02/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and His Commanders

General David Petraeus greeting Barack Obama when he arrived in Iraq last summer, in this AP raw footage from the tarmac.

Now we're into one of the most fascinating parts of the new Obama Administration, President Barack Obama's relationship with America's military commanders. How successful will he be in working with these people, and in carrying out the shift away from the old Bush/Cheney priorities?

Next week, Obama goes to the Pentagon, for a a meeting in the highly secure "Tank" with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While he's keeping Defense Secretary Bob Gates on, we don't yet know how many, if any, of the individual service chiefs -- Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force -- Obama intends to retain after their terms end. Nor do we know what his plans are for the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen. Nor do we yet know what he wants to do with the current chiefs of the US Armed Forces' international commands.

Barack Obama questioning General David Petraeus last April on what can be considered a successful outcome in Iraq.

We do know that Obama already met, on Wednesday, with one general whose job looks secure for now, Central Command chief David Petraeus, as well as JCS chief Admiral Mullen, Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Obama's national security advisor, former Marine Corps commandant and NATO commander Jim Jones.

After that meeting, Obama said: "I asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq."

If things hold together in Iraq -- and that's a big if, dependent on factional factors inside the country and America's ability to engage Iran -- Obama's goal of withdrawing combat troops from the country in 16 months is very do-able.

Of course, Obama is planning a surge in troubled Afghanistan to coincide with the Iraq drawdown.

Petraeus, subject of a memorable ad as "General Betray-us" (done by a one-time colleague of mine), appears key to all of this. The Iraq commander during the surge is now the head of US Central Command, which covers both the Iraq and Afghan Wars, and has in its "area of responsibility" Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. In other words, a lot of the hot spots in the news. Although Central Command's official headquarters is in Florida, its regional headquarters is in Qatar, just like Al Jazeera, the powerful Arab TV network.

A top Republican operator, a John McCain man who admires Petraeus, told me this the week before Obama's inauguration: "Now America's smartest general and America's smartest politician get to work together."

For all the blood-and-guts hero worship of Petraeus on the far right, he's actually a very political general. At the dawn of his career, upon his graduation from West Point, he married the daughter of the Military Academy's commanding general. His approach around the Iraq surge was at least as political as it was military, playing the various Iraqi factions against one another and for the US and even engaging with Iran on its interests in quelling the violence.

Petraeus arrived in Washington on the night of Obama's inauguration, having just concluded a lengthy tour of the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia, during which he consulted with the leaders of the various former Soviet republics and with top Russian figures.

For all the single-minded nature of conventional media focus, Iraq and Afghanistan are part of multiplex challenges involving Pakistan, India, the overall Middle East, and Russia.

And for all the surrounding complexity, what is needed is clarity. Iraq became a spiraling obsession for the Bush/Cheney Administration. Afghanistan, where the objectives should have been clear (to thoroughly disrupt Al Qaeda and deny it that base of operations), became the latest unfinished Attention Deficit Disorder operation for a White House pursuing the illusory glitter of its own dark dream.

Barack Obama visiting Afghanistan in July, in this Al Jazeera report.

Now Afghanistan -- the "good, neglected war," as Democrats have typed it -- requires clarity and realism. Lacking that invites quagmire. What is the overall goal in Afghanistan? Nation-building in a far-flung failed state which has successfully resisted outsiders for centuries, not least the British and Soviet empires? Or the original post-9/11 objectives?

That's something that Obama, with various civilian and military leaders, including Petraeus, needs to be very clear about.

In the meantime, Obama wants to stabilize the situation, something increasingly difficult because of Pakistan. The US has long relied on supply lines through increasingly unstable Pakistan, a longtime haven for Al Qaeda and Taliban cadre after they were chased out of Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. There have been recent closures of those lines, in the legendary Khyber Pass and elsewhere, due to Islamic jihadist attacks. Peshawar, the longtime regional capital, is increasingly unstable.

Barack Obama visiting with US troops last summer in the Middle East.

The U.S. has struck deals with Russia and neighboring countries allowing it to transport supplies to American troops in Afghanistan through their territory, the head of U.S. Central Command said Tuesday. Most supplies for U.S. and NATO troops must first pass through northern Pakistan via the Arabian Sea port of Karachi, a treacherous route sometimes closed because of attacks by Islamist militants.

But it's probably not that easy, not that that was easy. Moscow will probably want more concessions. In fact, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has just been re-tracking Petraeus's steps in Central Asia.

It's unclear how salvageable the situation is inside Pakistan, where US missile strikes against jihadists have begun again under the Obama Administration. In fact, it was Obama himself who first publicly called for such strikes, in 2007. Which ironically prompted criticism of Obama by then frontrunner Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and some in the Bush/Cheney Administration.

Perhaps a more explicit deal can be done with Iran to help with supplies and with stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan.

With all the demonization of Iran, something that its wild-eyed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made easier, it's easy to forget that, like Russia, Iran helped the US bring down the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Besides, after the US toppled Saddam, one might even say that Iran owes the US a favor for making it a bigger regional power than it would ever otherwise have been.

Sardonic humor aside, watching Obama work with Petraeus and his other commanders is going to be quite fascinating.