Secretary of Defense Robert Gates touched off a firestorm last August by hinting at a 2011 resignation. His remarks to Foreign Policy crested into a full-blown military transition, which will install a new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) in September and could see a new Defense Secretary and commander in Afghanistan. Speculation won’t end until conclusively proven right or wrong, but how much truth exists in a complete turnover?
And what are its implications for U.S. policy as a whole?
One certainty springs forth regardless of who ends up filling what chair: Beltway politics are being factored into military aptitude. Not the type of political considerations that, in order to reduce friction in the chain of command, seek to pair like-minded officials with the president. General David Petraeus appears to have been dropped from consideration for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs out of internal fears that he may be too like-minded with Barack Obama. As in he wants the Oval Office.
Petraeus’s record in Iraq and Afghanistan have his legions of supporters wondering how “the most celebrated commander of his generation” is being passed up for Obama’s top civilian-military adviser. A number of pundits slotted Petraeus for NATO command in Brussels, seeing the post as a means of distancing him from Washington’s spotlight. But Petraeus appears to have rejected the position for the same reason. Despite a warm public front, visible political tension exists between Obama and Petraeus; for example, Petraeus is well positioned to minimize Obama’s July withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Petraeus may sincerely believes he’s the best man to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and maybe he is. One associate of Petraeus lamented, "It appears they don't want him as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs because he's too well known, too celebrated, and would have influence beyond his position. It's tragic."
Some of this rhetoric is political bluster, but to grow upset indicates a hungry ego. And to influence “beyond his position” could lead to tragic results - the last thing Washington needs is more absolute power.
Petraeus has, of course, denied all speculation of a future presidential run. However another source close to the general admitted that he was “disappointed” for being excluded from the post, a position “he wants... and one that his many influential Washington admirers believe he deserves.” For someone publicly unconcerned with Washington’s political ladder, Petraeus can’t conceal his interest in scaling it. And where else does someone with his credentials go after Chairman?
Furthermore, if Petraeus’s disinterest in politics is sincere, his circle still possesses the opposite agenda. They want to pad his resume so that he can eventually shine up a lackluster GOP candidate as their VP. Were Petraeus to ultimately fulfill their fantasy, he will enter office tied down to special interests like every other president. As the world’s first general-turned-president since Dwight Eisenhower, what an ironic twist Petraeus would be to Ike’s omen of a military-industrial complex.
On Obama’s end, General James Cartwright has reportedly bumped Petraeus out of the lead for CJCS. Obama considers Cartwright a more trustworthy confidant, one less willing to outmaneuver him, and promoting the Vice Chairman (VJCS) is a logical move. These calculations represent real politics, yet they cannot hide how threatening Obama’s inner circle considers Petraeus. Regardless of how they work themselves out, these foreign policy decisions are infected with a dangerous level of domestic politics.
The CJCS promotion might also become irrelevant in time if Petraeus uses Langley as a pit-stop to the White House. To keep him and his backers satisfied, the Obama administration has dangled a tempting consolation prize in the CIA Directorship. Here Petraeus would still get his power fix, certainly more than the average director, and dig his hands into every conflict on Washington's map. The general loves his covert operations and proxy wars, the mysterious middle between soft and hard power. In September 2009, Petraeus issued a Special Forces directive that spread units to over 90 countries, including every country America finds itself at war or proxy-war in.
Pakistan and Yemen jump out in particular.
Except the trends of these two countries reveal the cracks in Petraeus’s glittering armor. To his credit Petraeus has heightened awareness of the synergy between political and military forces during counterinsurgency, a missing link that cost America in the early stages of Afghanistan and Iraq. But neither is his COIN infallible. While Iraqis are thankful for escaping civil war in 2007, the country is predictably falling victim to the one problem Petraeus couldn’t resolved: Iraqi politics. Intensely militarized COIN in Afghanistan has produced mix results overall, and failed to close the gap between security and political progress. Across the border in Pakistan, Petraeus’s Special Forces directive has sowed distrust between Washington, Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence, and the Pakistani people.
Most notably, the former CENTCOM chief was instrumental in escalating the ground war in Yemen, now revealed as a complete meltdown on the political and military fronts. While Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh pursued al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) half-heartedly to secure U.S. allegiance, Yemenis became increasingly alienated at bearing the brunt of the fight. AQAP became Saleh’s all-purpose excuse to suppress political dissent from the north, south, and east, while the meager flow of U.S. economic aid was siphoned off into Swiss banks.
Saleh didn't fix problems, only paid tribes to look the other way. Never could AQAP’s local support be undermined in this way.
Under Petraeus’s policy, Yemen’s non-military realm was discarded against the rules of COIN. Futility was mistaken as sustainability, and those in Washington looking for someone to blame for Saleh’s fall can start with him. Yet the negative results didn’t stop Bruce Riedel, a hawkish back-seat adviser to Obama, from citing Petraeus’s track record as a success.
