The anticipation was palpable as Gen. David Petraeus took his seat in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing room Thursday afternoon for his confirmation session as the Leon Panetta’s likely successor as director of the CIA. The much-decorated general, in his last months as Central Command chief, had just lost an internal battle over how far and how fast to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan over the course of this year and the next. And everyone in the room knew it.
Indeed, across Capitol Hill hours earlier soon-to-retire Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, had bluntly told the House Armed Services Committee, “The president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept.”
The expected question for Petraeus wasn’t long in coming. Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein asked, “How do you view the president’s decision with respect to bringing home certain troops and maintain others prior to 2014?”
Petraeus didn’t bat an eye. He’d presented the president with several options, each one carrying “an assessment of risk,” he said. “The ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation in terms of the time line that we had recommended.” But that’s understandable, he quickly added, since only the president has to assess all the factors and considerations, military and non-military alike.
Once “the commander in chief has decided, it’s the responsibility of those in uniform to salute smartly and to do everything humanly possible to execute it.” He pledged to do that in his remaining time as commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and, if confirmed, from his CIA post as well.
Friends weren’t surprised. “If he hasn’t tendered his resignation before 2:30, and I have no reason to think he will, then he’ll go in and say, ‘I support the president’s decision,'” a friend had predicted on Thursday morning. “As a soldier, he has no choice.”
Petraeus’ strategy choice, he’d told the president, would be to maintain virtually all of the 100,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan through the end of next year, certainly through the summer-to-mid-fall “fighting season.” He wants to transfer the major counter-insurgency offensive, backed by the muscle of last year’s 33,000 “surge” troops, from southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces (where commanders believe they’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum) to the Eastern provinces along the Pakistan border. That’s where the Haqqani network operates, planning and executing suicide bombings in Afghan cities and lethal attacks on American and Afghan troops. But the president’s decision — to withdraw all the surge troops “by next summer,” as he said Wednesday night — leaves that plan in doubt, say some military analysts.
“The president’s decision to make a dramatic force reduction like that against an enemy only partially defeated is asking our troops to do more with less,” said retired Gen. Jack Keane, a close friend and adviser to Petraeus. “This really puts the Eastern strategy at risk. The expectation was, we could bring the Haqqani network down in one more fighting season, with enough troops. If those are pulled out short of that, it will be hard to do.”
The tension came to a head late in the afternoon, when Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked him if he would have resigned if he disagreed strongly with President Obama’s choice.
Petraeus didn’t flinch. “I’m not a quitter,” he said. “This is something i have thought a bit about. I don’t think it’s the place of a commander to consider that kind of step unless you are in a very dire situation. This was a more aggressive approach than the chairman and I would have put forward, but this is not something where one hangs up the uniform in a final protest.”
He warmed to his subject: “I feel strongly about this. Troops don’t get to quit and I don’t think commanders should contemplate that. Ever. This is not about reputation or the president, but our country.”
And where does this leave Petraeus’ plan to mount mount an more aggressive operation in the East? When ranking Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., pressed Petraeus point-blank about that — and Levin did likewise — the general deftly sidestepped the questions, saying revised planning had just begun.
As the afternoon wore on, Petraeus didn’t indicate any qualms about taking on a new job for a president and White House that just rejected his advice in his current one. I asked his old pal, retired general Keane, if it was hard for Petraeus to enthusiastically embrace the new post.
“Dave is like George Marshall. He sees himself fundamentally as a public servant,” Keane said. “To serve in any administration in a job of great consequence is an honor as far as he’s concerned. That’s where his head is. It’s the country he’s serving, not the administration.”
At the CIA, Petraeus’ world will dramatically change. He’ll no longer running the counterinsurgency campaign, but the counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaida. And as he prepares to enter the secret world at Langley, America’s most public general surely knows that as far as the White House is concerned, his next job will be to provide intelligence information, not policy advice.