The Petraeus Bait and Switch Maneuver

In interviews in recent weeks, Gen. David Petraeus has been taking a line on what will happen in mid-2011 that challenges President Barack Obama’s intention to begin a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by that date. This new Petraeus line is the culmination of a brazen bait and switch maneuver on the war by the most powerful military commander in modern U.S. history.

It represents a new stage in the process by which Petraeus, abetted by his allies in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, has appropriated much of the power over decisions on war policy that rightly belongs to the commander-in-chief.

President Obama agreed to the troop surge for Afghanistan last November on the explicit condition that Petraeus and the Pentagon agreed to begin handing over real responsibility for security to the Afghan army and begin a real draw down of U.S. troops by July 2011. The account by Newsweek columnist, Jonathan Alter, based on interviews with those who participated in the meetings on Afghanistan last fall, shows that Obama was quite clear and determined about the war policy he wanted in Afghanistan:

There would be no nationwide counter-insurgency strategy; the Pentagon was to present a “targeted” plan for protecting population centers, training Afghan security forces, and beginning a real — not a token — withdrawal within 18 months of the escalation.

Alter reports precisely what happened in the climactic meeting of November 29, 2009:

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now, I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest that we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.

Petraeus was agreeing that, if the counter-insurgency strategy was not going well at the end of the 18-months, he would not use that as an argument that he needed more time to demonstrate the success of the strategy. Obama was using a JFK-like tactic to “box in” Petraeus.

But Petraeus has now revealed in the media offensive that began in mid-August that his agreement to the Obama plan was the “bait” in his bait and switch maneuver.

He has now let it be known that he may not go along with beginning a troop draw down in July 2011 as he had agreed with Obama. When asked on Meet the Press on August 15 whether he might tell Obama that the draw down should be delayed beyond mid-2011, Petraeus said, “Certainly, yes”.

And in an another challenge to the agreement with Obama, Petraeus suggested in an interview with ABC news last week that there could no clear-cut “hand-off” of primary responsibility for security to the ANA next July. Instead, Petraeus described the July 2011 “transition” in Afghanistan as, “You do a bit less and the Afghans do a little bit more instead of saying, ‘Tag, you’re it. You take the ball and run with it. We’re out of here.’”

Setting aside his obviously tendentious characterization of a real security hand-off, Petraeus’s baby steps approach to the post-July 2011 transition is clearly at odds with Petraeus’s assurance to Obama last November that he could “train and hand over to the ANA” by July 2011.

These new Petraeus lines on July 2011 represents the “switch” in his bait and switch maneuver. Along with Gates and Mullen, Petraeus had agreed to one set of terms for the troop surge last November. Now he is advocating an altogether different war policy.

Given the widely-publicized excerpt from Alter’s book in Newsweek last May, Petraeus’s commitment to Obama last November is hardly a state secret. But in American politics, if the news media decide not to refer to an event, it is equivalent to expunging it from effective historical memory.

That is exactly what has happened to the Obama-Petraeus agreement. Not a single reference to that agreement has appeared in news media coverage of Petraeus’s statements relating to July 2011.

Instead of firing Petraeus for his perfidy on the November 2009 agreement, meanwhile, Obama has thus far passively accepted Petraeus’s bait and switch maneuver, just as he truckled to Petraeus and Odierno on withdrawal from Iraq last year.

The Petraeus bait and switch is a yet another fire-bell in the night – a warning that Petraeus has gained unprecedented power over U.S. war policy. By drawing Obama into a deepening of U.S. military involvement in an unnecessary and self-destructive war on the false pretense that he supported Obama’s policy and then turning on that November 2009 policy once he became commander, Petraeus is acting as though he intends to prevent the President from carrying out the policy on which he had decided.

Unless Petraeus’s bait and switch is decisively rebuffed by the White House, the country’s descent into de facto military control over war policy will continue and accelerate.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

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  1. JoeJ said on September 20th, 2010 at 1:12pm #

    The Petraeus Bait and Switch

    What about the Gareth Porter Bait and Switch?

    How can anyone honestly write about these wars and not bring the Zionists into the equation?

    The honest truth is that the Petraeus is doing what the Zionists want, and we know it, but will not say it.

    Gareth Porter is every bit to blame as Petraeus.

  2. teafoe2 said on September 20th, 2010 at 2:41pm #

    wait a minit: gareth porter presents Jonathan Alter as a source we should rely on to be giving us verbatim accounts of conversations in the Oval Office?

    I’m sorry, much of Porter’s reporting has seemed to me credible & worthwhile up to now. But this idea that Petraeus is staging some kind of a bloodless coup against Obama seems a little far-fetched. So improbable, or maybe the word is “unexpected”, that more corroboration is needed before I for one will give it any credence.
    Questions leap to mind: does Alter claim to have been inside the Oval Office when the conversation he reports took place? Or listening at the keyhole?

    If not, how does he claim be acquired the information, and is the story offered to explain that itself credible, corroborated?

    Newsweek? Isn’t that a component of the Zionist hasbarappartus? Hasn’t Alter been very unreliable in the past?

    Naw, I don’t buy it. I think this is another attempt to portray Obama as a “goodguy”, put some distance between him and the worst crimes of the US Warmachine, shift the blame to somebody else. Not very different from the Peace Talks “honest broker” scam. Hohum.