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A Change of Command

Author: Greg Bruno
April 25, 2008

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The promotion of Gen. David H. Petraeus to Central Command chief this week came as little surprise to many military observers. The nomination is seen by some as a logical next step (NYT) for one of this generation’s best known army officers. Less clear is what his ascendancy will mean for U.S. military strategy in the greater Middle East, which falls within Centcom’s jurisdiction. Petraeus is considered the father of the army’s current counterinsurgency doctrine—he helped write the manual on the subject—and the nominee to replace him in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, was the general’s right-hand man in Baghdad. In announcing the promotions at the Pentagon on April 23, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said the moves were aimed at preserving “the likelihood of continued momentum and progress,” and should “provide some continuity for a new administration.”

Whether the next administration will be looking for continuity is another question. While Petraeus has been a strong advocate for maintaining troop levels in Iraq at about 140,000 through the summer, Gates acknowledged whoever assumes the Oval Office in January 2009 will “have the opportunity to make a change.” And if a Democrat wins office in November it could fall to Petraeus to craft plans for any reductions. Both leading Democratic candidates—Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)—have said they would reduce troop numbers in Iraq and beef up resources on the Afghan front after taking office. The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), meanwhile, shares Petraeus’s views on Iraqi deployments. Some see the planned job changes as President Bush attempting to lock in the current policy (WashPost) beyond his presidency.

Beyond the political implications of the command shuffle, military experts are divided on the greater strategic implications for the region. A blog focused on counterinsurgency, Abu Muqawama, questions whether a Centcom commanded by Petraeus will place the Iraq war above other U.S. interests in the Middle East—and complicate competing requests for military resources. There is also speculation Petraeus will turn up the heat on Iran, which he has repeatedly blamed for arming militants in Iraq. If confirmed by the Senate—all three presidential candidates will get a vote—the general would replace Adm. William Fallon, who stepped down after press reports suggested a growing rift between the admiral and the White House over Iran. CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot, meanwhile, says the move “gives us a chance to build on the initial success of the surge.”

After Petraeus takes up his post in late summer or early fall, however, it may be other and future wars that generate the most attention. The general would have a say in troop commitments to the Afghan fight, a theater of operations critics say has been shorted because of an overcommitment to Iraq. Some predict Afghanistan will be paid more attention (LAT) by a Petraeus-led Centcom, and counterinsurgency tactics will take center stage. Current operations in Afghanistan are split between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Centcom, but the Pentagon is said to be considering a push to change NATO’s role to give the United States a greater say in operations (CSMonitor). But Colin Kahl of the Center for a New American Security says a sharper focus on Afghanistan is not a foregone conclusion. “Putting an ‘Iraq guy’ in charge of Centcom,” Kahl told the Washington Independent, “… may make it more difficult to shift needed resources to Afghanistan.”

Perhaps the only certainty that can be read into the move, suggests Mark Thompson of TIME, is what the Pentagon is signaling by settling on Petraeus: that the days of tanks and artillery battles are over. Future wars, at least from the Pentagon’s perspective, Thompson writes, will be the “irregular kind of combat championed by Petraeus.”

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