Report: Petraeus to be relieved of command in Afghanistan before end of year?

Most of the story’s behind a firewall. All I can give you is this:

General David Petraeus, the most celebrated American soldier of his generation, is to leave his post as commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. The Times can reveal that the Pentagon aims to replace General Petraeus, who was appointed less than eight months ago, by the end of the year. Sources have confirmed that the search for a new commander in Kabul is under way. It forms part of a sweeping reorganisation of top American officials in Afghanistan, which the Obama Administration hopes to present as proof that its strategy does not depend on the towering reputation of one man. “General Petraeus is doing a brilliant job but he’s been going virtually non-stop since 9/11…

If Obama’s now in credit-seeking mode in Afghanistan, things must be going better than we think. As for the Times of London’s “scoop,” WaPo actually reported just this morning that Hillary’s named a new envoy to Afghanistan as part of a systemic turnover in war personnel this year, from Gates’s expected departure as SecDef on down to Petraeus himself. Quote:

But virtually the entire U.S. civilian and military leadership in Afghanistan is expected to leave in the coming months, including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the embassy’s other four most senior officials, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led international coalition, and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day-to-day military operations there…

No final decisions have been made, but military officials said that Petraeus, who took command last July, will rotate out of Afghanistan before the end of the year.

The general who replaces Petraeus will have to navigate a tricky relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leaders. Rodriguez, the second-highest officer now in Afghanistan, is widely thought to have a better feel for the ground battle and the personalities of top Afghan government officials than nearly any officer in the U.S. military. Some senior Pentagon officials worry that he lacks the media and political savvy needed for the job.

At Reuters, Myra MacDonald speculates that Petraeus, who’s ramped up the campaign against the Taliban, is being phased out as the White House phases in a negotiation strategy ahead of the 2014 withdrawal deadline. Petraeus had been trying to negotiate too — “talk and shoot,” as David Ignatius dubbed his blueprint — but presumably the thinking is that the Taliban might be more amenable to dealing with a general who hasn’t been hammering them for months. Besides, as MacDonald notes, Mike Mullen’s term as Joint Chiefs chairman is up this year and Obama will need a replacement who not only knows the theater but who can provide him with crucial political cover by blessing the idea of negotiations. And there’s only one man with the credibility to do that.

Exit question: How much longer will he remain in command? Presumably he’ll be there at least until summer for continuity reasons, as the U.S. expects a major spring offensive by the Taliban — especially against local Afghan leaders who have cooperated with NATO.