Gen. David Petraeus probably had no choice. His predecessor was fired for failure to show proper respect for civilian control of the military. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Petraeus in his confirmation hearing not only agreed with but enthused over Obama’s timeline for withdrawal of troops (“Not only did I say that I supported it, I said that I agreed with it”), parroting the administration line that it lends “urgency” to the operation. This is, of course, precisely what overly optimistic observers who support the Afghanistan war effort were hoping would not occur. They imagined that Petraeus would prevail upon Obama to lift the deadline; instead, the general was obliged to re-enforce it.
We see once again that there is no substitute for a clear-headed commander in chief. Petraeus was successful in Iraq because he had the right strategy and a president who supported him fully. Had Petraeus not been given Ambassador Crocker to work with and had he not been given a wholehearted and, yes, open-ended commitment from the commander in chief, he might very well have failed.
Petraeus could have said to Obama that he wouldn’t take the job given the timeline — and he still could resign if it remains firmly in place. But at least for now he has chosen to operate with the ball and chain around his ankle. We should hope that this is not an indication of his ability or determination to insist that competent and effective civilian leaders replace Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry.
The president — only the president — can decide to do what is needed to win a war. Whoever accepts the assignment to run the Afghan operation puts his own career and reputation at stake by agreeing to work under conditions that are widely regarded as inimical to victory. If Petraeus can promptly persuade Obama to remove those conditions and the personnel who will impede success, he will do his country and his troops an immense service. If not, he has set himself and those he commands up for failure.