Gen. David Petraeus' collapse is a grim metaphor for the prospects of the Kandahar offensive.

Military analysis.
June 15 2010 4:35 PM

Fainting Spells

Gen. Petraeus' collapse is a grim metaphor for the prospects of the Kandahar offensive.

Gen. Petraeus. Click image to expand.
Gen. David Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus fainted during this morning's Senate hearing on the war in Afghanistan. A case of dehydration, the commander said afterward. But it was hard not to see his collapse as grim metaphor.

The war is going badly, or in any case very slowly, which means much the same thing when time is one of the enemies.

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The battle for Helmand province, the first campaign of President Barack Obama's surge, was supposed to be fairly swift: U.S. forces clear out the Taliban; the Kabul government, with international assistance, sweeps in with basic services for the local people; and all across the land, Afghans see the advantage of siding with the authorities against the insurgents.

But the Taliban keep coming back at night, and the services still haven't been delivered, so the operation hasn't made much impression at all.

In part as a result, the next and much harder step, the battle for Kandahar, the Taliban's stronghold, has been scaled back. U.S. officials, who once labeled it an "offensive," now talk—as Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did at today's hearing—about taking a "more deliberate approach," with security forces moving in slowly along with civilian aid (though it's not clear how governance is supposed to take hold before the area has been secured).

Meanwhile, even after his four-day trip to Washington last month, during which Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other top officials reassured him of their lasting support and friendship, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is proving to be an increasingly loopy partner.

According to Elizabeth Rubin and the New York Times' Dexter Filkins, two of the war's most dogged reporters, Karzai believes—or at least told some of his aides that he believes—that the United States, not the Taliban, set off the bomb that exploded outside the peace jirga earlier this month. (In these accounts, Karzai soon after fired his two top security officials, who were highly respected by their U.S. counterparts, because he thought they conspired with the Americans in the nefarious plot.)

Filkins and the Guardian's Jon Boone also reported that Karzai, sensing that the U.S. and NATO campaigns aren't working, is turning to Pakistan to make some kind of deal with the Taliban to end the war.

In the face of this threat (if that's what it is), it may be time to respond with two words: Go ahead.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in his opener at today's hearing that you can't protect people who don't want to be protected. Similarly, you can't form a strategic partnership with a leader who doesn't want to be a partner.

The problem here is that counterinsurgency campaigns, such as this one, are fought—and can only be fought—with, through, and on behalf of the national government. If Karzai's government isn't seen by its own people as legitimate, or if Karzai himself doesn't trust the United States and NATO as allies (if he really does believe that someone in NATO set off the bomb and he's not just playing some weird manipulative game), then no matter how well our soldiers and Marines fight this war, there's no way it can be won, in any meaningful sense of the word.

And so, if Karzai wants to make a separate deal, maybe we should let him.

Petraeus and other senior military officers have said all along that this war will end with a deal that reconciles the less militant factions of the Taliban. (There are too many of them, and not enough of us, simply to kill or capture all the insurgents.) One premise of this analysis, however, is that we can best bargain with the reconcilable Taliban from a position of strength—that is, after racking up military victories. This is a logical position; fence-sitting insurgents aren't likely to jump over to our side if it looks like the other side is winning.

But what if it becomes clear that we're not going to rack up any but the most tactical victories? And what if a big reason for this failure to rack up victories is the weakness and corruption of the Karzai government—that is, what if the failure is something that we can't address simply by sending some more troops or trying harder? Wouldn't our bargaining position just get weaker the longer we kept at it?

It is premature to reach these conclusions now. As Petraeus and Flournoy testified at this morning's hearing, just two-thirds of Obama's surge troops—21,000 out of 30,000—are currently in Afghanistan; the rest will arrive by the end of August. It's also worth noting that Obama's strategy has been in place for less than six months and that, before then, we had no strategy at all. (A common line inside the Pentagon went: "We haven't been fighting in Afghanistan for seven years; we've been fighting for one year, seven years in a row.")

Flournoy testified that insurgent attacks are less well-organized than they were a year ago, that more Afghan people are leading U.S. troops to weapons caches and IEDs, that in general we're making "gradual but important progress." This may be true; whether it's ultimately relevant is another matter.

Sen. Levin has long emphasized the need to accelerate training of the Afghan army so that we can turn the fighting over to them. But in his opening statement today, he wondered why the Pentagon has deployed just 2,600 U.S. troops to the training mission—only half the number needed in that role. He also complained that the NATO allies have deployed none of the 750 troops that they'd committed to help train Afghan soldiers. (One NATO adviser told me recently that the International Security Assistance Force—the NATO command that's running the multinational operation in Afghanistan—is "massively dysfunctional.")

When President Obama decided late last year to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, he also said that he would start to withdraw them in July 2011. How many he'd withdraw, and how long he'd continue the mission, would depend in good part on a strategic assessment to be written this December by Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

If the situation doesn't improve much between now and then, the assessment is likely to be very bad. Under those circumstances, one can expect Petraeus or McChrystal to enter the Oval Office and say, "Mr. President, we believe that three more brigades should do the trick." This is what generals tend to do. But Obama doesn't seem inclined to take the gamble.

In The Promise, his excellent account of Obama's first year in office, Jonathan Alter describes the last of the president's national-security sessions on Afghan-war strategy. His top military advisers—Gen. Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—have just assured Obama that, with 30,000 extra troops, they can recapture the momentum against the Taliban and start turning the fight over to the Afghan army by the summer of 2011. Alter continues:

"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right? ... I'm not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don't agree with me that we can execute this, say so now …"

No one said anything.

"Tell me now," Obama repeated.

"Fully support, sir," Mullen said.

"Ditto," Petraeus said.

Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, read aloud this passage in this morning's hearings and asked Petraeus if it was true. Petraeus declined to comment on conversations in the Oval Office, but he said he supported the president's policy, adding the usual caveat about "conditions on the ground."

It was probably a coincidence, but a few minutes after this exchange, a little less than an hour into the hearing, Petraeus had his fainting spell and left the room along with his colleagues. Upon returning to the witness table about 20 minutes later, he said that the light-headedness stemmed from dehydration. "It wasn't from McCain's questioning, I assure you."

The general said he wanted to proceed with the hearing, but Levin, who said he'd discussed the matter with other committee members, called a recess and said the hearing would resume Wednesday morning.

So will all the troubles with this war.

AP Video: Gen. Petraeus Collapses

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