General Petraeus: The Best Choice for Leading the War in Afghanistan

June 23, 2010

President Obama’s today accepted General McChrystal’s resignation after the publication of an article in Rolling Stone magazine in which McChrystal and his staff were critical of administration officials. McChrystal never challenged Obama’s policy and most of the critical comments came from his staff.

The subordination of America’s military to elected civilian leadership is an important foundation of constitutional government. General McChrystal and his staff said nothing in the article that would constitute subordination. Nevertheless, it was an error in judgment to let a reporter hear what undoubtedly many in the military would say amongst themselves in private conversations.

President Obama could have asked General McChrystal to stay on as the leader in the war in Afghanistan without weakening the principle of civilian leadership over the military. There were differences of opinion on whether McChrystal should stay among conservative commentators. The strongest argument for retaining McChrystal was that we need continuity in leadership during a critical phase in the war.

Given Obama’s decision to accept General McChrystal’s resignation, appointing McChrystal’s boss, General Petraeus to lead the war was the best possible outcome. General Petraeus successfully turned around the war in Iraq and created conditions under which a democratically elected Iraqi government with all its imperfections could govern.

President Obama today gave a speech which has been described as the best speech of his presidency. He did indeed commend McChrystal on his outstanding service and he restated the mission in Afghanistan.

There are still issues with Obama’s policy. The most fundamental is that Obama has set July of 2011 as the date for American troops to withdraw from the fight against the Taliban. In a war, you simply cannot let the enemy know that if they hold out long enough, their opponent will withdraw. Afghans have no confidence that their government army will be ready to continue the fight on their own.

Given the credibility and respect that General Petraeus has among all mainstream Americans, he has the opportunity to convince the Obama administration to back off from a fixed withdrawal date and put in place a policy that we will withdraw only when the Taliban has been decisively defeated. We don’t have to stay in Afghanistan forever, but if we let our enemies know that we will not leave before the fight is over, the vast majority of Afghans who oppose the Taliban will not be afraid to support the fight against the Taliban helping us to a faster victory.

General Petraeus deserves our unambiguous support. We wish him well on his new assignment.

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