Gen. David Petraeus, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, demonstrated why he is a superb choice to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Petraeus gave a crisp, smooth, and tactful performance that exhibited the diplomatic skills that will serve him in good stead at his new job.
General Petraeus told the committee that the Afghanistan war is “a contest of wills” between the Taliban and the allied forces, and that it will require a long-term commitment. He stepped adroitly around such political landmines as the questionable wisdom of fighting a difficult and protracted war according to a politically motivated timeline devised in Washington. When Republican and Democratic senators sparred over President Obama’s self-imposed July 2011 troop-withdrawal deadline, Petraeus calmly sought to defuse the issue and refused to be drawn into (justifiable) criticism of Vice President Joe Biden for persistently advocating the high-risk gamble of adhering to a rigid deadline (Biden: “You can bet on it”).
But the July 2011 target date has been a huge flaw in the Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy, as Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Lisa Curtis and I explained when the deadline was announced. Indeed, one of the major takeaways from the infamous Rolling Stone article was the tremendous frustration of many high-ranking military officers in Afghanistan (not just McChrystal) with the deadline.
As Heritage Foundation national-security expert James Carafano has written, “Timelines need to be set based on the situation on the ground, not the political calendar in Washington. You don’t get your allies to stand shoulder to shoulder with you by threatening to abandon them.”
Hopefully, General Petraeus can rescue President Obama from his mistaken policy of trying to wage a complex counterinsurgency campaign according to an unrealistic timeline. If President Bush had done this in Iraq, then General Petraeus would never have been able to reverse the course of that war, as Charles Krauthammer trenchantly argued in a recent column.
But President Obama first needs to make it clear that he has a victory plan, not just an exit plan. He wisely has chosen General Petraeus to replace General McChrystal. Now the president should give General Petraeus the resources and time necessary to accomplish his vital mission.
James Phillips is senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in National Review Online