Petraeus moves down the ladder, up in influence

Luke X. Martin Contributor
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Put yourself in Gen. David Petraeus’s boots: The leader of the free world has hand selected you to lead the most important piece of his anti-terrorism puzzle. Daunting, yes. Humbling, absolutely. Yet those unversed in the chain of command may not realize that, at least on paper, the new post is a demotion for Petraeus.

President Obama picked Petraeus last week to head up the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan in the wake of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recent fall from grace.

“I am, needless to say, humbled and honored to have been nominated,” Petraeus told senators on the Armed Forces committee during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday morning.

The quirk in the change of the command did not escape everyone. Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat and former secretary of the Navy, joked with the general during the hearing, asking: “If you don’t like what you’re doing, can you fire yourself?”

According to a Pentagon official who has served in the military for nearly two decades, the ISAF commander (Petraeus’s current post) answers to the commander of Central Command (Petraeus’s old post). The CENTCOM commander, in turn, reports to the secretary of defense, who answers to the president. The official stressed, however, that Petraeus was simply moving from the handle to the tip of the spear.

“While, on paper, it is a lower job in the hierarchy, it is in fact a job where he can probably make a bigger immediate difference in the conduct of the war and improving the lives of the Afghan people,” the official said.

David Tretler, professor of strategy at the National War College, noted that Petraeus’s new boss may even be left out of the decision-making process at times.

“I promise you that when Petraeus was commander of forces in Iraq, he talked to secretary of defense and president daily and the CENTCOM commander may not have always been involved,” he said.

Webb’s jest that Petraeus will be his own boss, though, is unlikely.

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense, said that no one person could fill both seats and do an acceptable job at either.

Ultimately, “what’s going to happen is theoretically he’ll be working for the CENTCOM boss — whoever that is — but in practice he’s going to go right to whoever’s in the White House.”