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.

Advertisement

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.

However, if the government is too corrupt to earn the people's trust, or too incompetent to deliver services, then there's only so much that even the most brilliant military campaign can accomplish. War is fought for political objectives; tactical gains on the battlefield mean little if the objectives are out of reach.

Similarly, in several previous hearings, Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have testified that U.S. military efforts will be limited as long as the insurgents have safe havens across the border in Pakistan.

Finally, at the hearings today, under questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Petraeus said that the war cannot be won without adequate funding of the civilian agencies, whose work is needed to build on the military gains.

In other words, the things that Petraeus and his troops are doing in Afghanistan—the "metrics" that are improving—are necessary preconditions for success. But they're only preconditions and must be followed up with political measures by Karzai, budget votes by Congress, and full military cooperation by Pakistan—and those are the areas that still need much greater improvement.

Petraeus said that Karzai understands the need to clean up the corruption and to get better at administering a budget; he's "seized" with the matter's urgency. But that falls short of his actually doing much about it. (For a depressing read on just how intricate this corruption is, see Dexter Filkins' recent New Yorker article on the ties between the Afghan government and the Kabul Bank.)

Flournoy said that U.S. and Pakistani officials have been having "very candid conversations" on the subject of the sanctuaries. She also predicted that the Pakistani leaders may "shift their calculus" once they see U.S. and NATO forces succeeding in Afghanistan.

This may well be true. In fact, it is the premise of any hope for a durable settlement of the war. However, the Pakistanis have their own vital interest in this contest. To them, the much larger threat comes from India, across the border on the opposite side of their country. They see Afghanistan as providing "strategic depth" to this larger rivalry—and at least some control of Afghanistan as a way to prevent India from encircling them on both sides. The way they maintain some control of Afghanistan is to support certain factions of the Taliban.

The Pakistanis will never quash the Taliban on their western border with Afghanistan unless a détente is reached with India—or unless their favored factions are given a seat in whatever power-sharing deal is arranged to end the war.

Petraeus and Flournoy know all this, as do Gates, Mullen, and any other official who has studied this war—up to, and certainly including, President Barack Obama. Petraeus has said many times that these sorts of wars usually end in reconciliation, not an outright military victory.

The conditions for this particular war's end, he and others have said, are that the reconciling insurgents must agree to sever all ties with al-Qaida, abandon violence, and give allegiance to the Afghan constitution—a tough bargain. One way to pressure any serious insurgent leader to submit is to rack up some military victories and show that we're in this fight for a while. (The beginning of the U.S. troop withdrawal this July will probably amount to some minor "thinning out" of support troops, not the withdrawal of any combat units.)

That's why Petraeus is putting so much stress on military trends, even while acknowledging that they are necessary but not sufficient.

And that's also why, despite the public opinion polls and the budget-slashing pressures in every other activity of government, Congress is almost certain to keep funding this war—and, meanwhile, not ask too many awkward questions.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.