WASHINGTON — Afghanistan war commander Gen. David Petraeus is not leaving his post anytime soon, the Pentagon said late Tuesday, tamping down a flurry of speculation after a London newspaper reported he was on his way out.
A report atop The Times’ website said Petraeus would be leaving by the end of the year, and quoted Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell saying President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates already were searching for a replacement commanding general for Afghanistan’s International Security Assistance Force.
Within minutes, Twitter users blasted out links to the article. The Huffington Post posted a headline saying Petraeus was “out,” while others said he was “quitting.”
“Despite some sensational speculation by one of the London papers, I can assure you General Petraeus is not quitting as ISAF commander,” Morrell said in a hasty clarification statement, “but nor does he plan to stay in Afghanistan forever. Obviously he will rotate out at some point, but that point has not yet been determined and it will not occur anytime soon.”
The entire episode lasted just a few hours, but it highlights the speculation already gaming out behind the scenes about what might happen when Petraeus steps aside in Afghanistan. The longest tenure of the previous five commanders was 19 months. If Petraeus left at the end of the year, he’d have logged 18 months.
Petraeus was commander of Central Command when Obama picked him in June to step down one notch in the chain of command and take over the Afghanistan war from ousted Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. A Rolling Stone article in which McChrystal and his staffers disparaged the civilian administration led Obama to quickly fire him in an embarrassing episode for the military.
Since then, few observers have expected Petraeus would stay in Kabul long, given his long deployment history, international popularity and senior status. Petraeus’ credibility soared after he took command of the Iraq war during its darkest years and turned the tide by implementing a renewed counterinsurgency plan and troop surge in 2007.
At CENTCOM, Petraeus played the warrior-diplomat role masterfully by most accounts, constantly on the road glad-handing Middle East leaders and ultimately expanding U.S. military operations to chase al-Qaida and other extremist groups across the region.
In Afghanistan, Petraeus drew early applause from troops for easing airstrike restrictions and engaging with local populations. He also was criticized for trying to apply the Iraq model as a blind template for winning, despite having to chase down a more complicated network of adversaries across a virtually undeveloped region in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
By now, from the Pentagon to Congress to Kabul, Petraeus — who has repeatedly denied rumors he’ll run for president — is considered by many to be a favorite to succeed Adm. Mike Mullen, whose second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ends later this year. Others, however, are looking to Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the widely respected current vice chairman; or Army Gen. Ray Odierno, who in September ended his long run as Iraq war commander and will need a new post when he finishes closing down Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., per Gates’ orders to cut back DOD bloat.
Several other Afghanistan war figures reportedly also might rotate out of their posts this year, including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Petraeus’ deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the joint operational commander of the war.
But there has been relatively little speculation about who might eventually succeed Petraeus in Kabul. Sources in Washington and Afghanistan said it simply hasn’t reached the level of serious discussion — or even water-cooler talk.