"Gen. Petraeus Explains The Chain Of Command: ‘The Decision Has Been Made’ And ‘Obviously I Support That’"
Neoconservative pundits and members of Congress have wasted no time in criticizing President Obama’s decision to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and 23,000 more by next summer. Many of these critics, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), have claimed that the White House’s decision on troop withdrawals showed a disregard for the concerns the military commanders in Afghanistan and could put U.S. gains against al Qaeda and the Taliban at risk.
But Gen. David Petraeus, while testifying at his Senate confirmation hearing to become the next CIA director, offered a far more nuanced explanation of how the White House consulted with military leadership before yesterday’s announcement and how a broader set of concerns have to be taken into account by the civilian leadership. He also emphasized the importance of military leadership respecting the orders of the president and executing his decision:
PETRAEUS: The risk being assessed in this case, from my perspective, the risk having to do with the ability to achieve objectives of the military campaign plan, acknowledging that at every level of the chain of command above me there are additional considerations, and each person above me, all the way up to and including the President has a broader purview and broader considerations that are brought to bear. [...]
And so that’s how I would layout the process that took place, the very good discussion, this was indeed vigorous. All voices were heard in the situation room. And ultimately the decision has been made. And with a decision made, obviously I support that.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen offered a similar description of the decision making hierarchy in his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee this morning. He said:
“More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course,” Mullen continued. “But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so.”
Petraeus and Mullen’s testimonies offer a useful review of how civilian control of the armed forces is central to our democracy and how military leadership see their role in the decision making process.
Full transcript of Petraeus’s answer on Obama’s decision:
I’ll walk through the process since it was quite a substantial one although in a brief period of time included three meetings. After the first meeting I was given a homework assignment which I answered by the second meeting. And then the third meeting was the one in which the president ultimately reached a decision.
The responsibility of a combat commander in that kind of situation is to present options to the president to implement his state policy and that’s what I did. The risk being assessed in this case, from my perspective, the risk having to do with the ability to achieve objectives of the military campaign plan, acknowledging that at every level of the chain of command above me there are additional considerations, and each person above me, all the way up to and including the president has a broader purview and broader considerations that are brought to bear. The president alone [is] in the position of evaluating all those different considerations, including certainly those of the commander on the ground but also many others as well in reaching his decision.
I provided such options. I provided assessments of risk. I provided recommendations. We discussed all of this again at considerable length. The president then made a decision. The commander in chief has decided. And it is then the responsibility, needless to say, of those in uniform to salute smartly and to do everything humanly possible to execute it.
Now as Chairman Mullen, Admiral Mullen, stated today before the House Armed Services Committee, the ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline, than what we had recommended. Again, that is understandable in the sense that there are broader considerations beyond just those of a military commander.
The fact is that there has never been a military commander in history who has had all the forces he would like to have. Or all the time. Or all the money. Or all the authorities. Or, nowadays, all the bandwidth.
There is always a process of assessing risk. And it’s typically, in a case like this, as the Chairman put it today, “risk at the margin.” We’re talking about small differences, albeit significant from a military commander point of view.
And so that’s how I would layout the process that took place, the very good discussion, this was indeed vigorous. All voices were heard in the situation room. And ultimately the decision has been made. And with a decision made, obviously I support that. And will do all I can during my remaining time as the commander of ISAF to implement it, set up General Allen to do likewise, so we can achieve the objectives of the campaign plan and then also, if confirmed as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to do the same from the position as well.