Petraeus: master of Afghan policy

To find an analogy to General Petraeus, one must look back to the 19th century and the British General ‘Chinese’ Gordon.

Will General Petraeus’ military reputation survive the war in Afghanistan? [GALLO/GETTY]

The US government’s policy review on Afghanistan is proceeding in an atmosphere of preternatural calm. Just a few months ago, as controversy continued to swirl over the projected start of a US troop drawdown set to begin in July, 2011, the planned December, 2010, interim assessment of progress in the war promised to generate much controversy, as advocates for the current US/NATO policy and their detractors both anticipated using its findings to bolster their respective cases. Perhaps only days from completion, however, the review is generating scant attention.

Even the mid-2011 deadline has receded in importance, as all eyes seem focused on the 2014 milestone set by the recent NATO summit in Lisbon for an end to NATO combat operations in Afghanistan and the completion of a transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces.

Meanwhile, politicians from Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, until recently very restive over the heavy losses being suffered by US troops in Afghanistan, are now preoccupied with their domestic policy agenda, thrown into turmoil by their own heavy electoral losses at the hands of the Republicans.

The quiescence surrounding US Afghan policy seems most peculiar, for in truth very little has changed of late to give anyone lasting comfort. Yes, US military leaders claim that steady progress is being made, particularly in heavily-contested southern Afghanistan, but the recent record is hardly unambiguous, as even they will readily admit.

There is nothing to suggest improvement in Afghan governance, and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, is doing little to boost the morale of his principal ally, resisting anti-corruption reform, complaining loudly about civilian deaths and openly advocating a major reduction in the scale and tempo of US military operations.

Illusion of solidarity

Most peculiar of all is the way in which NATO has transformed perceptions of its commitment to the Afghan struggle and, with it, perhaps perceptions of the struggle itself, without making any substantive change in policies previously criticised by the Americans.

Non-US NATO leaders have not signalled a willingness to increase their troop numbers in any significant way, nor to change plans designed to move them away from active fighting and into support roles, such as training. By focusing on the positive, however, and underscoring their willingness to stay the course until 2014, the Europeans have created the illusion of active solidarity, despite the fact that their position can best be summed up in a colloquialism of the American South: “Let’s you-all go fight.”

Moreover, by shifting the collective gaze to 2014, rather than 2011, the Europeans and NATO have managed to reframe the manner in which the current Afghan struggle is viewed politically.

The commitment to begin a drawdown in 2011 has not changed, but the focus is now on the end, rather than the beginning of the process. The 2014 horizon is sufficiently distant that substantial progress toward meeting the goal of an Afghan takeover of the anti-Taliban and al-Qaeda struggle within such a timeframe seems at least plausible, if not exactly likely.

A new General ‘Chinese’ Gordon

In this manner, the Europeans have bolstered the position of US-NATO Afghan commander General David Petraeus and the rest of the US military leadership, who have quietly insisted that any post-July 2011 troop withdrawals be calibrated to improvements on the ground, and have sharply differed with their civilian counterparts in Washington concerning the prospects for success.

Thus has Petraeus become the master of Afghan policy, if not of his own fate.

Indeed, it would be hard to overstate the centrality of Petraeus in the Afghan struggle. To find a close analogy to Petraeus’ current position, one has to look back to the 19th century.

Just six months ago, as the diminutive American general was dispatched to Afghanistan on the heels of a senate confirmation process which bordered at times on idolatry, I was haunted by the sepia-toned image of another long-ago master of insurgent warfare: General “Chinese” Gordon.

Major-General Charles George Gordon, C.B., a hero of the British Empire, professionally respected and popularly revered both for his brilliant success as a commander of “native” irregular forces in China’s Second Opium War, and for his record as a wise colonial administrator and suppressor of the slave trade in Africa, was reluctantly dispatched by the British government in 1884 to deal with an Islamist insurgency in the Sudan.

The uprising was led by the Mahdi, the self-styled Messiah; one might think of him as the Mullah Omar – the self-styled Commander of the Faithful – of his day.

Sent largely out of political expediency as a sop to public opinion, by civilian political leaders leery of further colonial entanglements in Africa, Gordon found himself unable to reconcile his vague instructions with his sense of honour and the realities on the ground. He thus elaborated his own policy, independently of his political masters, who desired only an evacuation of their subjects south of the Egyptian border.

Ultimately cut off by the Mahdi and besieged at Khartoum, Gordon’s garrison was overrun, and he himself beheaded in 1885.

Like Gordon Pasha before him, Petraeus Bahadur has been dispatched largely out of political expediency. It may be hard to remember now, but six months ago it would have been virtually inconceivable that Petraeus, having risen to become the combatant commander for all of the Middle East and South Asia, including both Iraq and Afghanistan, could ever be relegated to a subordinate command.

The sacking of General Stanley McChrystal, however, and the unseemly political infighting which precipitated it had created the public perception of a failing war effort in hopeless disarray. The only chance for the Obama administration to turn that perception around was to reach out to Petraeus, the hero of the Iraq “surge” and the author of a US counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine which had recently gained the status of holy writ, and cast him into the breach. It was a masterful political stroke, hailed even more by Republicans than by Democrats.

Also like Gordon Pasha before him, Petraeus inherited a vague and ambivalent strategy put forward by civilian political leaders who had little faith in its efficacy. If there were any doubts about that, Bob Woodward’s recent and exhaustively researched book Obama’s Wars would have put them to rest. 

Now having effectively seized control of Afghan policy, and having gained a free hand to implement a COIN doctrine of his own devising, Petraeus will rise or fall on its success. He is unlikely to share the literal fate of his 19th-century predecessor. But it is equally unlikely that his military reputation will survive his encounter with our modern-day Mahdi.

An exercise in wishful thinking

The fact of the matter is that the current US COIN strategy being implemented in Afghanistan is irrelevant to the circumstances, and being applied by largely conventional forces ill-suited to the task. Current US methods would have been more appropriate to the French in Algeria than they are to the US in Afghanistan: the French, after all, meant to stay in Algeria, and were fighting on their own account; the US and NATO are eager to leave Afghanistan, and their forces are a transparently temporary stand-in for unwilling and incapable Afghans, who alone hold the key to ultimate success.

If there is one word to capture the fundamental flaw in the US project in Afghanistan, that word is “sustainability”: US and NATO gains in the Pashtun-dominated areas cannot be sustained, politically or militarily, by the Afghan government; the institutions of a strong centralised state, and particularly the huge Afghan army being constructed with foreign money and support, cannot be economically sustained by the Afghans themselves, and will not be sustained by the foreigners once their own troops have left the front lines; and the current resource levels maintained by the Americans cannot be politically sustained for the time required for them to succeed, even on their own terms.

In short, current US political-military strategy in South-Central Asia is the moral equivalent of current US fiscal policy: an exercise in wishful thinking which will inevitably prove disastrous. US Afghan policy may now be benefiting from a lapse in domestic scrutiny, but the holiday will not last, as its shortcomings become more apparent.

There are those who believe that the US cannot succeed in Afghanistan, and that the Americans would be best advised to give up the effort. I am not among them. The core of the organisation responsible for the 9/11 attacks and those which preceded them remains in the area, and remains equally committed to its malevolent aims. More importantly, the extremists in the region who have risen to al-Qaeda’s support and who now see themselves as part of the same global movement pose a profound and probably unappeasable threat to both Pakistan and Afghanistan. US withdrawal will not cause them to go away.

What would a successful US strategy in the region look like? We will consider that next week.

Robert Grenier was the CIA’s chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan from 1999 to 2002. He was also 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.


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