Is Gen Petraeus at loggerheads with the White House?
Is the military preparing an assault on President Obama's position or laying down covering fire so he can do what he has promised?
The president has set a firm date. He'll start pulling troops out of Afghanistan next July. His new top general in the field has said he could advise against that. The White House spokesman has just said: "Obviously the scope and rate of withdrawal will be conditions-based, but the date is not negotiable" So are they at loggerheads?
It is worth quoting the exchange on NBC news between Gen David Petraeus and David Gregory at length:
GREGORY: Let me talk about US troops. I asked you before when we talked about this July deadline of next year, how stifling is the concept of this deadline and this Washington debate to what you are trying to do here?
PETRAEUS: I don't find it that stifling. I'm not bowed over by, you know, the knowledge that July 2011 is out there. In fact the President has been very clear, Vice-President Biden has been very clear as well more recently that this is a date when a process begins, that is conditions-based. And as the conditions permit we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and the security forces and in various governmental institutions and that enables a quote "responsible" drawdown of our forces.
GREGORY: Let me just stop you. I just want to clarify this: Could you reach that point and say I know that the process is supposed to begin but my assessment as the commander here is that it cannot begin now?
PETRAEUS: Certainly yeah, again, the president and I sat down in the Oval Office and he expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice, where I understand the mission that has been assigned, we have recommend the strategy and the resources that will be required for that strategy and as there are changes in any of that, obviously I would communicate that to him, recognising that he has some issues with which he has to deal with that we don't have to worry about it. But that's real life and again that was the process that we worked through last fall, a process that I thought was very good, the outcome of which was something that we strongly supported.
Let me point out one other item about July 2011 if I could, because what I had often noted was that in the speech the president made at West Point there were two messages. One was a message of substantial additional commitment, an additional 30,000 troops, again more civilians, more funding for Afghan forces, authorisation of 100,000 more of them and so forth, but also a message of increased urgency and that's what July 2011 really connotes. It is a message to all the participants, those in Kabul, some of us in uniform, again our civilian counterparts, that we've got to get on with this, that this has been going on for some nine years or so, that there is understandable concern and some cases frustration and that therefore we have got to really put our shoulders to the wheel and show during the course of this year that progress can be achieved and again one manifestation of that is out there they have this date.
One test of the strength of a news story is imagining the consequences if someone said the opposite.
"No David, there is no way I would tell the President that the conditions were not right to begin withdrawal. He made it clear to me he would not tolerate that sort of advice, and it was way outside my pay grade."
Imagine the headlines then.
Instead, Gen Petraeus makes it clear that the president "has some issues" that he as a solider does not: the political consequences of going back on a clear promise. But he also defends the deadline as a way to stress the urgency of the task and to focus minds, particularly minds in the Presidential Palace in Kabul.
He also says that the president agrees any withdrawal should be based on the conditions on the ground, that is whether the Taliban are sufficiently beaten and the Afghan forces are sufficiently ready to take over.
There's no real problem about the president keeping the superficial promise. It can't be too difficult to withdraw a few troops from a quieter part of Afghanistan. The real test is the direction of travel, whether there is a token withdrawal in July 2011, or whether it is the beginning of a rolling and escalating process, month by month.
The real nightmare for the president would be Gen Petraeus telling him: "Just a few more months, just another year, and we can crack this." There are signs that some in the military think that they just need a little more time. That could be Gen Petraeus' message. But I think it is more likely that by making it clear that he will give tough-minded, independent advice, the president's top man in Afghanistan has made it easier for the president to keep his promise. Incidentally, that might make the timing just right for him to take over from Robert Gates, as defence secretary.