June 23, 2011

Obama Sides With Gates Over Petraeus

Senior White House officials wanted all of the 33,000 U.S. “surge” troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by next spring. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Kabul, was adamant they stay until the end of 2012. The deadlock was broken by outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who sold Obama and his top civilian aides on a compromise plan that will leave most of the reinforcements in Afghanistan through next September but ensure they’re back well before the November elections.

Obama’s prime-time address Wednesday night offered little indication of the heated behind-the-scenes battle over Afghanistan that consumed the president and his war cabinet for much of this past month. The debates pitted White House aides wary of the war’s high costs and uncertain progress against a high-profile general who brought Iraq back from the brink of defeat several years ago and was confident he could do the same in Afghanistan if given enough time.  This account is based on interviews with multiple officials with direct knowledge of the internal deliberations.

Petraeus had sold then-President George W. Bush on the Iraq surge and helped persuade Obama to overrule some of his closest advisers—including Vice President Joe Biden—and deploy 33,000 new troops to Afghanistan in December 2009.  When it came time to decide when those troops would come home, however, Petraeus suffered a rare defeat. Obama rejected the general’s proposal to shift large numbers of troops to eastern Afghanistan in order to mount an expansive counterinsurgency campaign there. And the president was ultimately unwilling to budge from his belief that the surge troops needed to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next year.

Gates, meanwhile, will retire from public service next week with another big bureaucratic win under his belt. During the initial Afghan surge debates in the fall of 2009, Gates was similarly successful in mediating between the White House and the uniformed military. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. war commander, had joined Petraeus in arguing for deploying as many as 80,000 new troops to Afghanistan to reverse the Taliban’s battlefield momentum. Biden, backed by other civilian aides, wanted to deploy 20,000 new troops and adopt a far narrower mission than McChrystal and Petraeus wanted. Gates ultimately crafted the winning compromise: a surge of 30,000 troops paired with a commitment to begin withdrawing the forces 18 months later. Gates’s compromise is the reason the first surge troops will begin leaving Afghanistan in July.

As word of the Obama’s decision reached Petraeus’s allies, word of the commander’s disapproval reached the White House. Two military officers with close ties to Petraeus said in separate interviews Wednesday night that the general disagreed with Gates’s compromise proposal and had not endorsed the drawdown plan. A third military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid publicly criticizing the president, said of the White House: “No one is talking about succeeding or winning... the phrase [Wednesday night] was bringing this war to a 'responsible' conclusion. I’m not really sure what that means.”

The initial set of Afghan discussions had been marred by a series of leaks that infuriated Obama and led the president to accuse his military advisers of trying to box him in politically. Earlier this year, as the administration began to gear up for the withdrawal debate, Gates and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon sent out word informally that any leaks would be interpreted by the president as insubordination and as an attempt to improperly influence public opinion. The approach paid off: The withdrawal debate occurred almost completely out of public sight, with few details leaking and neither side making their case in the press. The second debate was also far shorter than the first had been. The president and his war cabinet held three meetings in the White House situation room over the past two weeks, with Petraeus laying out his troop withdrawal recommendations early last week, according to officials familiar with the matter.

The debate effectively boiled down to a matter of months. Petraeus agreed that 10,000 troops could be safely withdrawn this year, but he wanted to keep some of the remaining 23,000 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2012 and to have the flexibility to extend some of their tours into early 2013 if conditions deteriorated, according to officials with knowledge of the deliberations. Obama’s civilian advisers, pointing to intelligence assessments showing that the U.S. had killed 20 of al-Qaida’s top 30 leaders in the region, wanted the final 23,000 surge troops to leave Afghanistan next spring, with the last of the forces returning home roughly around March. 

For nearly two weeks, neither side budged. Petraeus made it clear he opposed beginning the drawdown during the summer, traditionally the time of Afghanistan’s most intense fighting, according to an official familiar with his thinking. The general wanted his successor, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, to be able to move troops from southern Afghanistan, where coalition forces have pushed the Taliban out of many of their former strongholds, to eastern Afghanistan, where conditions have been deteriorating for months. Such a move would take time, and Petraeus argued that the surge troops should be kept in Afghanistan through the end of the year to ensure they had enough time to mount a full counterinsurgency campaign in eastern Afghanistan.

Obama’s civilian aides pushed back hard, arguing that all of the troops could safely leave Afghanistan by next spring because of the successes of the stepped-up counterterror push inside both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gates, who felt the spring 2012 timetable was far too aggressive, proposed keeping the remaining surge troops in Afghanistan through next summer as a compromise. Obama ultimately chose—as he did during the surge debate—to side with the veteran Defense chief. 

John Nagl, a retired Army officer with close ties to Petraeus who wrote the military’s counterinsurgency field manual, said in a written statement that Obama’s way forward gives “commanders impressive flexibility this year by linking the withdrawal of the first 10,000 troops of the surge to the year's end. But he inexplicably removed all such flexibility next year by requiring the remaining 23,000 surge troops to be withdrawn by the summer of 2012—necessitating their removal from combat at the height of the fighting season.”

Nagl, who is now the president of the Center for a New American Security, said he believes “this problem of untimely diminished capabilities can be overcome by the commanders on the ground, yet opens questions about the nature of the calculus.”

Petraeus, for his part, will almost certainly be asked about his views of the withdrawal plan when he testifies Thursday before the Senate panel considering his nomination to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The commander is known for his diplomatic skills, and it’s not clear if he will be willing to publicly discuss any of his recent disagreements with the White House. Petraeus, who will retire from the military to assume his new post at the CIA, will need to decide whether to once again play the part of the good soldier.