As Gen. David Petraeus shifts to CIA, nature of war shifts with him

Gen. David Petraeus is on Capitol Hill Thursday for his confirmation hearing for the CIA post. The US is moving away from his troop-heavy approach to war, including, to a degree, in Afghanistan.

Jim Young/Reuters
Commander of US Forces Afghanistan and President Barack Obama's nominee to be CIA Director, US Army Gen. David Petraeus, arrives to meet with Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Capitol Hill in Washington, on June 15.

At his Senate confirmation hearing for CIA director Thursday afternoon, Gen. David Petraeus will stand as a kind of metaphor for the passing of the torch from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism operations in America’s antiterror wars.

General Petraeus is considered the spiritual father of the troop-heavy, win-the-locals-hearts counterinsurgency strategy, which he used to turn around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as he takes the helm of the CIA, the focus of the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, and other places like Yemen appears to be shifting toward intelligence-driven covert operations that rely less on ground troops and more on unmanned drones and precision airstrikes.

Petraeus, who plans to hang up his general’s uniform, will be flowing with the times as he shifts from commander of troops on the ground to director of the nation’s expanding covert wars, some national security experts say.

No one anticipates anything other than smooth sailing for Petraeus’s confirmation, such is his reputation on Capitol Hill.

But the general can nonetheless anticipate senators' questions on Afghanistan – and specifically on reports that President Obama opted for a faster drawdown of ground forces from Afghanistan than Petraeus, as outgoing commander of US and NATO forces there, had recommended.

Is “General Counterinsurgency” on board with the president’s evident turn toward increased reliance on counterterrorism tactics? That’s something senators will want to know, some analysts say. And what is Petraeus’s vision for operations in Pakistan, which some experts say got short shrift in Obama’s speech Wednesday night on the US future in Afghanistan?

Regarding Pakistan, senators are likely to use the Petraeus hearing to probe an issue of deepening concern, analysts say – especially given the CIA’s increased role there and its oversight of the US campaign of drone strikes against Al Qaeda targets.

Obama “said very little about Pakistan policy at a time when our bilateral relationship with that key country is deteriorating rapidly … and when support for billions in aid each year to a nuclear power is deteriorating fast on the Hill and with the public,” says Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, in Washington. “We didn’t get many insights on this troubled relationship, which is far more important than that with Afghanistan.”

Petraeus is not likely to lay bare before the Senate Intelligence Committee any disagreement with the president – who will remain his boss – on the troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Senior administration officials insist that Obama’s decision to draw down some 10,000 troops this year – and then to withdraw by September 2012 the full 33,000 “surge” of troops he announced for Afghanistan in December 2009 – “falls within the range of options” that Petraeus presented to the president.

While that may be true, Petraeus is known to have preferred a slower drawdown that would have pulled only half of the 10,000 troops now set to leave this year, and that would have extended the exit of all 33,000 surge troops until the end of 2012.

Petraeus’s rationale was reportedly based on his view that the US needs at least one more solid fighting season next spring and summer to consolidate gains against the Taliban – and that troops set to be out by September 2012 would be focused on their imminent departure rather than on the fighting at hand.

The counterinsurgency, or COIN, general may be grilled about Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, but Petraeus knows he’s ascending to what some are calling “commander of the covert wars” in the CIA post, analysts say.

And given Petraeus’s extensive experience in a decade of post- 9/11 warfare, his new role at the helm of global covert operations is widely seen as a good fit.

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