Three Questions for Petraeus

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Senate hearings are now underway to confirm David Petraeus as the new top American commander in Afghanistan. (See Mark Thompson’s curtain-raiser here.) Here are three questions I’d love to see the general address:

Was Marjah a mistake? The main event in the war this year was the offensive to flush the Taliban from the Marjah district of Helmand Province. The offensive was meant to be a demonstration of how counterinsurgency, complete with “government in a box,” could be implemented in Afghanistan. In an unusual ploy, American military officials hyped the offensive for weeks beforehand–focusing vast amounts of media attention and raising expectations for success. Some media outlets referred to Marjah as a “turning point” in the war. Unfortunately, the offensive was at best a partial success, and maybe an outright flop. The Taliban is already resurgent in the area, and the promised local government never materialized. I’d be interested to hear Petraeus’s assessment of how and why the military so badly underestimated the Marjah challenge.

–What’s an Afghan life worth? A key element of the infamous Rolling Stone article that brought down Stanley McChrystal was the complaints it featured from U.S. troops about the light tough of counterinsurgency strategy, and the degree to which McChrystal’s obsession with limiting civilian casualities was endangering American lives. (“I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger,” one grunt told author Michael Hastings.) I can only imagine how maddening it must be for a soldier to limit his fire when he feels his life is at risk. This is an extremely fraught and complex question, of course, but all military actions involve some calculus that balances risk to soldiers against risk to civilians. And winning in Afghanistan is hard enough already, but will be nearly impossible if we’re killing large numbers of innocents along the way. (The Israelis struggle constantly with this, reaching shifting conclusions with very different effects, in Gaza and the West Bank. The NATO bombing campaign of Kosovo was conducted above the clouds, leaving pilots almost risk-free but increasing the danger of stray bombs that killed civilians.) It’s probably too delicate for him to spell it out with full candor, but I’d love to hear Petraeus talk about how many Americans he feels might have to die to protect Afghan innocents in the name of the larger war effort. Update: In the early going, Petraeus has already said he will review the rules of engagement.

What does success look like? I’m sure this question will be asked. But it seems worth flashing back to the fall of 2007, when David Petraeus was on Capitol Hill testifying about the Iraq surge, and then-Senator Barack Obama posed the question about that conflict this way:

General Petraeus, in the counterinsurgency manual that you wrote, it says that even the strongest U.S. commitment will not succeed if the populus does not perceive the host nation government as having similar will and stamina to our own.

The question, I think, that everybody is asking is, how long will this take? And at what point do we say enough?… I don’t see, at any point, where you say, if this fails, or if that does not work, or if we are not seeing these benchmarks met or any conditions in which we would make a decision now to start drawing down our troops. And you suggest, somehow, that our drawing down troops will not trigger a different set of behaviors on the part of the Iraqis, but I don’t see what will.

And if we’re there the same place a year from now, can you please describe for me any circumstances in which you would make a different recommendation and suggest it is now time for us to start withdrawing our troops? Any scenario? Any set of benchmarks that had not been met?

Substitute Afghanistan for Iraq and it sounds like a good question to me. Indeed, it might also be a fine question for the next presidential press conference. (Yes, Obama already plans to start withdrawing troops next summer–but the withdrawal will be gradual and conditions-based, and it’s still not clear just what conditions we’re waiting for….)