Tag: petraeus

In Afghanistan, What’s News?

In a recent interview with the New York Times, top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, argued “against any precipitous withdrawal of forces by July 2011,” and added he did not take over merely to “preside over a ‘graceful exit.’”

That an active-duty army general is committed to a pending military engagement is nothing new. Nevertheless, I have some thoughts about this interview, and the rest of the general’s weekend “media blitz,” that I think are worth sharing.

First off, that Petraeus is against a “precipitous withdrawal” reminds me of the many straw man arguments bandied about during the most explosive days in Iraq. However, back then, even the staunchest (and more serious) anti-Iraq War critics did not endorse high-tailing it out of Mesopotamia, logistics be damned. Not only was a phased exit strategy deemed strategically necessary, but also the only option that was considered politically feasible. Today, in the case of Afghanistan, to suppress al Qaeda in a cost-effective manner, America and its allies could easily scale-down its campaign to a much narrower counterterrorism mission. Of course, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but Petraeus’s gratuitous “precipitous withdrawal” comment implies that critics of the present policy (a massive, long-term nation-building campaign) have no coherent or well-thought out alternative. That is certainly not the case.

Second, as my colleagues and I ask continuously, the issue is not exclusively about where we intend to fight, but rather how we intend to fight. More importantly, the question we need to ask in the case of Afghanistan is not “is Afghanistan winnable?” but rather “what do we hope to accomplish?” To endorse an open-ended nation-building mission blithely ignores the uncomfortable truth that “American taxpayers have inadvertently created a network of warlords across Afghanistan” who are fueling the very corruption and warlordism that we are pressing President Karzai to curtail. It neglects the perverse reality that the United States is “essentially waging a proxy war” against its ostensible ally, Pakistan. Perhaps even worse, it dismisses the fact that we are incinerating hundreds of billions of dollars—during a time of economic peril, no less—on a corrupt and illegitimate central government in Kabul that has every incentive to perpetuate the conflict.

The July 2011 drawdown should continue as the Obama Administration pledged. Government planners in Washington should begin to husband our nation’s ever-diminishing financial resources rather squander them, and learn how to manage our own affairs, not others’.

Another Day, Another Tranche of Afghanistan Reading Material

Item: The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a group of concerned scholars and authors who work on international security and U.S. foreign policy, have issued an open letter to President Obama warning him not to expand U.S. involvement in that country.  (Full disclosure: I was a signatory.)  The list of signatories includes many of the scholars who urged President Bush not to invade Iraq.  Politico was the first to run the story: see here.

Item: Via Michael Cohen, former CIA counterterrorism honcho Paul Pillar takes to the pages of the Washington Post to think through the concept of “safe havens” in Afghanistan.  His conclusion?

Among the many parallels being offered between Afghanistan and the Vietnam War, one of the most disturbing concerns inadequate examination of core assumptions. The Johnson administration was just as meticulous as the Obama administration is being in examining counterinsurgent strategies and the forces required to execute them. But most American discourse about Vietnam in the early and mid-1960s took for granted the key – and flawed – assumptions underlying the whole effort: that a loss of Vietnam would mean that other Asian countries would fall like dominoes to communism, and that a retreat from the commitment to Vietnam would gravely harm U.S. credibility.

The Obama administration and other participants in the debate about expanding the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan can still avoid comparable error. But this would require not merely invoking Sept. 11 and taking for granted that a haven in Afghanistan would mean the difference between repeating and not repeating that horror. It would instead mean presenting a convincing case about how such a haven would significantly increase the terrorist danger to the United States. That case has not yet been made.

Item: Michael Crowley offers a piece in the New Republic that strongly implies but doesn’t quite come out and say that President Obama should ignore the skeptics and the political risks and wade deeper into Afghanistan.  The piece swallows whole the conventional wisdom narrative on Iraq–that the Surge amounted not to a combination of defining down “victory” and appeasement of Sunni tribes but rather a borderline miracle whereby Gen. Petraeus loosed his wonder-working COIN doctrine on the maelstrom of violence in that country and produced a strategic victory.  Crowley then uses this narrative to frame the decision before President Obama.  Still, he writes

[I]f the definition of success isn’t clear to the Obama team, the definition of defeat may be. Bush argued unabashedly that Iraq had become “the central front in the war on terror” and that withdrawing before the country had stabilized would hand Al Qaeda not only a strategic but a moral victory. Current administration officials don’t publicly articulate the same rationale when discussing Afghanistan. But former CIA official Bruce Riedel, a regional expert who led the White House’s Afghanistan-Pakistan review earlier this year, cited it at the Brookings panel held in August. “The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World. This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s,” Riedel said. “[T]he stakes are enormous.”

