Why President Obama Needs Colin Powell in Afghanistan

Will David Petraeus honor President Obama’s plan to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan? Peter Beinart on why Powell is the only man who can help make it happen.

There may be only one man left in America who can get the United States out of Afghanistan before it wrecks Barack Obama’s presidency. His name isn’t Barack Obama. It’s Colin Powell.

If Petraeus defies Obama’s desire to begin withdrawing troops next summer, it could spark the greatest civilian-military confrontation since Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur during Korea.

Sure, Obama will make the ultimate decision on whether to defy the military brass and begin withdrawing U.S. troops next summer, as he has pledged. But based on his past behavior, I doubt he can do it on his own. Bob Woodward’s Obama's Wars is in large part the story of how Obama—under enormous pressure from the military and against his better judgment—agreed to an escalation in Afghanistan that barely anyone in the White House believed could work. The most important actor in that drama may have been Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a man who could have helped Obama bring the military to heel, but instead aligned himself with them, thus tipping the balance of power. Late in Woodward’s book, there’s a remarkable scene in which Obama, after having agreed to a 30,000-troop surge, muses wistfully about telling the American people that he is adding only 10,000 U.S. trainers—in other words, that rather than moving deeper in, the U.S. is getting out. “It was apparent that a part—perhaps a large part—of Obama wanted to give precisely that speech,” writes Woodward. “He seemed to be road-testing it.” Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon tells Obama that such a speech might cause Gates to resign. “That would be the difficult part,” Obama responds, before going back to outlining his 30,000-troop surge speech.

Next summer, when the withdrawal deadline hits, Gates will probably no longer be the problem. Observers suspect he will leave before then. But if Obama chooses another defense secretary unable or unwilling to challenge the uniformed military, he may be forced into a policy he doesn’t want yet again. In some ways, Obama will actually be in a weaker position next year than he was last. First of all, the man running the Afghan War is now David Petraeus, the most politically powerful general in decades. Second, Republicans will likely control one, if not both, houses of Congress. Third, the 2012 presidential campaign will be almost underway. Just imagine what will happen if Petraeus lets it be known that if Obama sticks to his withdrawal deadline, he will resign. Obama has already fired Petraeus’ two predecessors. And he will be facing a Republican Congress that would love nothing more than to recruit America’s leading war hero into its anti-Obama crusade. Even if he takes Petraeus at his word that he will never run for president, Obama will be desperate not to cross him. And why wouldn’t Petraeus resign? He’s bet his entire career, and public image, on counterinsurgency. Why would he remain in charge in Afghanistan once Obama pulled the plug on the doctrine that made him famous?

Obama may have several candidates who, in normal circumstances, could be effective secretaries of defense: Richard Danzig, Michelle Flournoy, John Hamre, Leon Panetta. But none have the stature to protect Obama against that kind of political threat. The only guy who could is Colin Powell. Powell, it’s worth remembering, was skeptical about a land war against the Taliban from the beginning, as he had been skeptical of military action in the Gulf War and Bosnia. “I’d rule out the United States going after the Afghans [on the ground], who have been there 5,000 years,” he told a National Security Council meeting in October 2001, according to Woodward’s Bush at War. More recently, he has told interviewers that Hamid Karzai’s government is massively corrupt, that Pakistan is fueling the Taliban and that America can’t afford to stay forever. Even more significant is what he hasn’t said: That defeating, or even degrading, the Taliban is a vital national security interest of the United States.

Powell hasn’t always been a champion of civilian control of the military. As chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in 1993, he forced Bill Clinton to back down from his campaign promises to bomb Bosnia and let gays and lesbians serve openly in the military. But today, he is on the other side. He clearly likes Obama, having endorsed him over fellow Republican John McCain in 2008. And there’s little doubt that Petraeus’s expensive, time-consuming, ambiguous counterinsurgency doctrine runs directly counter to the Powell Doctrine, which envisioned short campaigns won with decisive force.

Powell’s associates have long noted that he’s patterned his career after George Marshall. If David Petraeus defies Obama’s desire to begin withdrawing troops next summer, it could spark the greatest civilian-military confrontation since Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur during Korea. It has surely crossed Powell’s mind that one of the reasons Truman made that politically treacherous decision was that he had a secretary of defense of unparalleled stature, a famed soldier who had recently come out of retirement to oversee a war gone bad. If Powell truly wants to be this era’s George Marshall, he may soon get his chance.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.