Home > Afghanistan, Georgia {Gruziya}, Iraq, Netherlands, Pakistan, Shoshana Bryen, United States of America > Petraeus a good choice in a bad situation

Petraeus a good choice in a bad situation

By Shoshana Bryen

Shoshana Bryen

WASHINGTON, D.C.– Gen. McChrystal out, Gen. Petraeus in – but the problem of U.S. policy in Afghanistan remains as it was last week: American troops have been sent to fight for a goal that is at best unclear under rules of engagement that are at best complicated and at worst deadly.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. President Obama said, “We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” The mechanism, as articulated by Gen. McChrystal and the President, was to bring the Afghan people to our side by offering clean, transparent and representative government centered in Kabul, along with infrastructure, jobs and security from the Taliban and its rules. Population protection was primary, even at greater risk to Coalition troops.
That sounds a lot like nation-building.
Nation building in a place that has no history of a strong center; in a tribal system governed by regional leaders who pay only marginal lip service to Kabul; where illiteracy is rampant and the 20th Century (never mind the 21st) is largely unknown; and where bribery, negotiation and warfare are the rule would be a tall order under any circumstances. In the current circumstance – under the literal gun of the Taliban and the figurative gun of a deadline next July – would seem impossible.
The primary elements of al Qaeda that were in Afghanistan are believed to have moved to shelter over the border in Pakistan.
Pakistan, for its part, was supposed to bring the rule of Islamabad to its own tribal areas and fight al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban while the U.S. hit its leadership from the air. While the U.S. drone war has been successful in decimating al Qaeda leadership (at the cost of a great many civilian casualties), it has become clear that elements of Pakistani intelligence are supporters of the Taliban for their own reasons. The strength of Pakistan’s civilian-led government is questionable and the fear that a nuclear-armed country will fall to internal or external radical forces is omnipresent in American military thinking.
Our European partners in Afghanistan have begun to retire – the Dutch are going this summer and others have insisted on largely training, not fighting, roles. (The Georgians are a welcome exception to the rule.)
An American Special Forces officer of our acquaintance said he has two simple metrics for whether we are winning or losing in Afghanistan – whether the Afghan people think we are losing and whether the Taliban thinks it is winning. By both metrics he believes we are losing.
This is what Gen. Petraeus has undertaken to command. The good news for the United States and the West is that Gen. Petraeus is the most thoughtful of American military officers. He considered the situation of Coalition forces in Iraq and the situation of the military and political players, changed the course of our operations there and steered the counter-surge to decimate al Qaeda in Iraq as well as the Shiite militias, providing space for political reconciliation and the hope of long-term stability for that country.   
Afghanistan is harder by orders of magnitude, but if we had to bet on someone to figure out the mechanism that will make our operations match our goal, we would bet on Gen. Petraeus.


Bryen is senior director of security policy of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.  Her column is sponsored by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, longtime JINSA supporter and national board member.
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