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Petraeus Tapped to Head Mideast Central Command

April 23, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates nominated Wednesday Gen. David Petraeus to head the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military experts analyze the change in role and what it means for U.S. military efforts in the region.
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RAY SUAREZ: The change in command of the U.S. military in Iraq, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Army General David Petraeus has been the public face of the surge strategy in Iraq that has helped bring down violence and U.S. casualties over the past year.

His new job, as head of U.S. Central Command, will give him supervision over U.S. military operations from North Africa to Central Asia.

The man taking Petraeus’ place as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, has been Petraeus’ deputy there and was one of the designers of the surge strategy.

The moves were precipitated by the sudden resignation last month of the CENTCOM commander Admiral William Fallon. He left after a magazine interview suggested he was at odds with administration policies in Iran and Iraq.

For more, we go to Stephen Biddle, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s taught at the Army War College and written widely on military issues.

And Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the first Reagan administration, he’s now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank.

And welcome, gentlemen, to you both.

Stephen Biddle, this shift, is it likely to have any impact on Iraq policy or the conduct of the Iraq war?

STEPHEN BIDDLE, Council on Foreign Relations: Very little. I think this represents something of a stay-the-course choice that suggests that the president is happy with the kinds of policies we’ve had in the country over the last year and wants them to continue.

MARGARET WARNER: Does it suggest that then there will be no dissenting voice at that higher echelon?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, I think you’re less likely to get a dissenting voice that takes their dissent outside the government. I would like to think that General Petraeus, as the responsibility of any officer at that level of seniority, will, where he disagrees with administration policy, make that clear to the president, up to the time when a decision is reached, even though he’s now in the position that Fallon once held.

Dissent is terribly important. I think you can get it even from people who believe that the policy as a whole is generally sound.

Objectivity of command

MARGARET WARNER: Lawrence Korb, what's your view of the likely impact on Iraq, the conduct of the war?

LAWRENCE KORB, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense: Well, I think what will happen is we'll obviously stay the course, as Steve mentioned, because this is General Petraeus' strategy and now he is going to be the next person in that chain of command.

What I worry about is whether he can take an objective look at Afghanistan and be willing to take troops out of Iraq, if necessary to go to Afghanistan.

Normally you do not take a field commander and then move him up in the chain of command. General Ridgeway, when he left Korea, became Army chief of staff. General Abrams became Army chief of staff. And General Casey did, which took them out of the chain of command and gave them different responsibilities.

I think it's asking too much of General Petraeus, who's been so closely identified with this strategy -- in fact, we call it the Petraeus strategy, not the Bush strategy -- to be able now to be judge and jury about it.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that a problem, Stephen Biddle, that you elevate someone who has such a stake in the current strategy that it may be very hard for him, any man, to be objective?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, I don't think anyone ever can be completely objective, in that sense. I don't think Fallon was before Petraeus. I'm sure Petraeus won't be, either.

But by the same token, I think General Petraeus, even while he was in command in Iraq, was certainly very aware of the challenges in Afghanistan and the strain on the military associated with the Iraq deployment.

I think one of the reasons why he's been willing, in fact, to take the troop level down and to consider, if not to guarantee, further drawdowns is that he's aware of the downside costs and risks of doing that.

I think, nonetheless, the promotion of General Petraeus represents a decision by his commander and Fallon's commander that he doesn't want a major reallocation of resources from Iraq and into Afghanistan. And I would be very surprised if General Petraeus advocated anything like that at this point.

Odierno promoted in Iraq

MARGARET WARNER: Let me stay with Iraq for a minute, and then we'll go more into Afghanistan. And, Lawrence Korb, let me ask you this.

Secretary Gates said today that Petraeus won't actually leave until late summer or early fall. By that time, we're going to be right in the middle, nearing the end of the period of assessment after the drawdown in troops, assessing how the situation looks on the ground, whether a further drawdown could resume.

From what you know of General Odierno, do you think he'll have any different standards for making that assessment, in terms of recommending to Petraeus and to the president about whether a further drawdown in troops in the fall is possible?

