A General's Farewell

A General's Farewell

By David Ignatius - June 29, 2011

KABUL -- A week ago, late on the night that President Obama announced he would be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan faster than the military had wanted, Gen. David Petraeus held a videoconference from Washington with his senior staff, who were assembled in Kabul for their 7:30 a.m. meeting. He assured them their campaign plan was still "doable," even with fewer numbers over time, and told them to stay on the offensive.

The call was a classic Petraeus move -- a show of optimism and determination, combined with realpolitik. He must have been disappointed, but he kept it well hidden, explaining to his team that the president's decision had been shaped by broader factors than the military's preferred timetable.

Petraeus will leave his command of NATO forces here in July with the outcome of the Afghanistan War far from certain. He hasn't achieved the same decisive turnaround as in Iraq, where he led a surge of U.S. troops that pulled the country back from the brink of civil war. The Afghan conflict has proved more intractable.

Petraeus says he knew from the beginning that a quick "flip" in Afghanistan was impossible. But he's still confident that his counterinsurgency strategy can work here, even as the U.S. draws down its troops. He says the definition of success will be the transfer of responsibility for security to the Afghans by 2014, when U.S. combat troops will leave.

Politicians from both parties are already writing off Afghanistan as a lost cause. But Petraeus argues that Obama's December 2009 troop surge is beginning to pay dividends, even as Washington sours on the war: The level of violence in recent weeks has been down about 5 percent from a year ago, and the Taliban has failed to regain control of Kandahar and Helmand strongholds that were cleared in 2010. Afghan troops are performing better, he insists, and they are suffering three times as many deaths as NATO forces.

The negatives are also obvious to many observers. The government of President Hamid Karzai remains grossly corrupt, and governance around the country is somewhere between poor and nonexistent. Afghanistan is a battered and dysfunctional country.

The Petraeus legacy will be debated by military historians for years to come. He is the most prominent general of his generation, celebrated as a miracle worker after the rescue of Baghdad but still resented by some colleagues as too political. Somehow, he has been the favorite military commander of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who is plucking him from Kabul to head the CIA.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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