Obama may have one last thing in common with Bush: personal pride. Bush was determined to prevail in Iraq because he had invaded it. And, while Obama, of course, had nothing to do with the invasion of Afghanistan, he has long supported the campaign there–including during the presidential campaign as a foil for his opposition to the Iraq war. Speaking before a group of veterans last month, Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity”–a phrase which politically invests him deeper in the fight. “The president has boxed himself in,” says one person who has advised the administration on military strategy. “The worst possible place to be is that our justification for being in a war is that we’re in a war.”

Lots to chew on.

McCarthy Does Petraeus a Disservice

General Petraeus recently gave an interview to Fox News. Petraeus speaks approvingly of the decision to close Guantanamo, limiting interrogation to the techniques in the Army Field Manual, and how adherence to the Geneva Conventions takes propaganda fodder out of the hands of our enemies.

Andy McCarthy attacks Petraeus over at National Review Online’s The Corner:

With due respect to Gen. Petraeus, this is just vapid. To begin with, he doesn’t identify any provision of the Geneva Conventions that we have actually violated - he just repeats the standard talking-point of his current commander-in-chief that we took “steps that have violated the Geneva Conventions” during those bad old Bush days. What steps is he talking about? How about naming one?

McCarthy then uses the brief reference to the Geneva Conventions to attack strawman arguments as if Petraeus wanted to give full Prisoner of War status to Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and had just proposed ending military detention of combatants picked up on the battlefield.

I’m pretty sure that Petraeus is not squeamish about keeping detainees in custody. As CENTCOM Commander, he’s got over 600 of them in Bagram.

When you watch the video it’s pretty clear that Petraeus was referring to the treatment of detainees and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as violating the Geneva Conventions, a position consistent with his previous statements. Petraeus doesn’t supply a specific provision to satisfy McCarthy, but he is likely thinking about Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  This provision bans, even in a conflict of a non-international nature (read: counterinsurgency and counterterrorism), cruelty, torture, and humiliating and degrading treatment.

McCarthy is also broadly dismissive of the propaganda effect that Guantanamo has had in encouraging people to take up arms against US forces. This sentiment is counter to the doctrine that I learned in the Special Forces Detachment Commander’s Qualification Course. Low-level insurgencies and terrorism are driven by propaganda.

To build an insurgency, you don’t need to win battles. You need to take a few shots at your enemy and tell stories about how successful you were, even when you weren’t. Over time you get sympathetic parties to join your struggle and gain critical mass to move into outright guerrilla warfare.

To sustain a worldwide terrorist organization, you don’t need to actually pose an existential threat. You need to prod a superpower into deploying large troop formations into the Muslim world, where they can be entangled in local disputes over local grievances. Usama bin Laden is not the commander-in-chief of any significant armed force, but he can be the inciter-in-chief who makes broad claims about opposition to America. He tries to link local insurgencies to his global caliphate narrative even where they are not supportive of his broader goals. Check out David Kilcullen’s book, The Accidental Guerrilla, for a detailed discussion. Incidentally, Kilcullen worked for Petraeus as a senior counterinsurgency advisor in Iraq.

This is the propaganda war we are fighting, and most everyone agrees that we have not been doing it very well. Every time we drop a bomb in Afghanistan, the Taliban beat us to the punch with exaggerated (and mostly false) claims of civilian casualties. US forces are now reviving body count reports to counter Taliban propaganda. While I don’t think that body counts are a good metric for success in the long run, trying to be an honest broker of good and bad information blunts enemy propaganda.

McCarthy is wrong to mischaracterize Petraeus’ words and dismiss the propaganda war where we have largely been a punching bag. Cheerleading our military leaders who produce gains on the ground but dismissing the fundamental insights that produced their success is willful blindness.