Petraeus calls the shots

It remains to be seen how President Obama will explain his decision on the Afghanistan drawdown tonight, but if early reports are to be believed, he has listened to the military and ignored those within the administration and his own party arguing for a shift to a counterterrorism strategy.

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If he does announce a withdrawal of only a token number of troops this month, and not front-loading the drawdown, Obama would be heeding the advice of outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chief commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus. Both have advocated keeping a substantial number of the 30,000 “surge” troops through next year’s fighting season. Yet public opinion in general now favors the removal of the troops as quickly as possible.

Gen. Petraeus faces an easy nomination hearing tomorrow as director of the CIA, at which it is highly unlikely that he will voice any criticism of the policy just defined by the president. What concerns me about this move is not only the temptation to militarize intelligence, even though Petraeus says he is retiring from military service, but also the worldview of the politically savvy general, which is necessarily based on his personal experience. If Obama is not standing up to Petraeus now, he will have an increasingly powerful rival to add to the “team of rivals” he put together in the White House.

With Gates gone, Petraeus is the one to watch. The general says he harbors no political ambitions, but he would not be the first presidential candidate to say that before changing his mind. He is respected and listened to by Congress. Once Petraeus returns to Washington, he will be a force to be reckoned with.