As President Barack Obama approaches a summer of decisions on Afghanistan, one of the trickiest will be whether to promote his battlefield commander, Gen. David Petraeus, to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The decision on the new chairman will likely come in the next few months, at the same time Mr. Obama settles on how quickly to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, a process he has promised would begin by July.
Gen. Petraeus is said to be a contender to be the highest-ranking military officer, who plays an influential role in strategy debates. He is the closest thing the military has to a household name, thanks to his success in turning around the Iraq war and his willingness to take charge of the Afghan campaign after the president fired the previous commander.
But talk in Pentagon halls suggests he is anything but a shoo-in, with other candidates including Marine Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, the current vice chairman; Adm. James G. Stavridis, supreme allied commander, Europe; Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, head of U.S. Joint Forces Command; and Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates “months ago recognized this would be a year of huge transition in defense leadership,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, who added, “There is a lot of turnover in a short span of time, and he has been working with the president to make sure it is done smoothly and smartly.”
At the beginning of the Obama administration, the White House kept Gen. Petraeus at more of a distance than had former President George W. Bush, who conducted regular video teleconferences with his generals in the field. Some Obama aides saw Gen. Petraeus, who ran the troop surge in Iraq, as “Bush’s general.”
But apprehension within the White House eased some time ago, with Gen. Petraeus proving his loyalty, Pentagon officials said. Mr. Obama’s confidence in Gen. Petraeus was evident when he tapped him to take command in Afghanistan last August, after Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s dismissal over comments he and his staff made in Rolling Stone Magazine about senior civilian leaders.
Gen. Petraeus’s recommendation will be a key one for Mr. Obama as he decides how quickly to bring troops home. On Monday, the general met with Mr. Obama in the White House. At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Gen. Petraeus said he had not decided what troop reductions he would recommend to the president.
Still, the White House has sought military advice from an array of generals, not simply field commanders and the departing Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, who will step down at the end of September. Because his successor must be vetted and confirmed by the Senate, the White House is expected to announce its choice this spring.
For months, Gen. Cartwright, the vice chairman, has been the presumptive front-runner for the top job, at least among Pentagon gossips. Gen. Cartwright emerged as a trusted adviser for the White House during the 2009 Obama administration review of its strategy in Afghanistan.
In Bob Woodward’s book, “Obama’s Wars,” Gen. Cartwright was portrayed as helping craft an alternative strategy for the war in Afghanistan tailored around Vice President Joe Biden’s belief that U.S. forces should focus less on counterinsurgency—efforts to win over the Afghan public and build up the Afghan government—and more on missions to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives.
Despite the respect for Gen. Cartwright inside the White House, he is not an easy call for the chairman’s job, either, according to defense officials. In a 2009 investigation, the Pentagon inspector-general raised questions about Gen. Cartwright’s judgment after a female aide got drunk on a trip to Tbilisi, Georgia. The report found no improper relationship, however, and Navy Secretary Roy Mabus said no discipline was necessary.
A Cartwright spokesman said at the time the general “cooperated fully and…the allegations were not substantiated.”
Perhaps more important, Gen. Cartwright, a Marine aviator and former head of Strategic Command, lacks the combat experience of Gen. Petraeus, who also has a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton University.
Gen. Petraeus led the 101st Airborne Division in the initial invasion of Iraq, and then supervised the stabilization of Iraq’s third-largest city, Mosul. He oversaw the writing of the military’s counterinsurgency manual.
Both Gens. Cartwright and Petraeus have declined to comment about future jobs.
Some in the military are wary of Gen. Petraeus’s ease with the media and the respect he garners on Capitol Hill. But his service and creativity in leading troops has turned many critics into admirers. Many in the military praise how he dramatically adjusted the Iraq strategy and more subtly tinkered with the campaign plan in Afghanistan.
If Gen. Petraeus is not offered the chairman’s job, he could be offered the position of supreme allied commander, Europe. Although one of the most prestigious jobs in the military, it is not clear if Gen. Petraeus—after leading two separate wars—would accept.
Gen. Petraeus is fiercely apolitical. But if he were to retire, some political analysts envision him as a possible Republican vice-presidential pick.