WASHINGTON -- A brief smile of satisfaction may have crossed George W. Bush's face when President Barack Obama said "Get me Petraeus" to take command of the war in Afghanistan. Bush picked Gen. David Petraeus to implement and successfully carry out the troop surge in Iraq at a time when it seemed all was lost and the former president was under fire from his many critics to pull out -- including Obama who incorrectly predicted his effort would fail. Bush's name was strangely absent from nightly news reports on Obama's decision to turn to the man his predecessor had chosen to tackle an almost impossible assignment. But there were lessons in how Bush made his decision that Obama never really understood or accepted.
In sharp contrast to the agonizingly long, three-month war strategy review, when Obama was struggling to figure out how he wanted to approach the war in Afghanistan, Bush took a more direct route. He said his decisions were drawn from the advice of his generals on the ground. Petraeus is the godfather of counterinsurgent warfare and had written a thick, detailed strategic book on how it should be fought -- militarily, diplomatically, economically and directly by working with local leaders. Equally important, he is as much a highly skilled diplomat as he is a military strategist. He maintained close relations with Afghan and Iraqi leaders, as well as political and diplomatic leaders throughout the Middle East. He is respected on both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill.
"Petraeus is more of a diplomat, as opposed to a war fighter," a senior civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan told the Washington Post. He is, in other words, the complete package. Bush chose wisely in picking him, and Obama is finally taking his advice on this one.
But Obama and his team of national security advisers were not always rah-rah for Petraeus or what he accomplished in Iraq and often belittled his success there. When they sought out his advice during their search for a plan for Afghanistan last year in a series of White House strategy sessions, Vice President Joe Biden was coldly dismissive of what led to the success of the Iraq surge. A harsh critic of the Iraq war who wanted to partition the country into three sectors, Biden "implied that U.S. forces had 'bought off the Sunnis, and got lucky' in reconciling sectarian differences," according to one account in the Post from officials who were in the meetings. Petraeus responded diplomatically but firmly, saying that every decision and action he made in Iraq was based on a highly complex "intellectual construct," and that the surge's success "didn't drop in our lap." At one point in these review sessions, as his advisers grew tired of hearing Petraeus repeatedly make comparisons to Iraq, Obama demonstrated that he never really fully understood how Petraeus achieved success in Iraq -- asking him how he did it and whether his counteroffensive strategy could prove successful in Iraq. Now, here was the president who campaigned against Bush's war in Iraq asking whether Petraeus' Iraq strategy could help him win the war in Afghanistan.
The next day, Petraeus delivered a paper to the White House that set forth the lessons learned in Iraq and how they could be applied in Afghanistan -- with modifications to fit differing circumstances. It would be the supreme irony indeed if Petraeus were to pull off the same level of success that occurred in Iraq, a country that went on to hold elections, though remains threatened by a stepped-up al Qaeda-in-Iraq offensive. To be sure, Iraq is still a work in progress but one now far better suited to fight for its survival.
Petraeus is under no illusions about Afghanistan and the immense challenges posed by the Taliban insurgency, widespread corruption in the Afghan government, and its mercurial president, Hamid Karzai, who only recently was renewing overtures to give the Taliban some concessions. It also remains to be seen how Petraeus negotiates his way in and around Obama's declaration, when he announced the results of his review last December, that "after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home." Petraeus thinks that is a stretch at best but has skillfully managed to avoid any hint of conflict with administration policy and its timeline.
"It is important that July 2011 be seen for what it is: the date when a process begins, based on conditions, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits," he testified before the House and Senate Armed Services Committee last week. That is the kind of skillful, wordsmith diplomacy that has earned him a well-deserved reputation for knowing how to placate one side, even as he reaches out to the other.
There are many who think that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won and that, even if it can, we have no business being there. But not David Petraeus, who got into this believing it can be won, though maybe not in the way his adversaries think.