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Obama's choice of Petraeus a 'masterstroke'

  • Fareed Zakaria: Real question about McChrystal was whether he was successful in his role
  • He says his comments and those of his team displayed disrespect for civilian authority
  • Zakaria says Petraeus showed in Iraq the importance of working with civilians to carry out strategy
  • He says current strategy needs to be rethought given lack of central government authority in Afghanistan

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN U.S. on Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET and CNN International at 2 and 10 p.m. Central European Time / 5 p.m. Abu Dhabi / 9 p.m. Hong Kong.

New York (CNN) -- President Obama's decision to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus is "a masterstroke," says analyst Fareed Zakaria.

The president announced Wednesday that he had accepted McChrystal's resignation after the publication of a Rolling Stone article that contained disparaging remarks by the general and his staff about officials in the Obama administration. Obama chose Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, to replace McChrystal.

Zakaria said the controversy over McChrystal's comments raised questions about how effectively he was doing his job, and Petraeus is superbly equipped for the role of leading the NATO force in Afghanistan.

The author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" spoke to CNN on Wednesday. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: What do you think of the president's decision?

Fareed Zakaria: This is a masterstroke. Petraeus needs no on-the-job training, knows the theater, and is beloved by the troops. He understands COIN [counter-insurgency strategy], literally wrote the book on it, and most important -- knows how to execute it. He has superb political skills and understands that a close working relationship with his civilian counterparts from the State Department, White House, and other agencies is not a bother but at the heart of the mission's success.

CNN: What was at stake in the controversy over Gen. McChrystal?

Zakaria: I think there is one issue which has really been focused on by the press, which is the insubordination of Gen. McChrystal and his lack of respect for the civilian chain of command in general and a few of the civilians in particular in this White House, including the vice president, the ambassador to Afghanistan, and that's an important issue but I think in most cases that was about personality clashes.

This is not like [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur, the historical analogy everyone makes. MacArthur basically publicly disagreed with Truman's policy and in order to assert the supremacy of his policy, President Truman decided to fire Gen. MacArthur. This is more a case of insubordination in terms of showing disrespect to civilian authority, which is serious but doesn't quite rise to that level.

The question I have, which in some ways is greater, is not whether Gen. McChrystal is guilty of insubordination but of incompetence.

CNN: In what way?

Zakaria: What I mean by that is this -- the counterinsurgency strategy depends upon a very close joint implementation of military, political, economic and diplomatic efforts. That is at the heart of it.

What you see in Gen. McChrystal is someone who is openly disdainful of and sets himself up almost in opposition to the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, the State Department high representative Richard Holbrooke, the national security adviser, the vice president.

So you have to ask yourself how would it be possible that they would actually be implementing a counterinsurgency strategy with that level of disconnect and friction between the military and civilian authorities. If McChrystal and his team are so contemptuous of these other people whose support is absolutely critical to the success of the mission, then he's failing at his mission. This is not about his manners, this is about his ability to effectively execute the task he's been asked to execute.

If you compare McChrystal's attitude toward his civilian counterparts with that of Gen. Petraeus in Iraq, it's night and day. Petraeus was extremely respectful of Ryan Crocker, the ambassador, extremely respectful of the State Department, always talking about how he really admired and appreciated their efforts and wanted them more involved, held almost all his briefings along with Crocker. And that clearly was a crucial part of why the surge succeeded, because the whole premise of the surge is that the military part is not by itself going to be enough. You need a great deal of activity on the political, economic, social and diplomatic fronts.

CNN: So you don't agree with those who describe McChrystal as indispensable to executing the strategy?

Zakaria: No, I think he may be a great warrior and by all accounts he is, but the heart of the counterinsurgency doctrine is that you need a lot more than being a great warrior. You need to be a great diplomat, a great politician, a great nation builder. And I don't see much evidence of that. And in fact that has been the major failing of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. There was a kind of facile assumption that if you cleared [territory], you would be able to hold.

Gen. McChrystal said his strategy was going to work, because once they defeated Taliban in any area, they would have government in a box that they could roll out. The idea that government in Afghanistan is some kind of technocratic Lego set that you could just put in a box and bring to Marja and open and it's all ready, is naïve in the extreme. If government in Afghanistan can be put in a box, it's a jack in the box and you open it, it hits you in the face.

CNN: So what needs to be done now?

Zakaria: The key here is if you're going to do counter insurgency, you have to have a hell of a lot more coordination between the military and the civilian, with the allies. The contempt that McChrystal betrayed toward the French is another part of the problem. The idea that these expressions of irritation and condescension are just done privately is probably not true. What you say and think in private ends up coming out and colors the relationship. So my guess is the relationship between McChrystal and his staff and the allied governments is probably not very good.

Then there is the broader issue, which is the attempt to implement the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan in the first place.

CNN: Why is that in question?

Zakaria: Afghanistan is the the third-poorest country in world, it has had 30 years of almost unrelenting civil war. It is a deeply tribal society which lacks any developed government authority. ... You're not trying to rebuild a nation or a state but to build one for the first time in history.

I've always been more sympathetic to Vice President Joe Biden's counterinsurgency strategy, which says you should reduce the troop levels down to some significant number which would be able to engage in effective counterinsurgency and deny the Taliban any major territorial advances. But you leave open the possibility that there will be political accommodations worked out at local levels between the Taliban and the government, because in the in long run, that's the only viable strategy.

In the long run, the Pashtuns who make up the Taliban -- Pashtuns make up 50 percent of Afghanistan and 100 percent of the insurgency -- are not going anywhere. They're not foreigners, they're not aliens, so you're going to have to live with them. So some kind of political deal making needs to start happening.

CNN: Do you think McChrystal was standing in the way of that?

Zakaria: No, I don't think he was standing in the way of that. But this [current] counterinsurgency strategy is premised on the idea that you can create a stable nation with loyalty to the central government, and that seems to be a strategy that does not take into account the very low level of political development in Afghanistan in the first place.

In Iraq, a crucial phenomenon that took place while COIN was being implemented was the "Sunni Awakening," the switching of sides by dozens of Sunni tribes, once enemies of the government, who chose to ally with it. This was at the heart of the success of the surge. Something similar has to happen in Afghanistan. Elements of the Taliban have to move over and support the government. The key task for Gen. Petraeus is to figure out what it will take to make that happen.