Can a new commander really improve the dire situation in Afghanistan?

Military analysis.
June 24 2010 6:58 PM

Now What?

Can a new commander improve the dire situation in Afghanistan?

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

McChrystal is out, Petraeus is in. Civilian authority is reasserted, with no real compromise to the military mission. Good news, masterfully played.

Now what? Or, to put it more crudely, so what?

Yes, Gen. David Petraeus, who will be taking over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is a brilliant soldier, one of the rare and true strategic thinkers in the military today. But the description also matches Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man Petraeus is replacing.

As President Barack Obama said in his Rose Garden announcement on Wednesday, it's a change in personnel, not in policy.

The question is whether a new commander (or even slight modifications to the policy, if some are ordered) can have much impact on the course or outcome of the war. The question is whether anything can be done about the "bleeding ulcer," as McChrystal recently called it, of Afghanistan.

There are certain aspects of this war that can be changed, and Petraeus may be defter than his predecessor at addressing them. But the fundamental challenge—the chief obstacle to success—may be beyond anyone's control.

That challenge-obstacle, by all accounts, is Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In most kinds of wars, this would be a serious matter; in a counterinsurgency campaign, it's nearly fatal.

Counterinsurgency wars, as has been said countless times, are fought by, with, through, and on behalf of the host country's national government. The idea is to provide security, so the government can bring its people basic services. If the government is incompetent, corrupt, or widely viewed by the people as illegitimate, then a counterinsurgency campaign—no matter how brilliantly planned or valiantly fought—is futile.

David Kilcullen, a former adviser to Petraeus and one of the leading authorities on the subject (his much-acclaimed books include The Accidental Guerrilla and a collection of essays called, simply, Counterinsurgency), put it this way in a phone conversation today: "Counterinsurgency is a delivery system for civilian capacity. You need both. One without the other is useless."

The U.S. military is doing its part; the Afghan government isn't. The question, then, is whether the war is useless.

Take the ongoing campaign in Helmand province. In March, Gen. McChrystal moved 15,000 Marines into Marja, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, with the goal of killing or sweeping out the insurgents, then moving in what he called "government in a box."

Two things went wrong: First, the Taliban, though initially swept out, kept coming back, especially at night. Second, and more to the point, the government-in-a-box never arrived. It never existed in the first place, in part because an Afghan government—of which this was to be a mobilized chunk—doesn't really exist, either.

Polls suggest that the Taliban are not popular among the Afghan people. They have made inroads in recent years, however, because they provide security, services, and justice—cruel forms of all three, but that's more than the Afghan government has been able to offer.

The U.S. military is stepping up to provide the security, at least in key areas. The international community can help provide the rest (and it is, with billions of dollars and a growing cadre of aid workers), but the Afghan government has to take the lead—and it's not.

So do we have a chance in hell of succeeding? "We've got a chance in hell," another U.S. adviser in Afghanistan (who asked not to be identified) told me today, adding, "That's about all we've got."

There are two preconditions for this chance in hell coming about, the adviser said: "Karzai has to be switched out or have a come-to-Mohammad moment."

"Switching him out" is not likely to happen, at least by U.S. hands. There may have been a chance to go this route just after Karzai's win in last year's fraudulent election. But once the dust settled and viable rivals failed to appear in the wings, the Obama administration realized there was no choice but to embrace him. (More direct techniques were rejected; one of the few enduring lessons of the Vietnam War is that the CIA-backed coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 didn't alter the dynamic and only deepened the quagmire.)

And so everyone is waiting for Karzai's revelation. Can one be induced? Maybe, but his regime is so entwined with corruption—at every level, among ministers, governors, police chiefs, and more—that few hold high hopes.

McChrystal and Petraeus—the latter in his capacity as head of U.S. Central Command, which controls U.S. military operations throughout the Persian Gulf and central Asia—have attempted to cultivate tribal, local, and regional authorities, both as alternatives to Karzai's cronies and as a spur to reform, a signal to Karzai that, unless he changes his ways, the aid will start flowing around him, shrinking his power and legitimacy.

There have been scattered and partial successes along these lines, but nothing serious enough to give Karzai a push.

Karzai and corruption are not the only obstacles that will daunt Petraeus no less than they did McChrystal. The insurgents have the advantage of being able to cross the border into Pakistan for sanctuary; and, despite pledging to do so, the Pakistani military has done little to stop them. (It has dramatically stepped up action against al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban, but not so much against the Afghan Taliban; in fact, it is still assisting many Afghan insurgents as a counter to India's attempts to gain footholds in the country.)

