Why Petraeus Won't Salvage This War
As Gen. David Petraeus prepares
for his next command, his supporters are hoping he can rescue a failing war for
the second time in just a few years. But both the dire state of the war effort
in Afghanistan and his approach to taking command in Iraq in early 2007 suggest
that Petraeus will not try to replicate an apparent -- and temporary -- success
that he knows was at least in part the result of fortuitous circumstances in
Iraq. Instead he will maneuver to avoid having to go down with what increasingly
appears to be a failed counterinsurgency war.
Petraeus must be acutely aware
that the war plan which he approved in 2009 has not worked. Early this month, he received Stanley A.
classified assessment of the war, reported in detail in The Independent Sunday. That assessment showed
that no clear progress had been made since the U.S. offensive began in February
and none was expected for the next six months.
Petraeus is not going to pledge
in his confirmation hearings to achieve in 18 months what McChrystal has said
cannot be achieved in the next six months. Pro-war Republicans, led by John McCain,
are hoping that Petraeus will now insist that the July 2011 time frame be
eliminated, creating an open-ended commitment to a high and perhaps even rising
level of U.S. military
presence in Afghanistan.
But Petraeus is unlikely to let
himself get sucked into such an open-ended war, whether accompanied by a new
surge of troops or not. What distinguishes his approach to the daunting
challenge he faced in Iraq
from those of commanders in other major U.S. wars is the cold-eyed realism
with which he approached the question of whether or not his counterinsurgency
strategy would work.
As the author of a Ph.D. dissertation
on what the Army learned from the Vietnam War, Petraeus had always been
extraordinarily sensitive to the political dangers to military leaders of being
sent to fight a war that was unlikely to be won. And Petraeus had harbored deep
doubts about the Iraq
war from the beginning. That was the subtext of the remark, "Tell me how this
ends," which as commander of the 101st Airborne Division he often repeated
jokingly to a reporter in the spring of 2003.
In mid-2005, he told a retired
Army officer privately that it was already too late for counterinsurgency to
work in Iraq, because the United States
had lost the "critical mass" of the Sunni population to the insurgents.
What has been forgotten in the
popular narrative of the Petraeus turnaround in Iraq is that he had insisted from the
beginning on having a strategy for avoiding being tagged with responsibility if
the surge -- and his own counterinsurgency strategy -- did not work.
At his confirmation hearing,
Petraeus took the unparalleled step of telling senators,
"Should I determine that the new strategy cannot succeed, I will provide such
an assessment." And he went even further after arriving in Iraq. Petraeus told his staff he
would give the strategy "one last try" for six months, but if it wasn't working
by the time of his congressional testimony in September 2007, he would
recommend getting out, according to knowledgeable sources.
As late as July and August 2007,
as Petraeus's staff was beginning to work on his congressional testimony, they
were still debating whether the data in the previous months really showed a
trend that could be cited as the basis for such a claim. In the end, Petraeus
was able to convince the news media and the political elite that the strategy
was working. But the implication of his earlier understanding with the staff
was that he had been fully prepared to pull the plug on the U.S. military effort in Iraq if he had
concluded he couldn't make a convincing case that it was succeeding.
Petraeus can be expected to
approach his new command in Afghanistan
with a similar determination to limit his exposure to the danger of being
identified with a losing strategy. Sources familiar with Petraeus's
thinking believe he will carry out a complete review and evaluation of the
existing strategy as soon as he takes command.
Rather than renounce the Obama July
2011 timeline for beginning the transfer of security responsibility to the
Afghan government, Petraeus may wish to take advantage of that date as well as
the full evaluation scheduled for December 2010. He could use those dates as the basis for a
new variant of his early 2007 vow to determine whether the strategy he adopts
is working and to convey his assessment to the president.
Meanwhile, he will certainly wish
to begin the process of managing public expectations about progress by
providing a more sobering analysis of the magnitude of the problems he will
face in Afghanistan
than has been heard publicly from McChrystal thus far.
One of the purposes of the
reassessment of strategy will presumably be to identify objectives that need to
modified or dropped because they cannot be achieved. Petraeus may abandon
McChrystal's plan to expel the Taliban from key districts in Helmand and Kandahar provinces as a
metric of success, because it has proven to be beyond the capabilities of the coalition
forces and the Afghan government.
Petraeus's realism should align
him more closely with the Obama administration's approach than it did with that
of George W. Bush on Iraq.
With Bush, Petraeus had to manage a president who was always talking about
"victory" over the insurgents, whereas Petraeus was thinking in terms of political
accommodation, at least with the Sunnis. Both Obama and Petraeus now rule out
"victory" over the Taliban, and Petraeus, like Obama, foresees the possibility
of a settlement with the Taliban, with the involvement of the Pakistanis.
The coming months will test Petraeus's
ability to navigate the treacherous politics of command of a war that can be
managed only as a bloody stalemate at best. Salvaging the war could now be beyond
his means, but the general may yet find a way to save his own reputation.