Petraeus buys Afghan war time. But how much?

WASHINGTON - General David Petraeus’ clout as the US commander credited with turning around the Iraq war is buying time in Congress as he attempts to do the same in Afghanistan, senior lawmakers said on Monday.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Tue 21 Sep 2010, 8:49 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:37 AM

But how much time he’ll have to demonstrate success is unclear, given deepening anxiety over the unpopular conflict, particularly within President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party.

A White House review of the Afghan campaign in December is expected to test US patience for the unpopular, 9-year-old war, given limitations on the degree of progress the US military can show in just three months’ time.

Lawmakers appearing at the Reuters Washington Summit said they believed Petraeus’ credibility gave the Obama administration some breathing room, given the four-star general’s role pulling Iraq back from the brink of all-out sectarian warfare in 2007 and 2008.

Like Iraq then, many critics now fear the Afghan war may be “unwinnable.”

“I do think as it turns out General Petraeus provides a basis perhaps for buying that time,” Howard Berman, the chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Reuters Washington Summit.

“Give this guy, who is viewed as one of the most talented and skilled military leaders we’ve had in a long time, a chance,” Berman, a Democrat, said.

Berman added that the next few months under Petraeus’ leadership would be “real important to the future,” given deep concerns about Afghan corruption and a still resilient Taliban enemy.

“I don’t think I can overemphasize: We’ve got a real skeptical public and a very skeptical Congress right now.”

Republican Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, agreed that Petraeus credibility had bought the Obama administration time.

He and Berman agreed that the Afghan war had taken a backseat to the US economy and more pressing domestic issues in voters’ minds ahead of Nov. 2 congressional elections, in which Republicans are expected to make big gains.

McCain also noted that Petraeus had only taken over as the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan less than three months ago, and added his “overall strategy I think is the right strategy.”

“I cannot ascertain areas, except on small tactical areas, where I would disagree with General Petraeus,” McCain said.

Competing expectations

Petraeus, arguably the US military’s biggest star, took over from General Stanley McChrystal after he was fired in June over disparaging remarks about Obama administration officials to Rolling Stone magazine.

Petraeus has warned that Afghanistan is a different kind of war than Iraq, and US military officials have privately warned against unrealistic expectations in Congress given tough realities of what they expect to be a long, hard fight.

Despite sharing confidence in Petraeus, Democrats and Republican lawmakers have competing expectations from him. This includes, most notably, what he will do about President Barack Obama’s plans to start withdrawing troops in July 2011.

McCain is a leading critic of the timeline, and echoed comments from the outgoing US Marine commandant, who warned last month that the deadline to start the withdrawal had given “sustenance” to the Taliban. Afghan insurgents, he and McCain said, felt they only had to wait out a US withdrawal.

“(Petraeus) has never said flat out that he supports a withdrawal strategy,” McCain said.

But withdrawal starting in July is a must for many of Obama’s Democrats. Asked how big of a withdrawal would be needed to satisfy Congress next year, Berman said: “Tell me how things are going and I’ll give you and answer.”

“If one has a sense that the concerns now have been greatly alleviated in terms of defeating the enemies and improving governance, I think the administration will get a lot of leeway in deciding what they need to do on July 1st,” he said.

“If the current arc continues, I think it’s going to be a bitter fight.”

Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think-tank, said Petraeus’ credibility only went so far.

“I don’t think Petraeus nearly bought a year or two or anything that dramatic. He may have eased the process for a few months and that remains to be seen,” he said.

“The real question is whether he is actually better than McChrystal implementing the strategy. If he is, then the results on the ground are what are really going to buy time — not so much his reputation going in.”

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