In hindsight President Barack Obama’s Wednesday address on the war in Afghanistan - already a short blurb - has turned into a pre-party. Although intended to broadcast the full spectrum of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, civilian to military, the emerging testimony has further disconnected Obama from his own decisions. He could have used Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s own remarks on the civilian side of the surge, but apparently the President didn’t want to bog the U.S. public down in “details.”
Nor does emphasizing the civilian component mesh with the White House’s new “end of COIN” campaign.
Now, after selling the initial policy, Obama has quickly vacated and left the Pentagon to haggle over Afghanistan's details. The main event came in the form of two meetings: General David Petraeus’s Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to head the CIA, and a “hastily convened House Armed Services Committee hearing on Afghanistan.” Here the Pentagon’s opposition to Obama spilled into clear view, having been partially obstructed by a White House order against leaking to influence public perceptions.
Such a claim isn’t accurate given that White House leaked its own figures above 10,000, and that the Pentagon repeatedly pushed back through Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Nevertheless, U.S law-makers expressed shock when Michael Mullen, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that Obama’s "decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept." Mullen claims to have reversed course in recent days. Although what changed on Afghanistan’s ground isn’t immediately perceptible, his testimony appears designed to accomplish one overriding objective: set the stage for his superiors.
Just as it did after Obama announced his surge, the U.S. media has hailed Gates as Washington’s “compromiser,” manufacturing Thursday’s headline in Afghanistan as a “victory for Gates and defeat for Petraeus.” False on a number of levels, we would spent too much time detailing every anomaly of this theory. Gates effortlessly steers a subservient media all too inclined to glorify him. Far from a “secret battle,” he was destined to take the middle ground between the Pentagon’s minimal withdrawal and the White House’s maximum withdrawal.
Now Gates gets to ride out high on June 30th, satisfied with manipulating Washington's system one last time.
Petraeus, meanwhile, has begun touting himself as the only man for the job, the one who will turn Obama’s impossible task into reality. This is the Pentagon’s general position - heap all of the blame on Obama and prepare to take all of the credit. After remarking that no general has all the resources he would like, "it is the responsibility of the military to salute smartly."
“I'm not a quitter,” Petraeus declared. “I don't think it's the place for a commander to consider that kind of step unless you are in a very dire situation... This is not something where one hangs up the uniform in a final protest.”
Furthermore, how can Petraeus “lose” on a compromise? Tied to the hip, Gates was simply trying to sell Petraeus for him and paid a small fee (three months) to keep the rest of his position. Since Obama ultimately sided with Gates, as The Atlantic claims, Petraeus cannot inherently lose this battle. Surely they’re sharing a drink, amusing themselves over how easily they played both sides of Washington and the U.S. media
The main difference between Obama and Petraeus doesn’t appear to be this six-month window of debate. Of greater consequence, Obama reportedly denied Petraeus’s proposal “to shift large numbers of troops to eastern Afghanistan in order to mount an expansive counterinsurgency campaign.” This decision seems to conform to Vice President Joe Biden’s “offshore” obsession - which Petraeus will now oversee as head of the CIA. Yet it will also keep 68,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2013, and the entire force is unlikely to exit at Obama's ideal date of December 2014.
The notion of “beating” Petraeus, in the end, is little more than White House spin to puff up Obama’s reputation, which his office feared had become too much like Seven Days in May. Besides, what is so compromising when Gates himself admits, “The fact is that a surge is a surge. It's not a permanent increase in the number of troops... And the reality is, this surge, from the completion of getting it in until it's out, will have been twice as long as the surge in Iraq.”
As for Petraeus, he’s soon off to bigger (and more nefarious) schemes at the CIA.
“If confirmed, I will support continuation of the superb cooperation between agency assets and other intelligence-community elements, with the Joint Special Operations Command and other military commands, and with relevant elements of the interagency. Needless to say, support for the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as for missions in other locations such as Yemen, Iraq, and parts of Africa, will remain critical.”
Those same U.S. law-makers that fault the administration's perceived illegality in Libya harbor scant opposition to Petraeus’s world tour. "Hearts and minds" has fallen out of fashion in Washington. Bombs away.