Can Obama and Petraeus Work Together?

After General Stanley McChrystal's very public insubordination, Obama recruited his boss, General David Petraeus, to take over the Afghanistan war. Can the two men become partners?

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Peter Yang for TIME

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By 2009 the gospel of COIN had helped revive the phlegmatic Army. Its two chief promoters, Petraeus and McChrystal, seemingly could do no wrong. They stormed into Obama's extended Afghan-policy review intent on having their way. They sort of got it: 30,000 more troops, on top of the 20,000 Obama had initially dispatched — after a series of pitched battles between Petraeus, who was the most vocal military participant in the process, and Vice President Joe Biden, who was the most vocal civilian.

But the policy featured two caveats that have been misinterpreted — purposely, in some cases — by the military and oversold by the Obama Administration to the Democratic Party base. The first was the deadline of July 2011, at which time a transition would begin to Afghan control of the war. Petraeus, McChrystal and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen agreed to this because it wasn't really a deadline. There was no intention of actually pulling troops from the real Afghan war zones in the south and east in July 2011; the assumption was that if things were going well, some forces would stay for years, in gradually diminishing numbers, doing the patient work of counterinsurgency. The other caveat was more problematic: there would be another policy review in December 2010, to see how well things were going. "I wouldn't want to overplay the significance of this review," Petraeus told the House Armed Services Committee recently.

But Petraeus is wrong; in fact, the review is crucial. The implicit agreement was that if things aren't going well by December, the strategy will have to change. And things haven't been going well. So the military has been quietly working the press, complaining about the July 2011 transition date, pressing for more troops, complaining about the lack of civilian progress in Afghanistan — the failure of the Afghan government and U.S. State Department to provide security and programs for the populace — complaining about the failure of Richard Holbrooke to get all the recalcitrant neighbors (Pakistan, India, Iran and China, among others — what a bunch!) on board with a coherent regional strategy. A lot of this griping was at the heart of the Rolling Stone story. "When the military says withdrawals should be conditions-based, here's what they mean," says Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. "If things are going well, we shouldn't withdraw, because the policy is working. If things aren't going well, we should add more troops. What they really want is no decision on anything until July 2011."

The problem with the military position is that what worked in Iraq is not working in Afghanistan. The policy of funding the tribes is of limited value in Afghanistan because the enemy isn't led by foreign terrorists; it is a native insurgency. Funding some tribes and not others simply aggravates the feuding between them. And COIN depends on having a reliable local government running the security and social programs, which simply isn't going to happen so long as Hamid Karzai is President. The only part of the military spectrum that has worked in both Iraq and Afghanistan is McChrystal's special ops, which is stripping out midlevel Taliban leaders on a nightly basis.

This is the sort of moment that people write books about, a moment when the size of the personalities matches the scale of the stakes they're wrangling over. The real question is whether this Democratic President and the military, symbolized by Petraeus, can make the adjustments necessary to live with each other. It seems obvious that Obama is going to have to be less coy with the public about what is really going to happen in July 2011, even if that risks alienating his party's vestigial antiwar base. He is going to have to make it clear that "significant" troop withdrawals — a word bandied about in recent weeks — are not in the cards unless the situation on the ground changes dramatically, for good or ill. And Petraeus is going to have to reconsider whether the crown jewel in his tiara — the counterinsurgency doctrine — is really feasible in Afghanistan and what strategic modifications will have to be made in order to leave the place in the most stable, humane fashion.

These adjustments should not be difficult; they simply require the good faith and respect from both sides that have been lost, as McChrystal's crushing indelicacy so clearly demonstrated.

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