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Petraeus Soon Out as Leader of Afghan Campaign

Gen. David Petraeus (US Army photo)

The Times of London is reporting (behind the greed wall) that General David Patreus’s days as leader of coalition forces in Afghanistan are numbered:

General David Petraeus, the most celebrated American soldier of his generation, is to leave his post as commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. The Times can reveal that the Pentagon aims to replace General Petraeus, who was appointed less than eight months ago, by the end of the year. Sources have confirmed that the search for a new commander in Kabul is under way. It forms part of a sweeping reorganisation of top American officials in Afghanistan, which the Obama Administration hopes to present as proof that its strategy does not depend on the towering reputation of one man.

Less clear from this story is whether Petraeus jumped or was pushed. Is the change a tacit admission of yet another failed move in the American strategy to build a stable and friendly Afghanistan, or could David Petraeus be eyeing a different kind of campaign?

Earlier in the day, Reuters reporters picked up something from the end of a Washington Post article that also signaled a possible change in leadership on the Afghan front:

“… virtually the entire U.S. civilian and military leadership in Afghanistan is expected to leave in the coming months, including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the embassy’s other four most senior officials, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led international coalition, and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day-to-day military operations there,” it says.

“No final decisions have been made, but military officials said that Petraeus, who took command last July, will rotate out of Afghanistan before the end of the year,” it adds.

Petraeus has been talked about for a while as a possible successor to Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  (CJCS),  who is expected to retire in October.  Any move would be part of a broader shake-up in the administration, which will also see Defense Secretary Robert Gates retire this year.

The Reuters piece goes on to note that the “towering figure” that is Gen. Petraeus has made him hard to defy on matters regarding strategy in the nearly decade-old war. With Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Clinton reported to be supporters of Petraeus, and President Obama already having replaced the previous two commanders, David McKiernan and Stanley McChrystal, however, it is not clear whose strategy the administration is now looking to pursue.

If, as has sadly been the case in this long war, domestic politics are as important as field strategy, a Petraeus promotion to head the JCS seems more likely than an outright ouster. What Obama will do to improve the situation in Afghanistan seems less clear–to us, and, perhaps, also (and again, sadly) to him.

UPDATE: The Department of Defense is pushing back:

DOD spksmn Morrell: “Despite some sensational speculation by one of the London papers, I can assure you General Petraeus is not quitting”

“Not quitting” is not the same thing as “not changing jobs sometime this year,” so I would say we should still expect big changes in the Pentagon and Afghan campaign hierarchy.

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Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine