Petraeus To Get Senate Nod, But Will Afghan Policy?

Gen. David Petraeus speaks at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor Tribute on June 25, 2010 in New Windsor, New York.
Gen. David Petraeus speaks at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor Tribute on June 25, 2010 in New Windsor, New York. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Gen. David Petraeus goes to Capitol Hill on Tuesday and will have no trouble winning confirmation as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. His nomination, however, has already triggered renewed debate about how long President Obama is prepared to continue the war.

There is no question that Gen. David Petraeus will be confirmed as top commander in Afghanistan. The Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination Tuesday, however, will open up a new round of debate over U.S. strategy in the war.

Some Senate Republicans have called for Petraeus to be accompanied by an entirely new team, saying that President Obama should replace his top diplomats to the region. They also want Obama to back away from his current timetable, which calls for a potential drawdown of U.S. troops beginning in July 2011.

Obama has insisted in recent days that the change in command following the ouster of Gen. Stanley McChrystal does not mean a change in approach, including the potential timetable.

But if Republicans are pushing Obama to keep on the offensive, members of the president's own party are growing restive about the war. Last week, a group of 25 House Democrats, joined by a handful of Republicans, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), seeking reassurance that the timetable will remain intact ahead of a vote this week to provide continued funding for the war.

"It's going to be a difficult vote for us," says Brendan Daly, Pelosi's spokesman.

The crosscurrents of domestic politics are only a part of the difficult course that Obama must navigate. He has to convince not only members of his own party but an increasingly skeptical public that what is already America's longest war will not drag on indefinitely. At the same time, he must convince Afghanistan and other regional players such as Pakistan, along with European allies, that the U.S. has the resolve to stay the course until the country is stabilized.

"The key to selling perseverance to the American people after 2011 is showing that you are making progress between now and 2011," says Ronald E. Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.

Conditions On The Ground

That raises a question: How much progress is likely to take place between now and mid-2011? The counterinsurgency strategy that Obama put in place in November has yet to pay obvious dividends.

Petraeus, 57, whose performance in a similar commanding role in Iraq earned him plaudits from Democrats and Republicans alike, will take over the command in Afghanistan with the support of the president and Congress.

But how much time will he have to show results?

Recent U.S. offensives in places like Marjah, in southern Afghanistan, have not met with great success. June, in fact, has been the deadliest month for coalition forces in Afghanistan since fighting began in 2001. The Taliban, once confined to the south and east, are now spread more or less across the entire country.

None of these conditions is likely to turn around completely by next July.

"The counterintelligence strategy is not going to transform Afghanistan in the next few months or the next year," says Michael Semple, the former deputy to the European Union's special representative for Afghanistan. "The Afghanistan of July 2011 is going to look rather more like the Afghanistan of today than unlike."

Some think it might look worse. The question then may become not whether Petraeus oversees the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but whether he in fact asks for more forces. Given Petraeus' stature -- and the amount Obama has already staked on the war's success as both candidate and president -- it would be hard to order a withdrawal of troops at that point.

"It will be very difficult for Obama to argue that the war he has defined as essential to national security is no longer essential," says Rajan Menon, a political scientist at City College of New York.

"If he's in beyond July 2011, he's in for the duration -- that is to say, the full four years," Menon adds. "That would consume much of his term and have a major effect on his presidency."

Patience For The Medium Haul

Despite the grumbling already growing louder among congressional Democrats, they are not likely to cut off funding for Obama's top foreign-policy priority, as they sought to do with Iraq funding in 2007 under Republican President George W. Bush. And congressional Republicans are likely to press Obama to give Petraeus any tools he says he needs (although they will be quick to castigate the president if things go wrong).

Petraeus, a leading architect of the counterinsurgency strategy, will find that its implementation in Afghanistan presents different challenges than he faced as leader of the so-called surge in Iraq. In Iraq, the insurgency was rooted in the minority Sunni population, while in Afghanistan the Taliban are part of the plurality ethnic Pashtun population. And Afghanistan's borders are porous, with insurgents finding haven and support in Pakistan.

Petraeus also will lack a local government partner as comparatively strong as he found in Baghdad. One of the great hopes among supporters of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is that Petraeus will be granted the time needed to build up the Afghan military and police. Three or four more years can make a big difference in that regard, says Neumann, the former ambassador.

Neumann suggests that Obama must begin to frame the U.S. commitment over that kind of time frame -- not planning an exit strategy in a year, but not staying indefinitely, either.

"There's a difference between out in 2013 or 2014 and out in 2011," he says.

The Price Of Pulling Out

Semple, now a fellow at Harvard University, says that "Afghanistan has got the capacity to deliver either good or bad for the U.S. administration."

The worst-case scenario, he says, would involve the failure to avoid political collapse there, leading to renewal of civil war, large-scale refugee movement and jihadist groups stepping into the vacuum.

"That would be extremely bad politics," he says. "There's strong political incentive for any administration to avoid this worst-case scenario."

The problem for Obama is that the downside risks are so clear after nearly nine years of war, while the chances for reward and success, however that is ultimately defined, appear in many ways to be slimmer. Already, allies such as the Dutch, Italians, Poles and Canadians are talking about pulling out their forces.

If Obama chooses to press ahead beyond July 2011, he's likely to receive the continuing support he needs from Congress. But how long will the public stick with him? A Newsweek poll released Friday found that 53 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of the situation in Afghanistan, compared with 37 percent who approve.

"The Taliban don't have any illusion that they are going to defeat the U.S. on the field," says Rajan Menon, who also teaches international relations at Lehigh University.

"They are fighting as much in the rear as in the front, with the rear being American society, where support for the war is not going to be open-ended," he says. "That is clearly their calculation." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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