General Petraeus Takes the Hill

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Army Gen. Dave Petraeus returns to Washington to testify before Congress on Tuesday for the first time since he took command of the Afghan war nearly a year ago. He actually stepped down as head of U.S. Central Command to take the job, after having successfully engineered the “surge” and the Sunni “awakening” in Iraq that calmed that messy conflict. Petraeus has been telling anyone who listens — and he will repeat it Tuesday and Wednesday — that progress is coming, slowly and fitfully, to Afghanistan.

There are two key outstanding questions. One may be answered during his appearances on Capitol Hill, and one certainly won’t be. Lawmakers may inquire just how Petraeus was able to stretch the campaign beyond the July 2011 date that President Obama famously cited as the beginning of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. With NATO backing, the goal for turning full control of the Afghan fight over to the Afghans is now 2015, and it happened without generating a political tidal wave, nor even a ripple.

General-watchers also will be paying close attention to try to discern what Petraeus’ next job might be. He met with Obama on Monday, and could be tapped to succeed Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the fall. Or that job could go to Adm. Jim Stavridis, currently the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and NATO chief, in which case Petraeus might get that post.

Of course, Petraeus, who confidants say has been tired lately and suffered a bout of prostate cancer in 2009, may decide to call it quits after 37 years in uniform. But if the commander-in-chief asks him to take on another mission, former comrades believe he’s likely to salute smartly and carry out a final assignment. In part, some Petraeus loyalists say, Obama may offer him a last command because he wants to make sure that a civilianized Petraeus isn’t wooed as a Republican vice presidential candidate next year. “But,” a close associate says, “there’s always 2016.”