‘This Is a Contest of Wills’

by Jamie M. Fly

In his nomination hearing today, Gen. David Petraeus made clear the long-term U.S. commitment to achieving a stable and successful Afghanistan.

For the many who have in recent months become increasingly pessimistic about developments in that country and questioned President Obama’s fortitude regarding Afghanistan, the events of the last week have provided some unexpected cause for hope. Although General McChrystal lost his job for essentially playing the same game of leaking and trash-talking that White House staff, including Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, have engaged in (albeit not as adroitly), his departure forced President Obama to speak publicly about the war.

His comments when he announced General McChrystal’s dismissal, as well as those in the days that followed, seemed to signal that the president realizes that his announcement of a July 2011 withdrawal deadline has impacted our effectiveness on the ground. He also appears perturbed by the internecine warfare amongst his military and civilian teams about this deadline and other aspects of U.S. policy.

The events of the last week present an opportunity to correct the timeline problem. Senator McCain and others were correct to press Petraeus on just this point in today’s hearing. But with his base continuing to express doubts about our chances of success in Afghanistan (witness Nancy Pelosi’s recent interview with the Huffington Post), it is unlikely he will drop the timeline entirely. The most we can hope for is that by the time of the administration’s end-of-year review, advocates of a rapid withdrawal will be weakened and a newly empowered General Petraeus will either have some successes under his belt or will be willing and able to tell the president with perfect frankness whether the conditions on the ground make July 2011 even more ill advised than it now appears.

General Petraeus is, alas, a mere mortal, and his success in Kabul is not predetermined. But if President Obama follows up his new-found public tenacity with actions — such as a new civilian team to work with General Petraeus in Kabul, thus creating an environment in which General Petraeus can succeed — the country will be the better for it.

As General Petraeus suggested at one point during today’s hearings, “This is a contest of wills” between us and the Taliban, who, while not al-Qaeda, still are rabid opponents of a free and democratic Afghanistan and of everything that the United States stands for. This cogent analysis of the challenge we face is something that this administration lost sight of last December as the president tried to paper over differences within his inner circle. The McChrystal fracas has for now apparently caused the president to reassert his own views. Given the long-term stakes for Afghanistan and for the security of the United States, let’s hope that he remains engaged in the coming months.

Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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