President Obama's decision to withdraw all 33,000 surge troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer was another success for Defense Secretary Robert Gates as he heads into retirement.
So say Yochi Dreazen and Marc Ambinder writing for The Atlantic. It was also a loss for Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander for that war who is headed to the CIA as its next director.
Petraeus was among a number of top military offiicers, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wanted a slower drawdown while some White House officials wanted a significantly faster withdrawal of U.S. troops than Obama ultimately decided on.
It was Gates, according to Dreazen and Ambinder, who crafted the final compromise the president chose to proceed with.
The debate effectively boiled down to a matter of months. Petraeus agreed that 10,000 troops could be safely withdrawn this year, but he wanted to keep some of the remaining 23,000 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2012 and to have the flexibility to extend some of their tours into early 2013 if conditions deteriorated, according to officials with knowledge of the deliberations. Obama's civilian advisers, pointing to intelligence assessments showing that the U.S. had killed 20 of al-Qaida's top 30 leaders in the region, wanted the final 23,000 surge troops to leave Afghanistan next spring, with the last of the forces returning home roughly around March.
For nearly two weeks, neither side budged. Petraeus made it clear he opposed beginning the drawdown during the summer, traditionally the time of Afghanistan's most intense fighting, according to an official familiar with his thinking...
... Obama's civilian aides pushed back hard, arguing that all of the troops could safely leave Afghanistan by next spring because of the successes of the stepped-up counterterror push inside both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gates, who felt the spring 2012 timetable was far too aggressive, proposed keeping the remaining surge troops in Afghanistan through next spring as a compromise. Obama ultimately chose—as he did during the surge debate—to side with the veteran Defense chief.
At his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Petraeus acknowledged his preference was to have a slower withdrawal. The general said:
"The ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline than what we had recommended. Again, that is understandable in the sense that there are broader considerations beyond just those of a military commander."
He added that, historically, no military commander has "all the forces he would like to have, for all the time."
This sets up a fascinating situation. If security in Afghanistan deteriorates as U.S forces are removed from that country, which is quite possible, Petraeus as CIA director will be in the unenviable position of watching the correspondingly worrisome intelligence come in confirming his earlier fears.
At the same time, Petraeus is known to be have few equals as an inside player, bureaucratic diplomat and team player.
Based on everything he has demonstrated so far, he would be the least likely to go public with his criticisms or I-told-you-so's.
He repeatedly underscored that perception in his Thursday testimony. When asked by Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, if he would resign if he disagreed strongly with the president's decision, Petraeus said:
I'm not a quitter. I don't think it's the place for a commander to consider that kind of step unless you are in a very dire situation... This is not something where one hangs up the uniform in a final protest... Our troopers don't get to quit. I don't think commanders ought to contemplate that idly. This is not about me... This is about our country.