Petraeus testimony: Why didn't the senators ask tough questions?

Military analysis.
March 15 2011 6:29 PM

Don't Talk About the War

Why didn't the Senate ask Gen. Petraeus a single hard question about Afghanistan?

General Petraeus. Click image to expand.
General Petraeus

If Gen. David Petraeus was worried about testifying this morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he needn't have been. The hearings—four hours long—were probably as unchallenging as anything he's had to deal with for several months.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released today shows that 64 percent of Americans think the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting—a stunning rise from a year ago, when opinion on the subject was fairly evenly divided.

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Yet the few senators who cited the survey this morning merely urged the war's commander to recite once more the reasons why we're fighting there, in hopes that doing so would rally popular support. None of them asked a single tough question, although their constituents clearly have plenty.

In a way, Petraeus and his co-witness, Michèle Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, had them stymied. Their testimony—along with the stack of graphs and charts that they handed out beforehand—suggested that, on some levels, the war is going better than it has been.

Taliban forces are getting hammered, more of their weapons caches are being found (due to better intelligence and cooperation from the population), the Afghan army is growing in number and quality, local government is improving in more districts, more children are in school, and at least one former arms bazaar is now a thriving commercial market.

Even the committee's chairman, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, hailed these signs as "quite uplifting."

And it's worth noting that Petraeus' optimistic assessment of the military trends has been backed up in recent months by the seasoned reporting of the New York Times' Carlotta Gall (hardly a push-over for spin) and Seth Jones (author of the quite critical In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan).

Petraeus and Flournoy also emphasized that, although the war has gone on for nearly 10 years, it's only been in the last two that the United States has had a clear strategy and the requisite resources.

In that sense, the war—which Petraeus figured a few years ago would be "the longest campaign" in the "long war" against terrorism—is only beginning.

However, as he and Flournoy acknowledged, the gains achieved are "reversible" and "fragile." More important still, there's been much less progress in some areas: repairing the corruption and incompetence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's national government; eliminating the Taliban's sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan; and (here Petraeus dumped a big pile on Congress' lap) getting enough money for the State Department and other civilian agencies to do the necessary work in political and economic development.

These are no small matters. In fact, they are, as Petraeus and other top officials have said in the past, critical to the success of the entire mission.

"This is not just a military campaign," Petraeus said in today's hearing. "This is a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign."

The U.S. Army's field manual on counterinsurgency, which was written under Petraeus' leadership, emphasizes that such wars are fought on behalf of the host nation's government. The aim of these wars is not so much to attack the insurgents but rather to provide a zone of security for the local people, so that the government can then provide essential services—so that, in turn, the people will give their allegiance to the government, thus drying up support for the insurgents.