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Opinion: It's all about the troops in the field.
BOSTON — President Obama’s decision to call upon General David Petraeus to take the helm as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan looks like a political and strategic stroke of brilliance.
It is history in the making.
But it is also history that will ultimately be the judge of this dramatic and surprising decision to sack General Stanley McChrystal and once again offer the reins and responsibility of commanding troops at a pivotal moment in a war that is faltering to General Petraeus.
Politically, it allows Obama to show leadership and strength in stripping McChrystal of command for his poor conduct in the comments he made to Rolling Stone magazine in its cover story titled “The Runaway General.”
Strategically, it gives the administration the ability to show a stable command as the Kandahar campaign against the Taliban gets underway.
But perhaps most importantly, this decision will be applauded by troops in the field who see Petraeus as a genuine American hero. It will defy the cynical military axiom of “different spanks, for different ranks.”
This time, a big general got “spanked” just like any other grunt or staff sergeant who showed conduct that eroded the trust of the military.
And that will go over big with the service men and women who are risking their lives in a war that has dragged on for nine years and that has called upon them to make extraordinary sacrifices.
As Obama put it, “War is bigger than any one man or woman. … Conduct represented in the recent article does not meet the standard of a commanding general. … It erodes the trust that is necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.”
For sure the decision is getting positive reviews, at least in these early hours. And Petraeus is likely to be quickly confirmed by the U.S. Senate and soon be on his way back to Afghanistan and back into the field as top U.S. commander as he was in Iraq, where he led the effort through the crucial — and by most accounts successful — moment of the Baghdad surge.
But what this decision also offers is a dramatic difference in personality and style of leadership between Petraeus and McChrystal. That difference was starkly illustrated in the uproar over the Rolling Stone article.
The comments that McChrystal, a former head of special forces and a maverick field commander, and his aids made to the magazine were reckless. And that is always the flip side of a maverick’s coin even one with as distinguished a career as McChrystal has had.
If McChrystal is reckless, Petraeus is measured. If McChrystal is a maverick known for being both brilliant and blunt, Petraeus quietly asserts leadership and affects change from within. McChrystal is known for mixing sprints in with a strict running regime which is followed up without a meal so he “stays hungry,” as the legend goes. Petraeus is a marathoner who understands the need for small intake of nutrition throughout the day if he’s going to go the distance. If McChrystal reads Rolling Stone, Petraeus prefers Thucydides.
So what might this difference in leadership style mean in the direction the war in Afghanistan? That is the looming question now.
What Petraeus brings to this war is discipline and an understanding of history. Both of these are needed right now in a moment where the U.S. effort is failing.
The Rolling Stone article highlights not just some off-the-cuff remarks by McChrystal that got him in trouble, it reveals a dangerous fault line between the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon over the direction and goals of the war. That division between civilian and military strategy is real and it is important and how Petraeus will bridge the divide remains to be seen.