In the Arena

Petraeus Wants More Time

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Well, of course he does. It is the nature of David Petraeus to move mountains to achieve his mission–and the immediate mountain sitting in front of him is the Obama Administration’s December policy review, which will determine how quickly we start to leave Afghanistan in July 2011.

Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal came away from the last policy review, in the fall of 2009, with the distinct impression that the 2011 date would not signal the beginnings of a precipitate bugout. I was told by Administration officials at the time that there might be NATO withdrawals in 7/11–the Germans from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, for example–and some cosmetic American reductions, but the main fighting force in the Taliban-infested south and east would continue its work until the mission was accomplished. (There has been been a fair amount of withdrawal-hyping by supporters and opponents of the war in the months since, but no basic changes in the plan laid out last December.)

The biggest problem Petraeus faces is the prospect of no significant progress–and perhaps even some regress–between now and December. The growing notion that Afghanistan is a helpless sinkhole would lead more than a few Obama aides to conclude that a new strategy is needed. The most plausible alternative is Joe Biden’s rejection of labor-intensive counterinsurgency in favor of targeted special ops and drone attacks, designed to inflict pain on the Taliban leadership–and the Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, if we can find them. Indeed, the special ops piece of the war is about the only thing that’s working now.

Given the slow pace of COIN, the possibility that measurable progress can be demonstrated between now and December is a longshot. Petraeus is focusing on the right areas to address–Afghan corruption and the need for the Karzai government to perform credibly outside of Kabul. But it seems clear that the General is going to mount a media blitz to lobby for a steady-as-you-go policy until July 2011. It’s not impossible that he’ll get his wish, but his chance of getting the extra six months is going to depend very much on demonstrable progress between now and December.

(By the way, the argument that we can’t really judge the Obama strategy’s success yet because all the troops haven’t arrived is a bit of a phony. Almost all the troops have arrived–and, unlike Iraq, the increased presence of U.S. troops in the streets is a less important piece of the equation here. The most important part of the equation is the need for the Afghan government to step up with a competent Army, honest cops, a judiciary system that provides honest justice faster and firmer than the Taliban impose sharia law, education and development projects. We could send another 100,000 troops, but if the Afghans don’t start providing those services yesterday, this mission will surely fail.)