President Obama's entire team has worked this problem—McChrystal, Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones, and special envoy Richard Holbrooke. (I'm told that Holbrooke has much better relations with the Pakistani leadership than with Karzai, whom he has alienated, perhaps irreparably.) But the plain fact is that the Pakistanis have tangible security interests in Afghanistan; they see the country as providing "strategic depth" in a conflict with India, which they see as their greatest threat. They regard the Afghan Taliban as effective tools for those interests, and that's likely to remain the case unless some deal is made with Afghanistan's government; a prerequisite to such a deal is that the Afghan government—including the military and police—becomes a powerful and stable force.

The replacement of Petraeus for McChrystal provides an opportunity for the Obama administration to take some actions that might help bring about this day.

For instance, Obama said on Wednesday that "unity of effort" is vital in fighting a war. One reason for firing McChrystal was that he'd proved to be a force of disunity. For this same reason, Obama needs to unload Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who clearly disagrees with the premise of the war effort. (His disagreement is well-founded, but it makes him an unsuitable, even disruptive, ambassador.)

One of Petraeus' strengths as a commander, both in Iraq and in his present post at Centcom, is his knack for buying off fence-sitters and unimpassioned bad guys. He did this in Mosul, as head of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, at the start of the Iraqi occupation (and pacified the place until the money was cut off). He did it in Anbar province, as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, in a move that helped turn the tide of the war.

Many hope that Petraeus will sweep through Afghanistan with the same magic he worked in Iraq. Maybe he will. But there are two things worth noting.

First, the United States did not, and still has not, "won" the war in Iraq. The combination of the troop surge, the Anbar Awakening, and the imposition of a counterinsurgency strategy helped reduce casualties and, at least for a while, put an end to a civil war that might otherwise have ramped out of control.

Yet other things that Petraeus had nothing to do with were at work here: a cease-fire by the most ardent Shiite militias and an independent calculation by Sunni tribesmen to side with the U.S. occupiers in order to beat back the greater danger of al-Qaida in Iraq.

That is, the Sunnis approached the U.S. troops in Anbar, not the other way around, and the jihadists of al-Qaida in Iraq were foreigners themselves. By contrast, the Taliban in Afghanistan are Afghans; and if there is some parallel to the Anbar Awakening in Marja, Kandahar, or the other insurgent strongholds, it has not yet been detected.

It's also worth noting that relative peace was bought in Iraq by concrete walls, which Petraeus ordered erected throughout Baghdad, to separate Sunni and Shiite militants. And, as Deborah Amos demonstrates in her book Eclipse of the Sunnis, an estimated 2 million Iraqis, most of them Sunnis, were hounded into exile; the ethnic cleansing ended, in part, because the cleansing was complete. And now, after the Baghdad government has failed to incorporate the remaining Sunnis into the councils of power, and as tensions with Kurds continue to simmer, the fighting may be about to resume.

Still, many skeptics on Afghan policy are stopping short of despair for three reasons.

First, most of them—for that matter, almost every senior military officer, expert, consultant, and many officials at the time—thought that the Iraq war was lost in early 2007. Certainly things looked more desperate in Iraq then than they do in Afghanistan now. The tide turned in Iraq, partly through luck and skill; maybe, these people hope, some unforeseen tide will turn again.

Second, the Obama "surge" is still at an early stage. One-third of the 30,000 extra troops he ordered into Afghanistan in December have not yet arrived in country. Some aides in McChrystal's shop (perhaps the same ones who spoke with such swagger in the Rolling Stone story) told reporters at the time that Marja would be conquered in weeks, maybe days. But those around Petraeus were warning it would take longer, more like months. It may still be too soon to render verdicts even on local battles, much less the broader war.

Finally, the alternative to hope seems very grim. If U.S. troops leave Afghanistan before accomplishing even the minimal goal of a stable government that can defend itself, Karzai's regime will fall, the Taliban will take over (perhaps after a very bloody civil war), and al-Qaida will likely rush into the vacuum. The consequences for security—to the region as well as to the United States directly—would be considerable.

One thing Petraeus and, beyond him, Obama have to start doing is to act as if they believe this is true and to make others, not least Karzai, act that way, too.

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