"General Petraeus would be an exceptional choice to run the CIA,” Riedel told AFP. "He has unique experience at the front line in the war against al-Qaeda and in the inter-agency process in Washington that would be invaluable.”
Going against Petraeus’s wisdom isn’t a popular sport in Washington. The general views counterinsurgency in a clearer political light than generals of recent memory, and sees the need to integrate local networks and the government against the insurgency. Although Iraq and Afghanistan still face a daily struggle to stabilize, neither are they worse off than when he took command. Yet Petraeus’s celebration also conceals the flaws in his strategic decision-making. In each counterinsurgency - Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen - U.S. COIN continues to be predominated by military operations.
While Petraeus executed a substantial political shift amongst Iraq’s Sunni tribes and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, these loose ends were never tied up going into 2010’s national election. The Kurds’ long-term status remains unresolved as well. Consequences bore out over an 8-month stalemate and remain an active fuel in the country’s instability. Now, because Iraq’s insurgency refuses to die and military commitments are piling up, Gates has once again pushed Baghdad to extend the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
With cleric Muqtada al-Sadr throwing his political weight behind Nouri al-Maliki’s premiership, postponing the withdrawal of U.S. forces past 2011 risks another political stalemate and security vacuum. al-Sadr wasted no time rallying against the U.S. occupation and threatening the take up arms on January 1st, 2012.
In Afghanistan, Petraeus has clearly led with the sword at the expense of his relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Perhaps he will kill America’s way to victory after all, something Petraeus has said cannot be done. But a string of civilian casualties in March, plus one insensitive accusation of parental immolation, induced a dreadful spell of public-relations heading into the summer fighting season. Although the majority of Afghans don’t want U.S. troops to withdrawal immediately, they probably won’t be happy if Petraeus minimizes or cancels Obama’s July deadline.
Again political progress lags far behind military advances.
And in Pakistan and Yemen, U.S. military operations have superseded a political strategy at all times, an absolute violation of COIN. Petraeus’s version of counterinsurgency, far from perfect, tends to prioritize the military over the political sphere. A new report sent by the White House to Congress conceded an ongoing vulnerability in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Although U.S. drones have killed scores of low-level militants, a handful of big fish, and kept the rest of al-Qaeda’s leadership on guard, Petraeus is stuck in clear mode.
"What remains vexing is the lack of any indication of 'hold' and 'build' planning or staging efforts to complement ongoing clearing operations," the report said. "As such there remains no clear path to defeating the insurgency in Pakistan, despite the unprecedented and sustained deployment of over 147,000 forces."
Beyond Pakistan’s economic deficit, an ill-timed flood destroyed any remaining chance of a comprehensive campaign in the FATA. Even less vexing is Washington’s ongoing insensitivity to the Pakistani public, which has limited Pakistani operations against Afghan Taliban seeking refuge. The White House report lauds increased cooperation along the border despite Davis’s arrest, a possible sign that Islamabad believes the Taliban are losing ground.
But what if Washington and Islamabad actually trusted each other, and if the Pakistani people had a positive impression of the U.S. government? Results in the FATA would surely be different.
In Yemen’s particular case, U.S. policy cannot be excused as “short-term,” pragmatic, or “realistic,” as it produced neither short nor long term gains. This was rotten COIN, and Petraeus was even caught double-dealing with Saleh in a WikLeak. Conducted in isolation and at the expense of local governance, Special Forces and CIA don’t equate to counterinsurgency. So while Petraeus would fit snugly into the CIA’s shadow, the risk of him enlarging that shadow beyond its means runs high.
And the CIA might even be a bigger boost to his political ambitions than CJCS.
Political deception is a final factor to consider; we remain skeptical of Gates’s resignation. While Leon Panetta, the present CIA Director, has supposedly emerged as Gates’s leading replacement, he lacks the military experience to combine with his political background. Afghanistan won’t be ready to hand over by summer or winter, and Gates and Petraeus aimed the beginning of Obama’s withdrawal at December the whole time. Transferring Afghanistan into Panetta’s hands is a dangerous proposition, suggesting that Gates will stay on at least until early 2012.
If that’s the case, why not go out with the Obama first term, whether there’s a second or not? Why force him to find to find a temporarily replacement or prematurely tap his real replacement?
Petraeus’s position in Afghanistan isn’t as stable; most generals burn out eventually and he doesn’t get much rest. Except the circumstances dictate that he’ll stick out the rest of 2011 too - past “the fighting season,” in the words of U.S. officials. Afghanistan is unlikely to copy Iraq’s precipitous drop in violence after Petraeus’s “bell-curve” ends, and 2012 will require as much heavy lifting as the previous two years. 2011, 2012, and maybe even 2013 are all make or break years. If Petraeus truly qualifies as the best general America has to offer, talk of his replacement seems a year premature.
Such timing would, incidentally, set him up for 2016 and beyond. His supporters may want to manage their expectations though - except those lobbying in the Defense industry.