General Petraeus and General McChrystal: same policy, different face?

While the strategy remains the same, will the deft touch of General Petraeus reorient key relationships among leaders in Afghanistan?

By , Staff Writer

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    General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, in this June 15 photo during a hearing conducted by the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. President Barack Obama has fired his Afghan war commander, General Stanley McChrystal, over disparaging remarks in a magazine article. The President has replaced McChrystal with General Petraeus.
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Gen. David Petraeus and the man he is set to replace in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, are about as different as possible for two West Point graduates of roughly the same age and rank.

Petraeus, with a deft political touch and a scholarly demeanor, is always careful with his public comments. He’s a master at building political support, as he did with a leery Congress in pitching a troop surge and change in strategy in Iraq. He also adeptly managed Iraq’s fractious domestic politics as he sought to bring Sunni insurgents in from the cold.

The brash McChrystal, by contrast, has shown disdain for politicians opposed to the Afghan troop surge and shift to a counterinsurgency strategy that is focused more on protecting the country’s 30 million people than on fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban. That image was only confirmed by the disparaging remarks he and his aides made about the Obama administration in the Rolling Stone article that cost him his job.

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His relationship with US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a former general who has expressed doubts about the current approach, was icy, and his public comments in the past have been viewed by the administration as overstepping his authority.

Afghan opposition politicians say they were uncomfortable with his close relationship with President Hamid Karzai and that he struggled with the nuances of the country’s byzantine politics.

“I think [Petraeus' appointment] is an enormous change for the better. I’ve met the man, and I feel he’s much savvier, more mature, more settled,” says Abdullah Abdullah, a leading opposition politician and a former presidential candidate who many here believe wasn't given a fair shake in last year's fraud-marred election. “I think McChrystal was too much, you know, interested in a war-hero image.”

Both generals support the same strategy

There’s one crucial issue on which Petraeus and McChrystal are the same, however: The belief that the current surge of troops to Afghanistan, and a focus on building better government across Afghanistan with a blend of soldiers and civilian aid workers, is the best way forward. Petraeus oversaw the writing of a 2006 US counterinsurgency manual that provided a blueprint for McChrystal's strategy in Afghanistan.

Both generals fret that President Barack Obama’s plan to start bringing combat troops home next July may not give enough time to a strategy that in many ways has only just begun.

For the moment, continuity in strategy seems assured, though analysts say there are likely to be some delays as Petraeus leaves his job as head of the US Central Command and heads towards Afghanistan. While his new post is technically a demotion, as the commanding general for Afghanistan he’ll be right in the heart of a crucial foreign priority and have a chance to build on a reputation forged when he presided over the turnaround in Iraq.

Karzai trusted McChrystal most

Afghan politicians and diplomats here say McChrystal was probably the US official that Karzai liked and trusted the most. The general had taken Karzai on a number of trips around Afghanistan this year to show that America was behind him and to get the president engaged in providing services and addressing the corruption – much of it to the benefit of senior politicians and police – that plagues the country.

We had hoped this would not have happened, but the decision has been made and we respect it," said Karzai spokesman Waheed Omer. Karzai “looks forward to working with his replacement."

To be sure, working with Karzai has proven difficult in the past, not least because of US doubt and anger about the fraud involved in his reelection. Mr. Eikenberry was scathing about Karzai in a diplomatic cable leaked in November 2009.

“President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” he wrote, saying that the counterinsurgency strategy hinged on a government able and willing to work towards the same goals. “Yet Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden whether defense, governance or development.”

Will Petraeus be more leery and cautious of Karzai than his predecessor? That’s one change that’s possible.

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Others may come in the realm of troop conduct and living conditions. McChrystal recently had Burger King and other US fast-food joints removed from large US bases, arguing that such morale builders were non-essential. The move was deeply unpopular among troops. Large bases under Petraeus in Iraq had as many amenities for soldiers as could be reasonably provided.

Another change that troops would like to see is a relaxing of rules of engagement (ROE) that have made it difficult to receive permission to shoot back, particularly the use of mortars and other indirect fire on the Taliban.

The restrictions are rooted in the belief that avoiding civilian casualties does more to win the fight in the long run. Combat troops hate them, since it puts them at greater risk of death, and they’ve been backed up by a number of retired officers.

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