WASHINGTON – The messy departure of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is likely to make the Obama administration’s internal debates over Afghanistan even more pointed, giving the military a powerful advocate for staying the course as it prepares for a reckoning with more impatient officials like Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
President Obama insisted he was switching military leaders, not strategies, when he fired General McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, on Wednesday. But administration insiders acknowledge that there have been preliminary discussions about whether to rethink the approach to a war that is clearly bogging down.
In those deliberations, the new commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, brings more political capital than his predecessor. The White House may find it harder to overrule the man who rode to the rescue after the McChrystal blowup, particularly since he has so much support among Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. He wrote the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency strategy, and has voiced only qualified support for Mr. Obama’s timetable to start withdrawing troops by July 2011.
Mr. Obama reiterated Thursday that the pace of withdrawal would be open to debate. “We did not say that starting July 2011 suddenly there would be no troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan,” he said. “We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us. We said that we’d begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking on more and more responsibility.”
At the same time, though, the setbacks on the battlefield and persistent questions about the reliability of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, have strengthened Mr. Biden’s hand, some officials said. During the policy debate last fall, he argued for a narrower counterterrorism strategy with many fewer troops and a clear endgame for the United States. In many ways, setting the July 2011 date was a concession to Mr. Biden.
“There aren’t camps; there is a policy,” said Antony Blinken, the vice president’s top national security adviser. “It’s a crystal clear policy set by the president that everyone is following. He said at the West Point speech that after 18 months troops will begin to come home.”
With General Petraeus now directly responsible for reversing the tide in Afghanistan, he and Mr. Biden will loom large in the coming months, two pivotal voices as Mr. Obama weighs his strategy against the political costs of an unpopular war. The symbolism was evident in the Rose Garden on Wednesday when Mr. Obama announced the change in command, flanked by the general and Mr. Biden.
“If there continue to be problems,” a senior official said, “the debate will intensify between those who say we have to stick with it and those who say we lost the moment to go into Kandahar, and we have to go to Plan B.”
Plan B would be some combination of Mr. Biden’s stripped-down counterterrorism strategy – including a hard deadline for American withdrawal – and an accelerated effort by Mr. Karzai’s government to reconcile with the leaders of the Taliban insurgency, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.
Any public showdown between the general and the vice president is likely to wait until the end of the year, when the administration begins a formal review of whether the troop surge has worked. Until then, White House officials said, Mr. Biden fully supports the strategy.
“We’ll know in December,” an official said. “By the time we get to July 2011, all the presurge forces will have been there for two years. That’s a perfectly appropriate amount of time to begin transferring troops out.”
In one way, the appointment of General Petraeus may quell the dissonant inside voices that have dogged the administration’s Afghanistan policy, if only because of his stature. But outside critics and even some insiders say more housecleaning may be needed, pointing to civilian officials like Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke.
Relations between these figures have often been toxic, administration officials said, partly because the civilian side of the team has several strong-willed personalities with overlapping duties, rather than an undisputed leader like General Petraeus.
Mr. Obama maintained, however, that he did not plan to purge other senior Afghanistan advisers. “I am confident that we’ve got a team in place that can execute,” he said Thursday, answering a question from a reporter about whether he planned to fire anyone else. But, he added rather ominously, “I’m paying very close attention to make sure that they execute. And I will be insisting on extraordinary performance moving forward.”
Whatever their views on Afghanistan policy, Mr. Biden’s aides point out that he has a long history with General Petraeus, which began in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq. As a senator from Delaware and later leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Biden made several trips to Iraq, where he spent time with General Petraeus.
“The vice president early on in the process strongly supported the idea of asking General Petraeus to take command in Afghanistan,” said Jay Carney, Mr. Biden’s spokesman. White House officials say that during the intense two days leading up to General McChrystal’s firing, Mr. Biden was a strong advocate for General Petraeus as a replacement.
With the war effort lagging, officials said the general’s greatest immediate challenge would be convincing reluctant allies and nervous Afghans – not to mention the American public – that the strategy was still viable. Before he left, General McChrystal warned that violence in parts of Afghanistan would still be intense by late fall. Supporters of General Petraeus said he would bring a deft touch with the allies, a skill that General McChrystal sometimes lacked.
“Petraeus is extraordinarily adept in terms of international politics and in dealing with Karzai and regional powers, but he also has a feel for the insurgent groups on the ground,” said John A. Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan policy institute in Washington. “And he has extraordinary credibility in Washington.”
Moreover, General Petraeus will surround himself with a team of military and civilian aides who are equally seasoned in the political intricacies of earlier battles in the Balkans and Iraq, and, in the words of one Army officer who knows the general well, “play well with others.”
Armed with those attributes, his backers say, the general will be able to parry any argument that a more limited strategy offers the best way out of Afghanistan for the United States.