, the day when Obama brought together the fragile alliance of Karzai and Zardari, was probably the antithesis of such an approach.

Petraeus was always likely to become a natural ally of Obama. The two share the trappings of intellectualism, are authors of several books and are comfortable sparring with the media. Back in 2007 Jack Keane and Raymond Odierno were the heavy-weight backers that helped convince a desperate Bush administration looking for a short cut to historical absolution that Petraeus was their man.

Now with success in Iraq the possible guarantor of a run at the White House in future, Petraeus has sold his complicated new counter-insurgency strategy to Obama. Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, Mckiernan's replacement in Afghanistan, fits into this strategy with a background in the Special Forces and a CV that fits into Secretary Gates' idea of 'new thinking and new approaches from our military leaders'.

Bringing security and some form of stability to the AfPak arena will be Petreaus' greatest challenge yet. As hundreds are killed in an escalating orgy of violence that spreads from the Swat valley into Afghanistan, it is worth remembered that Mckiernan's abrupt sacking may well have been Petreaus's decision but its consequences are certainly Obama's responsibility.