WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama descended into the White House Situation Room on Monday for his monthly update on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the new top U.S. military commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, ticked off signs of progress.
Come December, when the president intends to assess his Afghan strategy, he will be able to claim tangible successes, Petraeus predicted by secure video hookup from Kabul, Afghanistan, according to administration officials.
The general said that the U.S. military would have substantially enlarged the “oil spot” – military jargon for secure area – around Kabul. It would have expanded U.S. control farther outside of Kandahar, the Taliban heartland. And, the aides recalled, the general said the military would have reintegrated a significant number of former Taliban fighters in the south.
“He essentially promised the president very bankable results,” one administration official said. (Others in the room characterized the commander’s list more as objectives than promises.)
Obama largely listened, asking a few questions, and two hours later, the White House sent an e-mail to reporters using language that echoed the general’s.
But even inside an administration that is pinning its hopes, both military and political, on the accuracy of the general’s report, there are doubters. Assessments from intelligence officials are far more pessimistic, and Obama regularly reviews maps that show how the Taliban have spread into areas where they had no major presence before.
And some military officers, who support Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy and say he readily acknowledges the difficulties ahead, caution that the security and governance crisis in Afghanistan remains so volatile that any successes may not be sustainable.
How that tension plays out in coming months — the guarded optimism of a popular general leading an increasingly unpopular war and the caution of a White House that prides itself on a realism that it says President George W. Bush and his staff lacked — will probably define the relationship between Obama and his field commander. Petraeus, who led the Iraq surge and was a favorite of Bush’s, has slowly worked himself into the good graces of a president who was once wary of him.
So far, the two men appear to be meshing well, advisers say. Both are meticulous, even-keeled and matter of fact, and both like to do their homework, studying detailed reports.