King David's War

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On June 23rd, McChrystal entered the Oval Office. According to a source familiar with the conversation, Obama told the general, "You've done a very good job, but . . . " and then informed McChrystal that he would accept his resignation. Afterward, the president held a meeting of the National Security Council. "I've accepted Stan McChrystal's resignation," Obama told those gathered in the room, according to a senior administration official who attended the session. There was a shocked silence. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had all lobbied hard to keep McChrystal onboard. In the end, it was the president himself, heeding the advice of Biden and National Security Adviser James Jones, who had decided that the general had to go.

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Then Obama made an equally startling announcement: He was placing Petraeus, the commander who had so skillfully undermined him during the strategic review the year before, in charge of the war in Afghanistan. Petraeus had arrived at the White House that morning "with no indication at all" that he was about to get tapped to replace McChrystal, according to a senior military official close to the general. "He walked into a more or less regular NSC meeting," the official says, "and walked out with a new job." The question that Petraeus had been trying to avoid when he collapsed at the Senate hearing a week earlier — When are we getting out of Afghanistan? — was suddenly one he would be forced to answer, and quickly.

Obama and Petraeus met for 40 minutes. A press conference was scheduled in the Rose Garden to break the news — but the announcement couldn't be made public until Obama allowed the general to fulfill one simple request.

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"Before we announce this," Petraeus told the president, "I better call my wife."

For a brief moment, the appointment of Petraeus united civilian and military leaders in Washington, who had been at war with each other over the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan. Within the Obama administration, doubts about McChrystal's ability to lead had been festering privately for months. In May, a month before the blowup, one White House official had told me that Petraeus was "the one who should really be in charge." The general was widely seen as having enough clout in Washington to alter the course of the war, as he had done in Iraq. If Petraeus can't do it, the thinking went, then no one can — and no one back home could blame Obama for losing with Petraeus in charge.

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The irony is that Petraeus had literally written the book on counterinsurgency, the strategy that was failing so miserably in Afghanistan. After serving two years in Iraq, where he oversaw training of the Iraqi army and police, Petraeus returned to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2005. Fed up with what he saw as the Pentagon's outdated, Cold War mentality, he took it upon himself to assemble a handful of the military's most dynamic thinkers and to develop a new field manual, called FM 3-24, which became the basis for America's policy in Iraq. "Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man's warfare," the manual grandly declares of the doctrine now known as COIN. "It is the graduate level of war."

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As McChrystal's boss, Petraeus had also been intimately involved in applying COIN to Afghanistan. During the summer of 2009, he met secretly with McChrystal in Belgium while his subordinate penned an assessment that declared the war on the brink of "mission failure." Petraeus, who graduated two years ahead of McChrystal at West Point, was both a friend and rival to the younger general. Serving under Petraeus in Iraq, McChrystal had overseen the lethal Special Forces operations that had made the surge a tactical success. But once he took charge in Afghanistan, he had struggled to implement the strategy pioneered by his boss. The Taliban, it seemed, were far less cowed by counterinsurgency than Iraq's fractious opposition.

Taking over from McChrystal, Petraeus moved quickly to institute his own, more aggressive version of COIN — one that calls for lots of killing, lots of cash and lots of spin. He loosened the restrictions McChrystal had placed on the rules of engagement, giving U.S. soldiers the green light to use artillery, destroy property and defend themselves more vigorously. He drastically upped the number of airstrikes, launching more than 3,450 between July and November, the most since the invasion in 2001. He introduced U.S. tanks into the battle, unleashed Apache and Kiowa attack helicopters, and tripled the number of night raids by Special Forces. The fighting was calculated to force the Taliban to the bargaining table and reduce NATO casualties, which soared to 711 last year — the highest of the war.

On the political front, Petraeus knew that his primary weapon was money. Unlike McChrystal, who had bent over backward to appease President Hamid Karzai, Petraeus had no qualms about hurting Afghan feelings. Within weeks of assuming command, he went toe-to-toe with Karzai, pushing through a controversial initiative to arm and fund Afghan militias that effectively operate as local gangs, outside the control of the Afghan army and police. He also doled out cash to jump-start reconciliation talks with the Taliban, which had gone nowhere over the past nine years. "Petraeus is big enough," says a senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy. "When Karzai pushes, he pushes right back."

Above all, Petraeus launched a full-scale offensive to reshape how Congress and the American people view the war. One lesson he learned during the surge in Iraq is that it's not what's happening on the battlefield that counts — it's what people in Washington think is happening. As Petraeus wrote in The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam, his 1987 doctoral dissertation at Princeton, "What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually occurred." Success lies in finding the right metrics, telling the right story, convincing the right people we're not losing. The key to victory, Petraeus concluded, is "perception."

After taking over in Afghanistan, the general sat down for interviews with virtually all of the major networks, and his staff is currently grappling with another 130 interview requests. (Petraeus declined to be interviewed for this story.) He also began quietly maneuvering to ditch what he viewed as a major obstacle to success in Afghanistan: the July 2011 deadline that President Obama had set to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.

The White House had announced the date in December 2009, slipping it into a major speech on the war that the president gave at West Point. According to U.S. military officials, who were angered by the announcement, Obama's advisers added the date to the speech without checking with them. The reason: The White House felt it needed to set a public benchmark so it wouldn't get boxed in again by the Pentagon, as it had been during the strategic review earlier that year. "They felt like they got jammed," says a senior U.S. official, "and they didn't want to get jammed again."

In public, Petraeus began walking back the 2011 deadline, saying it wasn't a "sure thing" that the war would be over by 2014. That put him directly at odds with the vice president, who was insisting that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by 2014 "come hell or high water." In November, at a NATO summit in Lisbon, Petraeus also lobbied U.S. allies to support his plan for prolonged fighting and nation-building. By the end of the conference, NATO's secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was telling reporters, "One thing must be very clear: NATO is in this for the long term." The Lisbon summit, says one U.S. official, "finally got everyone's mind off July 2011."

If Petraeus really wanted to extend the war, however, he knew he would have to derail the latest Afghanistan review, a declassified version of which was made public in December. The White House hoped the review, originally billed as a major event, would settle the primary sticking point it had with the Pentagon: How soon, and in what numbers, would U.S. troops begin to leave Afghanistan? As the review started over the summer and barreled forward through the fall, staffers at the National Security Council in Washington and at ISAF headquarters in Kabul pulled 14-hour days to put together a document they could agree on.

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