Petraeus, The Reconcilables and Irreconcilables in Afghanistan
In a recent interview, General David Petraeus, the recently installed commander of Central Command (CENTCOM) and a centerpiece of John McCain’s national defense platform, granted an interview wherein he took a decidedly Obama-like view of improving the situation in Afghanistan. The heart of that advocacy was to suggest that a fruitful approach would be to try to separate what he called “irreconcilable” elements of the support base for the ongoing civil war from less committed, “reconcilable” portions of that support base. The target of these distinctions and strategy, of course, must be the Pashtuns, who form the basis both for the Afghan Taliban “insurgency” and the who occupy the territory in which Al Qaeda is located, principally in Pashtun regions of Pakistan.
Why has Petraeus made this apparent change of direction? There are at least three reasons which, in some combination, may have come into play. The first surrounds Petraeus himself. He is apparently a very smart person, with a strong, solid academic as well as military background. He did, for instance, earn an MA and PhD in international relations from Princeton, has served as an assistant professor of international relations at West Point, and has held various other positions within the Army’s educational system, including command at the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth and the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). None of this experience would have won him great support among the often anti-intellectual leadership of the “muddy boots” army (although his military branch is infantry). That he has risen to a four-star position given the amount of time he has spent in areas considered peripheral by the more conventional army speaks very well to what an impressive person he is. Moreover, he must be a superb military politician, or he would never have gotten multiple stars on his shoulders.
Second, his approach suggests at least some sophistication in his understanding both of the situation in Afghanistan and the preferences of his incoming commander in chief. Somewhere along the way at Princeton or Ft. Leavenworth, he must have tripped across enough Afghan history to know the improvidence of trying to conquer and occupy Afghanistan, as argued in this space. Moreover, the politician in him must have told him that a change in strategy that incorporated taking to the opponent would probably be wise if he wants to stay in the good graces of his incoming commander in chief. Indeed, it is not impossible to imagine that the election was liberating for Petraeus, facilitating his ability to pursue a course that his experience suggested anyway, rather than being tied to the neo-neanderthal approach of the Bush administration.
Third, trying to identify and encompass the “reconcilables” is very much a “hearts amd minds” approach to the problem, which is at the heart of the counterinsurgency doctrine with which Petraeus is most closely identified. Petraeus has admitted that a strategy of simply killing the insurgents will not succeed, and that stripping the political support of the Taliban to a manageable minimum is the only way to prevail. All of thid, of course, is classic COIN doctrine.
Will this change of emphasis work? The observation that the insurgents’ population base (the Pashtuns) is not uniformly sympathetic to or supportive of the Taliban is undoubtedly true: not all Pashtuns are predisposed toward the Taliban. The heart of the Taliban appeal, however, is to a very conservative religious ideology, and that has some resonance, particularly among rural Pashtuns who are the problem on both sides of the Durand Line. In other words, is it possible to reach the reconcilables and bring them into the pro-government fold?
There are at least three major impediments to this effort. One is logistical and military. Classic COIN doctrine requires clearing and holding liberated areas to facilitate he hearts-and-minds political conversion process. That requires much larger forces than are or are ever likely to be available to Petraeus. This is an extension of the COIN problem in Iraq; one estimate I have seen suggests about 300,000 troops would be needed in Afghanistan to implement fully the COIN strategy. Current force levels hover around 100,000; any approach to 300,000 requires many more competent Aghan National Army (ANA) forces than are or will become available anytime soon.
The second problem is political. It has two related aspects. One regards the current government. It is one of the world’s most corrupt, has little popular support, and indeed, its venality is one reason the Taliban is doing so well. David Petraeus can’t solve that. At the same time, one of the political characteristics essentially ALL Pashtuns share is that they dislike and are committed to expelling outsiders, particularly armed outsiders. It is not clear how one liberates and gains the confident support of people who view your presence as a unifying evil.
The third problem is the border question. A successful military action against the Taliban (as well as Al Qaeda) would simply drive them back into Pakistan. As Petraeus himself admits, coming to some accord with Pakistan for joint action is necessary for success. Given the instability of the Pakistan government, it is not clear how that problem can be overcome.
Petraeus’ latest revelations do not represent a clear blueprint for solving the Afghanistan morass. Talking to those Pashtuns who are not irreconcilably pro-Taliban may be a useful start, but there will still be a lot left to tackle. For the time being, what the General has done is to inject a bit more reality into US policy toward Afghanistan and to extent an olive branch toward President-elect Obama. Let’s hope it is a useful start, but don’t hold your breath it will lead to a quick resolution.