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Will trouble at the top slow Afghan progress?

By Nick Paton Walsh

Updated on 24 June 2010

After President Obama sacked the top US general in Afghanistan over comments criticising his administration, Nick Paton Walsh examines the challenges ahead for newly appointed General Petraeus: Obama's only card to play in America's longest war.

Barack Obama announces General Petraeus (R) will take up McChrystal's post in Afghanistan (Reuters)

It was a pretty harsh move, designed perhaps to cure the impression that Obama is a soft-touch, indecisive, slow to move. Even Robert Gates, the defence secretary, counselled against it. But in the end McChrystal had to go.

The logic is there: how can allies and Afghans listen to US policy if the face of it's military moves has so openly rubbished - or allowed his staff to rubbish - everyone who's not actually under his command.

The swift appointment of Petraeus - and you can count on the Hill giving him, as McCain said, the swiftest confirmation in history, the Republicans perhaps salivating at seeing a possible presidential candidate for them in 2012 being so squarely thrown into the fray - was meant to cure fears of a caesura in this, the most delicate time yet in America's longest war.

It may practically see some level of continuity on the ground. Afghan president Hamid Karzai has welcomed someone of Petraeus's calibre. Nato allies will be delighted that the only person perhaps considered better at counterinsurgency than McChrystal, is replacing McChrystal.

General McChrystal enters the White House for talks with President Obama (Getty)

But the drawbacks are obvious, even if the policy remains the same: Petraeus and McChrystal read from the same counterinsurgency books.

McChrystal is implementing a plan that he spent six months researching and has put in to play for a similar amount of time. He knows the ground and the personalities with a detail that Petraeus can't have mustered from his CENTCOM headquarters. There are also fears that the staff McChrystal accrued around him may also move out - leaving a vacuum of experience and knowledge at a vital time.

Petraeus will also arrive just at the moment when the essential Kandahar offensive was meant to begin. Much of it has been delayed now until September, but the key thrust of the strategy is something he will have to familiarise himself with quickly. You can expect - reasonably - further delays in getting on with the job.

Nato had begun to shape the narrative of the campaign, albeit briefly, with the offensive against Marja. The risk now is that - while Petraeus gets up to speed - they become simply a force reacting to the Taliban's moves, rather than dictating play.

British general takes temporary control
British Lieutenant General Nick Parker has temporarily taken control of Nato's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan until General Petraeus is officially appointed by Congress. Having been in the army since 1973 Parker became deputy commander to ISAF under McChrystal in September 2009.

Parker told Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday that the mission in Afghanistan "would not miss a beat" during this period.

The general had praised his former boss and counterinsurgency strategy shortly before news broke of McChrystal's comments in the Rolling Stone article.

Earlier this week Parker wrote in The Times: "General Stanley McChrystal's arrival in Afghanistan has brought a new approach and a sense of optimism to the International Security Assistance Force. He has reinvigorated operations by focusing on protecting the population."

A further time delay might come from Petraeus broadly rethinking policy.

He's in no personal rush to withdraw forces and has publicly disagreed with Obama over the timetable. He will also have to navigate the huge cast of characters that McChrystal disparaged.

Could the general, when mouthing off to Rolling Stone have got his victims all wrong? Is National Security Advisor James Jones a "clown stuck in 1985"? Is Vice President Joe Biden irrelevant? Is Special AfPak Envoy Richard Holbrooke so nervous about being fired he infuriates everyone by butting in?

McChrystal's assessment of the Afghan battlefield, revealed in his leaked report, was very accurate and candid. Perhaps he also got Obama's multi-headed hydra of a team right too?

More from Channel 4 News
- Obama relieves McChrystal of Afghan command
- Colonel Kemp: McChrystal row threatens Afghan strategy

As one military source told the New York Times, now would be a good moment for Obama to clean house, generally, over AfPak. There are too many characters in play.

But in the end there will be Petraeus, the man who turned Iraq around, being Obama's only card to play in this longest war. His appointment will slow the pace of American progress in Afghanistan, at best. It will make December's "review" of progress there more likely a negative series of admissions, rather than a map to success.

It will add weight to Petraeus's argument that July 2011 is too soon to withdraw. It will turn a potential Republican presidential candidate for 2012 into the Democratic incumbent's main advisor, and perhaps his main adversary when it comes to pulling troops out.

Obama has a great potential solution in Petraeus. But he is stuck with his advice, and the delays pursuing even this same policy may entail.

He is stuck with Petraeus, as no president can fire three generals in wartime without looking like he's the problem.

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