General Petraeus Locked Obama Into Afghanistan

At this morning’s hearing, General Petraeus tamped down talk of an early withdrawal from Afghanistan—and warned of greater U.S. casualties to come.

General David Petraeus (J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo)

With his four stars and battle ribbons speaking for themselves and his reputation soaring, Gen. David Petraeus Tuesday told the Senate Armed Service Committee just what President Obama wanted its members to hear: (1) fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan remains essential to U.S. security; (2) the president’s counterinsurgency strategy and U.S. troop reductions projected to begin on July 2011 were fine; and (3) this general and this president are in harmony unlike the departing U.S./NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

But make no mistake, the thrust of the general’s remarks in these confirmation hearings was to further lock Mr. Obama into the Afghan war and to protect his right flank against Republicans and conservatives who have begun charging that the president is about to cut and run from the war. He offered very little to Democrats and liberals who have stepped up their demands for an exit strategy.

Score a big one for those who argue the war must still be won and scratch one for Democrats who increasingly believe otherwise.

The only point he really gave to Democrats critical of policy was in his pessimistic assessment of the present security situation in Afghanistan. He called it “tenuous,” and warned that fighting and casualties would increase as American troops increasingly took the war to Taliban strongholds. Unlike these Democrats, however, he held the door open to better days and to improvements in the performance of America’s Afghan allies. He calibrated all of this well to maintain credibility all around.

Where he pleased Democrats least and heartened Republicans most was in his characterization of the Afghan war as “vital” to United States security. He stressed, as have conservatives and Mr. Obama himself, that the Taliban must not be allowed to return to power and provide a safe haven once again for al-Qaeda attacks against America. So, score a big one for those who argue the war must still be won and scratch one for Democrats who increasingly believe otherwise.

Click Below to Watch Petraeus Testify

On strategy, the general said he would review a very touchy issue between U.S. troops and President Karzai. Karzai’s worries about civilian casualties caused McChrystal to levy restrictions on U.S. firepower in situations where civilians might be casualties, which in turn increased the risks for American forces. Other than this point, Petraeus seemed to endorse the Obama/McChrystal counterinsurgency strategy of clear, hold, build—which was really the Petraeus strategy to begin with.

More Daily Beast contributors on the Petreaus hearings.Peter Galbraith: Petraeus’ First Big Problem Perhaps the main task Petraeus performed for Mr. Obama was to allay Republican fears that the July 2011 deadline signaled a U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. Very carefully, he said: “July 2011 is the point at which we will begin a transition phase…July 2011 is not a date when we will be rapidly withdrawing our forces and switching off the lights and closing the door behind us.” In other words, that date was a message of transition to Afghans underlined by Petraeus’ insistence that the U.S. commitment to that country would be “enduring.”

Petraeus allowed no daylight to seep in between himself and the president. To both of them, the tumultuous departure of McChrystal was more than enough drama for the Afghans and especially for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Whatever differences exist between them—and there are differences in emphasis with Petraeus being more hawkish than Obama—and whatever conflicts may appear in the future, Petraeus was determined to make his confirmation hearing into a reaffirmation of key issues: civilian control over military, White House and military agreement on commitment and strategy, and a smooth transition in a terribly troubled situation.

Those who know the general well were not surprised by any of this. He is a man who stressed to friends that he accepted this job for only one reason: “the president asked me.” And those who have known him over the years are also quite confident that he is not using this as a stepping stone to the White House. His words on Tuesday were intended to say, “Mission Accomplished,” and that he and the president were ready to get on with the war.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.