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, I think it will be very hard for him to do that, because, remember, we have to take the troops out, because their tours are over and we'll be taking them out until July. And General Petraeus wants a pause, which the president has agreed to, for the next 45 days.

By that time, General Petraeus will have left, if he is confirmed according to their schedule. It will be almost impossible for General Odierno to walk in and say, "Well, I think we ought to take more troops out."

I think what he will say, as any human being, was, "Well, let me assess the situation," which basically then will bring us to the end of the Bush administration before we have anymore substantial troops drawdowns, which, again, that would make it very difficult to deal with the situation in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: What is Odierno's, Stephen Biddle, track record in Iraq himself?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, he's had several tours there and very different responsibilities. The standard received view of his first tour as a division commander, shortly after the Saddam regime was toppled, was that his tour of duty was too violent, too heavy-handed, too conventional, not sufficiently oriented to counterinsurgency.

Interestingly, though, his tour as Multi-National Corps commander in Iraq was very much in line with General Petraeus' policies on counterinsurgency. Odierno was the man who implemented Petraeus' larger architecture for the conduct of the war.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, Larry Korb?

LAWRENCE KORB: There's no doubt about it. In fact, General Odierno, even before General Petraeus got there, moved toward what has become known as the Anbar awakening or arming, training and paying the Sunni insurgents, who are basically teamed with us to fight al-Qaida.

I think Steve is right: The first tour, he didn't seem to understand the nature of the conflict. The second tour, he certainly did.

Petraeus and regional strategy

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in making Petraeus, Stephen Biddle, CENTCOM commander today, or saying he would nominate him, Secretary Gates said he was the best man for the job because this whole region, the CENTCOM region, is characterized by the need for asymmetric warfare, and he mentioned Afghanistan in particular.

Did that suggest to you that Gates is looking for any kind of different approach in Afghanistan and looking to Petraeus to design one? How did you read that?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Our degrees of freedom for changing our approach in Afghanistan are constrained very tightly by resource availability. I mean, if you wanted to go to a counterinsurgency approach that put an emphasis on direct provision of population security by American forces, wholesale across the populated areas of Afghanistan, you would need a lot more troops than we have available to put in Afghanistan.

I mean, given that, I think a lot of us would prefer, the things being equal, to do a more traditional counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan and, for that matter, to view Pakistan through the lens of an emerging insurgency there. Our ability to change our policy is really tightly constrained by the number of troops we have available.

MARGARET WARNER: Lawrence Korb, how do you see that?

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, it's also not only by the number of troops, but in Afghanistan, you have a NATO command, which has the majority of the troops, the so-called ISAF force, and that commander there reports to a general in Brussels.

It's only the American forces there that will be reporting to General Petraeus, and that's part of the problem. You don't have a unity of command there and you have different rules for all of the countries involved.

So in Afghanistan, it's not just the question of lack of troops. It's also a lack of coordination among the troops and all the various countries that are involved.

Looking to the future

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, briefly from both of you, and I'll start from you, Stephen Biddle, if you've had this kind of major double shift right at the end of a president's term, does this in any way constrain or lock in the next president?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: These officers serve at the pleasure of the president. If a new administration wants them to change, they can change them.

That having been said, there's no tradition in the United States of these jobs changing when administrations change. It would be quite a statement politically if an incoming administration decided to change these officers, a statement that a new administration might or might not be willing to make.

MARGARET WARNER: Same question to you, Larry Korb. And I'll note that you are an informal adviser to one of the Democratic candidates, Barack Obama.

LAWRENCE KORB: Yes. These generals and admirals are appointed usually for a three-year term. And so it's very unusual to change.

Usually you have to have a cause, like the situation with Admiral Fallon, where he seemed to have spoken out of turn to a reporter. So I think, you know, basically, unless General Petraeus himself wants to leave, that he will probably be there for the three years.

General Odierno, the field commander, they've had much shorter tours than the so-called combatant commanders.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Larry Korb and Stephen Biddle, thank you both.

LAWRENCE KORB: Thank you.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Thank you.