By: David A. Patten
The man handpicked by President Obama to rescue the flagging American war effort in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, must wage a critical battle on two fronts: Taking on the Taliban while quelling bureaucratic rivalries in Washington that present a serious threat to military morale.
The Pentagon brass joined with members of Congress in universally condemning ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s sharp criticisms of his civilian superiors, which led to his forced resignation. The choice of Petraeus also received widespread bipartisan approval on Capitol Hill.
But several military experts and commentators say disenchantment with how the administration is fighting the Afghanistan war transcends the loose-lipped McChrystal.
Support for Obama among front-line soldiers and officers has dropped precipitously, according to military journalist, author, and former Special Forces soldier Michael Yon.
In an exclusive Newsmax interview, Yon says while about half of the troops supported Obama during his presidential campaign, lately that’s changed.
“Now I do see that there is a shift away, and I’m talking low level to high, there has been definitely a shift away from Obama,” Yon tells Newsmax. “That much is clear.”
Several analysts believe the McChrystal run-in reflects a growing distance between the Obama administration and some in the military. In part the friction appears to stem from infighting among Obama’s own advisers.
Eric Bates, the executive editor of the Rolling Stone magazine whose article touched off the furor, said McChrystal’s remarks stem from “enormous frustration” that some officials involved in Afghanistan “just don’t get it.”
Bates told the media Tuesday that McChrystal’s comments indicate “deep-seated differences in how to prosecute this war.”
As military analyst and retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey told MSNBC: “Yes, I think there is a real substantive issue with the people on the ground in Afghanistan. There are too many free agents rotating around — Ambassador Holbrooke, [Ambassador Karl] Eikenberry, and others. And I think the president has to clarify the chain of command.”
How bad is the bureaucratic in-fighting? The New York Times reported European allies in the war effort are weary of Obama advisers whispering behind backs and sniping at each other.
Bruce O. Riedel, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, tells The Times: “This flap shows once again that [Obama’s] team is not pulling together, but is engaging in backbiting.”
In February, national security adviser Gen. James L. Jones reportedly wrote a note to Ambassador Eikenberry, telling him not to worry about his differences with Richard C. Holbrooke, the president’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Using an unsecured channel, Jones indicated Holbrooke would soon be fired.
In the Rolling Stone story, McChrystal’s staff described Holbrooke as “a wounded animal.” One McChrystal aide said: “Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.”
President Obama alluded to the infighting in his remarks announcing that Petraeus would replace McChrystal.
“I’ve just told my national security team that now is the time for all of us to come together,” the president warned. “Doing so is not an option, but an obligation. I welcome debate among my team, but I won’t tolerate division.”
It appears division is precisely what Petraeus will have to overcome if he is to succeed in Afghanistan. But the growing divide goes beyond political differences and involves the counterinsurgency strategy that the administration is counting on to prevail.
That strategy is based on winning the hearts and minds of everyday Afghanis by adopting strict rules of engagement – the orders that spell out the methods U.S. fighting personnel are permitted to use when attacked — in order to minimize collateral damage, including civilian casualties.
Yon tells Newsmax that McChrystal was unpopular with his troops for precisely that reason.
“They are not happy with him. They think the rules of engagement are so strict they are costing a lot of lives, which is true,” Yon says.
The journalist and author adds that troop morale in Afghanistan has been plummeting.
“It’s been hurting morale. I’ve never seen morale flag like this before. It’s actually starting to go down. Hopefully we’ll see a turnaround, now that Petraeus is coming onboard,” Yon says.
Obama critic Frank J. Gaffney, the founder and president of the Center for Security Policy, tells Newsmax that the U.S. policies in Afghanistan are “in danger of failing.”
“I think the problem … is that we are not pursuing in a coherent way the defeat of our enemies in the war that I call ‘the war for the free world,’ which happens to have a number of different combat theaters, and other theaters of a non-kinetic kind, including here in the United States,” Gaffney tells Newsmax.
“I would start with the fact that the administration has no clarity whatsoever who the enemy even is, let alone how to defeat it,” he adds. “And to the extent it is trying to defeat it, it is doing so in a feckless and half-hearted way.
And that’s what I believe we’re seeing play out in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The switch to Petraeus comes at a key moment in the war.
“There is a growing doubt in Washington the success of this strategy, whether it’s the right strategy,” Fox News host Chris Wallace reported. “A lot of people are questioning the president’s decision to set this timeline … of July 2011, 13 months from now, and whether that raises issues in Afghanistan among our allies and our enemies about our commitment to this war….”
Despite those reservations, Obama’s choice of Petraeus to replace McChrystal was widely touted by liberal politicians and the media as “a masterstroke” Wednesday.
The left’s embrace of Petraeus seemed curious, considering that Petraeus’ role in the Obama White House had been much-reduced compared to what it was in the Bush era.
Petraeus, rumored to be a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2012, appeared to keep a relatively low profile to avoid bruising other White House egos.
In September 2007, when Petraeus was testifying on the progress of the surge under the Bush administration, the George Soros-funded MoveOn.org group spent $75,000 to run an ad in The New York Times headlined: “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?”
The controversial ad campaign was widely denounced as a vicious attack on the patriotism of a general credited with implementing the Bush strategy that avoided a serious military setback in Iraq.
Now, Obama’s selection of that same general to lead the war in Afghanistan is widely being heralded as a stroke of genius.