Petraeus faces Afghan conundrum

Conflicting interests and visions await US and Nato forces commander in Afghanistan.

     Washington, Islamabad and Kabul all have interests in General Petraeus' mission [AFP]

    From Washington to Islamabad and Kabul to Jalalabad, the forces of entropy are clearly on display. I am no scientist, but I am told it is an unalterable rule of physics that the universe must become progressively more random, and that where things come together in greater order and cohesion in one place, the trend must be more than off-set by an increase in chaos elsewhere. In short, the universe, and we along with it, are destined inevitably to fly apart.

    That is certainly the foreboding sense one has this week, where localised signs of progress carry with them the larger threat of impending doom.

    In Washington, in an almost surreal atmosphere of comity and consensus, the entire US government, including a hopelessly partisan Congress, have come together to embrace General David Petraeus, the putative saviour of Iraq, as the last great hope of the US in Afghanistan. No one, but no one, can see anything but virtue and Delphic wisdom in this warrior-sage.

    Behind the warm words of support, however, one could easily detect the signs of future political conflict. Both Democrats and Republicans sought, and apparently heard what they wanted, in the four-star general's soothing words concerning the Obama administration's deadline for progress in the counter-insurgency effort, which falls just a year from now. 

    Irreconcilable desires

    by robert grenier

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    Their respective desires, however, are irreconcilable. For the Democrats, a firm date for a rapid and sustained US withdrawal, and an assumption of responsibility by Afghan security forces in the service of US interests; and for the Republicans, an events-based process in which lack of progress will be met by continued US engagement and resolve.

    In this environment, Petraeus, as the author and champion of current US counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine, will have the unenviable task of turning his words - which have taken on the aura of holy writ - into hard facts on the ground, under the leadership of a president who has made plain that he will invest neither the time nor the resources which COIN will inevitably demand. 

    The situation is, simply, unsustainable.

    Now "safely" confirmed, Petraeus will jet off to Afghanistan to confront restive US troops who want a change in the rules of engagement promulgated by their former commander General McChrystal, and previously approved by Petraeus himself, which are designed to avoid collateral civilian casualties and advance the central tenet of COIN doctrine, which is to protect the Afghan population. 

    Most of the troops now serving under Petraeus' direct command are conventional soldiers, some of whom may have COIN doctrine in their heads, but very few of whom, as products of their conventional training and doctrine, bear it in their hearts.

    Their complaints, previously lodged at McChrystal, were given voice during Tuesday's confirmation hearings by Virginia Senator Jim Webb, a former military man and a paragon of conventional thinking, when he demanded that no soldier should serve under rules of engagement which put him at greater risk than is absolutely necessary. 

    The inevitable result of a counter-insurgency approach to combat, however, is necessarily to put one's own troops at greater risk, either directly, by using less than overwhelming fire-power, or indirectly, by breaking contact with enemies one might have killed today at the cost of civilian casualties, only to face them tomorrow, when the advantage may reside with them.

    This dispute will not be settled in the troops' favour, and neither they nor the Webbs who think as they do, are going to like it. Again, serious trouble is brewing.

    Taliban attacks

    Many US soldiers and politicans are hesitant about counter-insurgency warfare [GALLO/GETTY] 

    Meanwhile, the Taliban is expressing its own views, in a variety of ways. A combined suicide bombing and Fedayeen-style attack on the Nato airbase at Jalalabad, we are told, was described by the Taliban as a message to Petraeus, designed to demonstrate that they can strike at will.

    A parallel message, perhaps more ambiguous, is suggested by reports of a Pakistani-brokered meeting between insurgent leader Sirajuddin Haqqani and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.

    Though these stories have been roundly denied by all the putative participants, they are consistent, at least, with the clear desire of Karzai to reach a negotiated solution with the insurgent leaders, and with the desire of the Pakistanis to broker a deal which would enhance their influence in Afghanistan, end the conflict there, and thus relieve the pressure exerted upon them by their domestic militants, who have been inflamed by the foreign military presence across the Durand Line.

    There is no clear indication, however, of any desire on the part of the Haqqanis, or of the Taliban, for that matter, to make any concessions whatsoever. 

    An attempt to broker such a "deal" would certainly be consistent for the Pakistanis, as their past negotiations with their own militants have taken the form of thinly-disguised capitulations. This was the case in North Waziristan in 2006, and even more egregiously so in Swat in 2009. A capitulation on the part of Kabul, however, would offer benefits to the Pakistanis without any of the corresponding down-sides which led to more fighting at home. 

    The tendency towards delusional behaviour on the part of Karzai, however, is unlikely to be either mirrored or accepted by the non-Pashtun elements in his own government. It is also hard to see any sort of truly equitable negotiated solution coming about without the Pakistanis' exercising the sort of pressure on the insurgents based in their country that they thus far have been loath to exert.

    Thus, as the situation in South Asia continues to deteriorate, it appears that both man and nature are conspiring to drive us towards an indeterminate end, in which political confusion and continued violence are the only constants. 

    In short, in politics as in physics, things seem destined to fly apart.

    Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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