September 14, 2011
The Security Shuffle
On April 28th, the White House announced a long-anticipated reshuffle of senior security staff - Robert Gates has retired as Secretary of Defense, and has been replaced by Leon Panetta; Gen. David Petreaus replaces Panetta as Director of the CIA; Gen. John Allen replaces Petraeus as overall commander in Afghanistan; and Ryan Crocker becomes the new US Ambassador to Afghanistan, replacing Karl Eikenberry. These appointments, coming a little over two years into his presidency, represent President Obama's first major attempt to substantially influence the conduct of security policy and recast the staff in accordance with his security agenda. Although the number of appointments may give the impression that a broad shift is occurring, the choice of well-seasoned personnel also maintains continuity with existing approaches.
Robert Gates, a Republican ex-CIA chief originally appointed by George W. Bush, was retained by President Obama to maintain continuity of leadership during the sensitive early day of his Presidency, but the Defense Secretary's caution and deliberation proved to be a sound match for Obama's political style and security agenda. His replacement, Leon Panetta, shares Gates political moderation - he started out as a Republican, working under President Nixon early in his career before changing parties in 1971. Since then, he has been a consummate DC insider, occupying a variety of influential Congressional posts throughout the 70s and 80s before being picked up by the Clinton White House for a number of senior positions on the executive staff, culminating with a term as Chief of Staff. Since 2009 he has served as the Director of the CIA, where the Wall Street Journal reports he received a “rock star welcome.” This is likely to be one of, if not the final appointment of his career - Panetta turns 73 this year. All told, his hands are a safe pair, and nothing in his policy record or public statements suggest a rupture with existing strategies.
Gen. John Allen is a similar case. A Marine Corps general, his career has mirrored that of Gen. Petraeus, the man he's replacing, with distinguished tours in Iraq and US CENTCOM.. Ryan Crocker, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush, is a career foreign service officer with postings throughout the Middle East and a record of constructive collaboration with Gen. Petraeus in Iraq. The man he replaces, Karl Eikenberry, was seriously compromised by leaked cables which show him harshly criticizing Hamid Karzai. Crocker's appointment can serve to repair the breach created between Washington and Kabul.
The most noteworthy appointment by far is the selection of Gen. David Petraeus as Director of Central Intelligence.
There has been some speculation as to the political calculus behind the appointment, with Fred Kaplan at Slate suggesting that this was a political masterstroke aimed at neutralizing potential post-retirement criticism by Petraeus of Obama's security strategy, with the substantive merits of the appointment a happy by-product. Although a staple of political journalism, such speculations miss the substantive implications of the appointment. Petraeus' major doctrinal innovation was the production of Field Manual 3-24 on counter-insurgency, which bears his name and signature. The pursuit of this strategy in Iraq is often credited with the success of stabilization efforts there, and hopes have been high for its successful transference to Afghanistan. In contrast to conventional war-fighting, counter-insurgency relies heavily on intelligence efforts to gather information on occupied communities, identifying influential individuals wary or even hostile to US forces and establishing the connections to reconcile them with the host-nation government.
The military lacks the intelligence authority and capabilities to prosecute this strategy single-handedly and has worked closely with the CIA in both the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts, a collaboration visible mainly through scandals and snafus such as the use of Blackwater mercenaries in some operations, or the arrest of Raymond Davis for two shootings in Pakistan. Despite such setbacks, the role of the CIA as a supporting agency for US military operations continues to grow - as the anti-Qaddafi air operation in Libya began, CIA operatives working clandestinely were the first on the ground, liaising with rebel forces and assisting in coordinating airstrikes. As Director of Central Intelligence, Gen. Petraeus will have the authority and the position to help mediate CIA-military cooperation, oversee support operations and direct activities to further deepen the agencies contribution to counter-insurgency. Given his background, his appointment is a clear endorsement of such operations and a mandate to pursue and perfect their execution. With this in mind, the appointment of Ryan Crocker - a man who Petraeus holds in high respect to the point where he expressed that it was an honor to serve as the diplomat's “military wingman” in Iraq - takes on a new significance. Just as Gen. Petraeus as head of the CIA can deliver the intelligence support to bolster counter-insurgency and counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, Ambassador Crocker has shown himself willing and able to do the same on the diplomatic front.
Despite the affinity of the new security team for counter-insurgency strategies, political and security circumstances have changed considerably since the beginning of Obama's presidency, requiring an adjustment, if not an overhaul, of policy. Specifically, the deepening world-wide economic crisis has demonstrated that America's resources are not limitless, and a public preoccupied with checkbook issues finds its patience for these seemingly endless conflicts exhausted. Given this reality, the long time horizons and deep commitments necessary for a successful COIN strategy seem less and less feasible, requiring a shift in priorities. Rather than the stabilization of Afghanistan and the incubation of Arab democracy in Iraq, goal “No. 1, quite frankly, is to defeat Al Qaeda,” in the words of Leon Panetta himself. The increase in the use of drone strikes to assassinate militants, and the willingness to engage in the diplomatically-risky raid that killed Osama bin Laden both mark a step away from population-protection and capacity building, the hallmarks of COIN, towards a search-and-destroy type of warfare targeting al Qaeda capabilities. In many ways, however, the prior approach has been crucial to the success of more recent operations - it is only through engagement with the Afghan population that the intelligence necessary to conduct drone strikes, as well as the relative political calm necessary for gradual disengagement, are at all possible. That said, this appears to be the phase the US and NATO forces have entered - disengagement - and the benefits reaped heretofore by the COIN strategy will have to suffice to see it through.