The Petraeus Syndrome
This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
July 12, 2011, Washington, DC — In triumphant testimony before a joint committee of Congress in which he was greeted on both sides of the aisle as a conquering hero, General David Petraeus announced the withdrawal this month of the first 1,000 American troops from Afghanistan. "This is the beginning of the pledge the president made to the American people to draw down the surge troops sent in since 2009," he said, adding, "and yet let me emphasize, as I did when I took this job, that our commitment to the Afghan government and people is an enduring one."
Last July, when Gen. Petraeus replaced the discredited General Stanley McChrystal as Afghan war commander, he was hailed as an "American hero" by Senator John McCain, as "the most talented officer of his generation" by The New Yorker's George Packer, and as "the nation's premier warrior-diplomat" by Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post—typical of the comments of both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives at the time. Petraeus then promised that the United States was in Afghanistan "to win."
In the year since, the Taliban insurgency has been blunted and "a tipping point has been reached," says a senior US military official with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who could speak only on the condition of anonymity, in keeping with the policy of his organization. By every available measure—IEDs or roadside bombs, suicide attacks, Taliban assassinations of local officials, allied casualties and Afghan civilian casualties—the intensity of the insurgency has weakened significantly. The Afghan military and police, though not capable of taking the lead in the fighting in their own country, have been noticeably strengthened by American and NATO training missions. President Hamid Karzai's government, still considered weak and corrupt, has succeeded in putting an Afghan face on the war.
Democratic critics of General Petraeus, and of President Obama's surge strategy, were notably quiet this week as the general toured the capital's power hotspots from John Podesta's Center for American Progress to the American Enterprise Institute, while being feted as the hero of the moment and a potential presidential candidate in 2016. As in 2007, when he was appointed to oversee George W. Bush's surge in Iraq after the critics said it couldn't be done, the impressive charts the general brought to his congressional testimony once again vividly indicated otherwise. The situation in Afghanistan has undergone an Iraq-like change since the nadir of July 2010 when critics and proponents alike agreed that the nine-year-old war was foundering, the counterinsurgency strategy failing, and polling in the United States highlighted the war's increasing unpopularity.
"What a difference a year makes," said a jubilant senior official at the Pentagon. In just twelve months, as General Petraeus likes to describe it, he managed to synchronize the Afghan and Washington "clocks" and, in the process, as he had done in Iraq, took the news out of the war and the war out of the news. The latest Gallup poll indicates that up to 63 percent of Americans are now "supportive" of the general's approach to the Afghan War…
What Success Would Mean in Afghanistan
Okay, it hasn't happened yet—and the odds are it never will. But for a moment, just imagine stories like that leading the news nationwide as our most political general in generations comes home to a grateful Washington.
By all accounts, the Afghan War could hardly be going worse today. Counterinsurgency, the strategy promoted by General McChrystal but conceived by General Petraeus, is seemingly in a ditch, while the Taliban are the ones surging. Around that reality has arisen a chorus of criticism and complaint, left, right and center.
Failure breeds critics, you might say, the way dead bodies breed flies. Or put another way, it's easy enough to criticize a failing American project, but what about a successful one? What if Petraeus really turns out to be the miracle general of twenty-first-century American war-making—which, by the way, only means that he needs to "blunt" the Taliban surge (the modern definition of "winning," now that victory is no longer a part of the US war-making lexicon)?
Today, the increasingly self-evident failure of American policy in Afghanistan is bringing enough calls for firm drawdown or withdrawal dates (or, from the Republicans, bitter complaints about the same) to exasperate President Obama. Under the circumstances, no one evidently wonders what success would really mean. We've been down so long, it seems, that few bother to consider what being up might involve.
Too bad. It's worth a thought. Let's say that Petraeus does return to Washington in what, these days, passes for triumph. The question is: So what? Or rather, could success in Afghanistan prove worse for Americans than failure?
Let's imagine that, in July 2011, the US military has tenuous control over key parts of that country, including Kandahar, its second largest city. It still has almost 100,000 troops (and at least a similar number of private contractors) in the country, while a slow drawdown of the 30,000 surge troops the president ordered into Afghanistan in December 2009 is underway. Similarly, the "civilian" surge, which tripled the State Department's personnel there, remains in place, as does the CIA surge that went with it—and the contractor and base-building surges that went with them. In fact, the CIA drone war in the Pakistani borderlands will undoubtedly have only escalated further by July 2011. Experts expect the counterinsurgency campaign to continue for years, even decades more; the NATO allies are heading for the exits; and, again according to the experts, the Taliban, being thoroughly interwoven with Afghanistan's Pashtun minority, simply cannot in any normal sense be defeated.
This, then, would be "success" ten years into America's Afghan war. Given the logistics nightmare of supporting so many troops, intelligence agents, civilian officials and private contractors in the country, the approximately $7 billion a month now being spent there will undoubtedly be the price Americans are to pay for a long time to come (and that's surely a significant undercount, if you consider long-term wear-and-tear to the military as well as the price of future care for those badly wounded in body or mind).
The swollen Afghan army and police will still have to undergo continual training and, in a country with next to no government funds and (unlike Iraq) no oil or other resource revenues on the immediate horizon, they, too, will have to be paid for and supplied by Washington. And keep in mind that the US Air Force will, for the foreseeable future, be the Afghan Air Force. In other words, success means that, however tenuously, Afghanistan is ours for years to come.