Update: I’ve had it pointed out that a large part of the proconsul problem is a function of State’s weakness, and that Gates wants that ended. That’s a big plus in his column and indicates he may be able to handle the proconsul problem better than I indicate below.
Gates is staying on as Defense Secretary. What this means is simple enough, a continued draw down in Iraq and a surge ™ in Afghanistan. Gates was, in effect, Bush Senior’s man at Defense, cleaning up another one of Junior’s messes.
This also raises the question of whether generals who have gotten too big for their jobs, are going to be reigned in as they should be. Petraeus has been acting as proconsul, doing high level diplomacy and effectively running US foreign policy in a big chunk of the world. This was a function of Bush’s weakness, his need of someone popular to carry his corpse around, as well Condi’s complete sidelining from serious decision making. Irrespective of one’s views on Petraeus’s competence and integrity, however, it’s not a healthy situation, and the Obama administration should take back the roles which don’t belong to any general.
Gates seems unlikely to be the man to do that, but it’s hard to imagine Clinton, for example, allowing anyone to usurp her perogatives, so we shall see how it plays out.
Meanwhile the question in Afghanistan is whether a troop surge can "work". Throw in Karzai’s request that the US leave, which I view as his realization that he needs to cut a deal with the other factions in the country and that the US isn’t going to "win" in any meaningful sense, and the question has to be raised as to why the US should commit more resources to yet another country that doesn’t want it there.
More dangerously, Pakistan is being destabilized by the Afghan war.
There is now a Pakistani Taliban seeking to overthrow the government, the economy is on the rocks and the loyalty and morale of the army is in question. Since the primary base for Afghani insurgents is actually in Pakistan, no solely Afghani strategy can work, but every US incursion into Pakistan destabilizes that country further, in an eerie and unsettling echo of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Since Pakistan is far more important than Afghanistan, and the collapse of Pakistan, with its nukes, would be far more disastrous than terrorists being able to have training camps in Afghanistan, it’s unclear to me that the correct decision at this time isn’t to just get out of Afghanistan and let Karzai cut his deal so that the destabilization of Pakistan dies down to a level where the government can patch it over.
But keeping Gates onboard says that’s unlikely to happen. Instead it’s going to be double down time. Work or not, it’s going to be an expensive and deadly gamble. Casualties will soar and so will the price tag. Iraq was George Bush’s war. Afghanistan will be Obama’s.