In the Arena

Four Decisions for Petraeus

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The New York Times has a vital piece today about the negotiations apparently taking place between Hamid Karzai and the Pakistanis. If it is true that the Pakistanis can deliver the Haqqani Taliban faction–which the American military considers the most vicious of the three main Taliban groups–then we may be at a turning point in this struggle. It is a tricky turning point, though. At least two other countries need to be consulted, if not included, in these talks: the U.S. and India. If Karzai decides to act precipitously in making peace with the Pashtun Taliban, he could lose the support of much of his country–the north and west, and the Afghan National Army, which is overwhelmingly non-Pashtun.

How to handle this situation is a decision for the full U.S. government, not just the military. Richard Holbrooke, who remains the best diplomatic negotiator in the Administration, needs to be front and center here. And that raises some immediate questions confronting David Petraeus as he assumes his new command:

1. How to deal with Hamid Karzai? No one has been very successful at this, though McChrystal was more so than most–largely because he allowed Karzai to have the final say over major NATO military operations. How will Petraeus see Karzai: as the boss (the final arbiter of military action), a partner or a subordinate? The latter is clearly out–those who’ve gotten into fights with Karzai, like Holbrooke and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, have lost. But the former isn’t getting us anywhere. Petraeus had some dicey moments with President Maliki in Iraq, but he managed to build a successful partnership. Can he do the same in Afghanistan? (One big problem: Maliki was the exact opposite of Karzai, pushing for more aggressive military action–and it was his unilateral decision to attack Basrah that finally made him a credible president in the eyes of Iraqis.)

2. How to deal with the State Department? There is much chatter on the right about bringing back Petraeus’ old partner, Ryan Crocker. That’s not going to happen. Nor is Petraeus going to have the free hand in Afghanistan that George W. Bush gave him in Iraq; he will not be a proconsul, just an important cog in the chain of command. Furthermore, Obama’s vehement insistence that the policy is not changing was, I am told, a momentary show of support for the other players in the Afghan drama. At this point, as I said above, the crucial player should be Holbrooke. He and Petraeus have quietly built a solid relationship over the past year, which reflects the close relationship Petraeus has had with Holbrooke’s boss, Hillary Clinton. Like it or not, I suspect these two men will have to hash out a diplomatic strategy–and do it quickly–that both can live with. These are two extremely talented men, with strong views. It is absolutely essential that they operate from the same page.

3. How to Deal with the McChrystal legacy? For the troops, the most controversial aspect of McChrystal’s command wasn’t his comments, but his rules of engagement–which were enacted in order to protect Afghan civilians, but which most troops considered an unwieldy straitjacket, preventing them not just from closing on the enemy but also, in some cases, from protecting themselves adequately. Petraeus also emphasized protecting the civilian population in Iraq, but he used a less restrictive set of rules of engagement. This will be a big intra-military question he’ll have to answer: will he continue McChrystal’s strict rules, or will he modify them?

4. How to Deal with His Own Legacy? This is the biggest question, and it is entirely dependent on the answers to the three questions above: can counterinsurgency succeed if Afghanistan? Can it succeed against its own bedrock principles–like the absolute need for a reliable host government? And can it succeed given the violations in strategy that Petraeus and McChrystal have already countenanced in Afghanistan–like the decision waste resources (especially Afghan resources, like their best Army and Police units) to chase bad guys in Helmand Province rather than focusing on protecting the population in Kandahar? It is entirely possible that Petraeus, who was extremely creative when it came to seizing the opportunities presented to him in Iraq, is going to have to revise the strategy and the tools he is using in Afghanistan. The future of the war effort depends on his ability to be flexible here.