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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 / June 24, 2010

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.

Karen Bleier/AFP Photo/Newscom


Kabul, Afghanistan

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.

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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.

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.