General David Petraeus gave what is likely his last congressional testimony as an officer in uniform yesterday, at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on his nomination to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Two important messages came out.
First, Petraeus will move smartly in his remaining days as commander in Afghanistan to begin President Barack Obama’s troop drawdown, which is speedier than Petraeus had recommended. He did not in any way associate himself with those who sought to reopen the decision or question its feasibility. He noted that the drawdown will complicate reaching the campaign’s objectives, but left no doubt that he will strive to set up his successor, Lt. Gen. John Allen, for success.
The second point concerned something vastly broader. In the closing hour of testimony, in a colloquy with Senator Carl Levin, Petraeus seemed to be speaking for the history books, to clear the air about the recent years of troubled civil-military relations, of latent and overt tension between officers and civilian officials, of tendentious comments captured by reporters and genuine differences over wartime policy.
Petraeus said three times that his job was to provide the view from the battlefield and the president’s job was to make the decisions. When Levin suggested that Petraeus could resign if he disagreed with Obama’s drawdown decision, the general replied with heat and at length.
Not a Quitter
“We take an oath,” he said. “I’m not a quitter. In my view it is not the place of a commander to consider that kind of step … to hang up his uniform in protest.”
Levin attempted to continue his questioning, but Petraeus stopped him again, saying he felt very strongly about this point. “Our troopers don’t get to quit,” he insisted. “I don’t support any such kind of idle action. This is about our country.”
So, what does this exchange tell us about the future, in our foreign wars and at home?
It means, or should mean, three things for Afghanistan. First, the Afghans will be in charge sooner rather than later -- militarily, economically and politically -- and the Americans will take the backseat.
Second, the U.S. will shift to a small counterinsurgency footprint, with the remaining troops dispersed at the village and district level in insurgent-plagued areas. They will have logistic, air and quick-reaction forces to support them.
Third, the political and diplomatic track will assume increasing importance as civilians work to achieve bottom-up reintegration into society and top-down political reconciliation involving all Afghans (except for diehard jihadists like members of the Haqqani network).
Yet Petraeus’s comments signaled a broader change in civil-military relations and national security policy making. The hope is that, after a decade out of whack, there will be a proper balance between military leaders providing their best professional advice and civilians making the policy decisions.
The military-civilian line became blurred in the George W. Bush years when the wounded administration turned to Petraeus as the credible voice to sell its Iraq policy. The Obama administration tried to reclaim the ground, but at the cost of swirling tensions that spilled into public view.
By hanging up his uniform after 37 years and moving into a civilian advisory position in the national security establishment, Petraeus brings his status to a side of the scale that has been vastly underweight for far too long.
(Linda Robinson is the author of “Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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