A Pentagon plan to elevate General David Petraeus and his former deputy means that the two commanders most closely associated with President George W. Bush’s current strategy in Iraq will have responsibilities over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan extending into the next administration.
Petraeus would take charge of all military affairs across the Middle East and Central Asia and would be succeeded as the senior commander in Iraq by Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, who returned to Washington in February after serving 15 months as Petraeus’s deputy.
Asked whether the planned nominations by Bush were a sign that U.S. policy was to “stay the course” in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that the security gains that had been achieved under Petraeus’s command meant that “staying that course is not a bad idea.”
The nomination of Petraeus could, however, portend a renewed U.S. focus on Afghanistan, where the American war effort is widely believed to be lagging, with violence by the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the rise. Gates already has expressed the desire to send several thousand additional troops to Afghanistan next year, although that could require further reductions in troop commitments to Iraq.
Petraeus would be expected to apply his views of counterinsurgency to Afghanistan, which may include a push toward increased troops.
Gates said he and Bush settled on Petraeus for the post because his counterinsurgency experience in Iraq made him best suited to oversee U.S. operations across a region where the United States was engaged in “asymmetric” warfare, a term used to describe the fight against militants and nonuniformed combatants.
The previous Central Command chief, Admiral William Fallon, chose early retirement in March after rankling the Bush administration with public comments that seemed to suggest differences with the White House. If Petraeus and Odierno were to win Senate confirmation to their new posts, Gates said, they would take over in late summer or early autumn.
The situation in Iraq remains fragile, as Petraeus acknowledged in testimony to Congress this month when he warned that recent security gains could be easily reversed. Under his command, an increase in U.S. forces brought troop levels as high as 165,000, and even critics of the increase say it contributed to a decline in violence, along with the cease-fire proclaimed by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr for his militia, the Mahdi army, and a shift in sentiment among Sunni tribes that turned them against Sunni militants.
Among the three major candidates still vying to become the next president, Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has defended the idea of maintaining high troop levels even after the troop increase runs its course in July, bringing the number down to slightly more than 140,000.
The two Democratic contenders, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, by contrast, have pressed for troop reductions at a pace far faster than those Petraeus has endorsed and have pledged to carry out withdrawals even if it meant going against the advice of field commanders. It would be unusual for a new president to replace a senior general new to his assignment.
In a statement, Clinton described Petraeus as “an able and respected leader in Iraq under incredibly difficult circumstances,” and said she looked forward to hearing “how he will meet these important challenges” of the broader Central Command region.
McCain, at a news conference Wednesday, said that Odierno “is maybe not perfect, but I think he has done a magnificent job.” Referring to Petraeus, McCain said, “I think he is by far the best-qualified individual to take that job” as the regional commander.