Petraeus offers Afghanistan evaluation

December 21, 2010


— As President Obama was rolling out his Afghan policy review, I had the chance to visit U.S. forward-operating bases in the Taliban heartland, and to interview Gen. David Petraeus.

I came away convinced that, after the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops, real progress is being made in clearing the Taliban from large areas in the south — and disrupting its networks. Yet a visit to Camp Hansen, a dusty U.S. outpost in hotly contested Helmand province, made clear why Obama called those gains “fragile” and said they could be reversed.

U.S. troops hope to expand and link “ink spots” — areas cleared of Taliban — in rural Helmand districts such as Nawa and Marjah. The U.S. military wants to transition partial responsibility for Nawa to Afghan civilian and military personnel by next summer.

Two key factors

But that goal is undercut by two factors. First, the central Afghan government in Kabul hasn’t sent personnel to staff local and district offices, or to dispense justice. The failure to adjudicate land disputes pushes farmers into the arms of the Taliban, which operates religious courts. Moreover, the central government often appoints corrupt provincial and district governors or tries to fire honest ones. It took heavy NATO pressure to keep the capable governor in Helmand from being fired by President Hamid Karzai.

Second, when the Taliban is driven out of Helmand, it can find sanctuary across the border in Pakistan. Marine Col. David Furness told reporters that the Taliban brought in weapons and electronic components along the “rat line” from Pakistan. “If they couldn’t go to Pakistan, it would be over,” he said.

As commander in Afghanistan, Petraeus is painfully aware of these two strategic Achilles heels: lack of adequate governance and the safe havens in Pakistan. At his headquarters in Kabul, he spoke of military gains, saying U.S. forces have “arrested the momentum of the Taliban in many areas and reversed it in some,” while taking out midlevel Taliban members and bomb-makers.

Handing out copies of his famous multicolored PowerPoint charts, he described a strategy that, while focused on the south and east, is also doing “shaping operations” in the troubled north and expanding the vastly improved security in Kabul to its neighboring provinces.

He was clearly piqued that many think his focus is now purely military, and stressed that “kinetic operations, while necessary, are not sufficient.” While securing an area is the priority, he said, “you have to exploit it through Afghan local governance and anticorruption measures” so villagers “will support the Afghan government.” In other words, if their local government doesn’t offer services and justice, the people will turn, often reluctantly, to the Taliban.

Petraeus has not given up hope that nascent Afghan institutions and government will gradually improve. “The governors (Karzai) has appointed on my watch have been generally impressive,” the general said, and more civil servants are being trained to take jobs in far-flung districts. Petraeus has a team pursuing cases of Afghan corruption (including those fueled by lucrative U.S. contracts), and he says Karzai is cooperating.

Karzai has also signed on to a Petraeus priority project, a program to train 10,000 Afghan local police under the aegis of the Interior Ministry. The program will provide security to areas without regular police, while also providing jobs to locals.

However, the general does not want to discuss the issue of Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali, a powerful and controversial figure in Kandahar, whose machinations are blamed by many for tribal divisions that create openings for the Taliban.

Security gains needed

Petraeus appears to be hoping that security gains will create a virtuous circle: As the economy picks up, villagers will turn against the Taliban, and Karzai may want to win their approval by performing better. Those gains may also affect Pakistan’s attitude toward giving the Taliban safe havens.

If Afghanistan seems more secure, and the Taliban has little prospect of retaking power in Kabul, Pakistan may reassess its value as a future card in its conflict with India. And Petraeus, who meets regularly with Pakistani military and intelligence chiefs, believes they now grasp that the militants threaten them, too.

Part of the virtuous circle is a shift in the Afghan psyche. The general thinks the administration’s decision to stress a 2014 date for transition to Afghan control will have a positive effect on Afghan attitudes. The militants, he said, had convinced Afghans that Obama’s 7/11 start date for a drawdown meant Americans were “heading for the exits.” This made villagers afraid to stand up to the Taliban.

Word has now spread of America’s longer commitment. Petraeus recalls that when he recently visited the rural village of Farah, he was astonished to find everyone was aware of the date shift. Residents told him, “We are happy to hear about 2014.”

A shift in psyche, continued kinetics, a virtuous circle that shifts the thinking of Karzai and Pakistani generals — this appears to be the scenario that Petraeus hopes for.

He says he is not “an optimist or a pessimist.” Instead, he repeats Obama’s mantra that Afghan progress is “fragile and reversible” and “must be solidified.” Perhaps this is a hedge against failure. Perhaps it is pragmatism. Maybe it is just warding off the evil eye.

David Petraeus knows Afghanistan is much tougher than Iraq, and that the burden falls most heavily on his shoulders. I sense that he thinks success is possible, but he isn’t sure.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


CorkyHundley 7 years, 1 month ago

The escalation of death in Poppy land is a Dude trademark. Wasn't it fanciful when the Democrat clan called Patraeus, Betrayus back in the day of continuous hate Bush screams. The Bush "surge" in Iraq to allow woman to achieve a purple finger for voting was horrific. Ha ha. Those were the days. Now Patraeus is the Commander of Afghanistan and is defended by the leftist guerilla press. Ha ha.

uncleandyt 7 years ago

You've got it all figured out. Ha Ha . Mega- dittos. Ha Ha.

Corey Williams 7 years, 1 month ago


It's even spelled out for you at the top of the page.

uncleandyt 7 years ago

Trudy says that she is convinced that real progress is being made. Do you feel convinced ? Let's ask the General if the war is progressing. Yes it is ! Will the brave General be able to go on fighting for our freedom into 2014 ? Well, that's up to Jesus. How many bullets have been fired, how many bombs dropped ?? Who's countin'? Have our war crimes become boring to you? Are we more annoyed by talk of slaughter than by the slaughter itself ? Invading countries is very wrong.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years ago

"Invading countries is very wrong."

That may be true in some cases, but as a blanket statement it is a stretch. Some would say that if we had adopted that additude and not begun assisting UK and France beginning December 7, 1941, we would all be speaking German today. Or, maybe Japanese.

And, I do wonder what the proper response should have been to 9/11. Leave the Taliban in control of Afganistan, so that they could continue their "jihad" against the West? While they were in control of an entire country they were able to make a quite amazing attack. And, they were planning many more.

But as far as Iraq goes, that one was on quite shaky grounds. Wouldn't want to bring up that one in an argument because I couldn't convince myself very well. I'm not sure what should have been done. Perhaps we should have left Saddam in power, so that he could continue his massacre of the Kurds and others, maybe? After all, they were not "us", so why should we worry about them? However, in Africa today there are much worse things occuring, but we don't worry much about African problems, because they don't have any oil.

My conclusion is that once one country has begun a war, the historical record certainly indicates that it is sometimes necessary for another country to invade in order to protect themselves, their allies, or their national interests.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana, in 'Life of Reason'.

Paul R Getto 7 years ago

uncleandyt: Good points, but who really cares? We now have the endless war the establishment has wanted for decades. The muscular jesus of the neocons is now driving the tank. Be afraid; be very afraid. http://harpers.org/archive/2008/06/hbc-90003020

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