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General Petraeus's 'Anaconda Plan'

By HDS Greenway, The Boston Globe - April 28, 2009

LAST WEEK the most celebrated American general of our time, Central Command's David Petraeus, came to talk at Harvard University - four stars glittering on each shoulder, and an impossible number of campaign ribbons laddering his chest.

Petraeus is credited with turning around the Iraq war for George W. Bush, and is tasked with doing the same for Barack Obama in Afghanistan. You might say that respect for General Petraeus is one of the few bipartisan things left in Washington these days.

Petraeus shares with Obama an interest in Abraham Lincoln, and he met Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose "Team of Rivals" he had read. He had also read Bruce Catton's "Grant Takes Command," and said that he had often fallen asleep at night "reading about Grant in tough times."

Petraeus might be forgiven for comparing himself with Ulysses S. Grant, the general to whom Lincoln, after finding so many generals wanting, finally turned to get the Civil War won. Petraeus even spoke of a modern "Anaconda Plan" that had helped reduce Al Qaeda in Iraq, and could be revised for use against the Taliban in what is now called the Af-Pak theater - a recognition that Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of the same problem.

The anaconda, of course, is a large snake that encircles and squeezes its adversary to death before devouring it. Anaconda was a plan that the Union Army devised to squeeze the life out of the Confederacy in Lincoln's time.

Basically the idea was to take control of the Mississippi River in order to cut the south off from the west, and the Tennessee River Valley to deprive the Confederacy of agriculture, industry, and transportation hubs. This led to Sherman's march to Atlanta and the sea, cutting the Confederacy in two.

Grant captured the enemy's capital, Richmond, in an anaconda-like way, strangling it by cutting off all the city's approaches. But an absolutely key element of Anaconda was the blockade of southern seaports so that no aid could come from abroad, and no cotton could be exported to finance the war.

It took longer than anyone hoped or expected, but in the end it prevailed.

Petraeus makes no exact parallel between fighting a conventional war, such as Generals Meade and Lee fought at Gettysburg, and fighting an insurgency in South Asia. But it is the strangling part that interests him. He would throw coils of force around Al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters, not all of it military. He would use diplomacy, civil action, reconstruction, agriculture, as well as schools, even religious engagement in an inter-agency approach, involving many talents that the United States could bring to bear - "non-kinetic" activity, as they say in the military.

There would be a political side of the snake as well, making every effort to probe the fissures in the Taliban, to separate the "reconcilables" from the "irreconcilables."

There must be an emphasis on reconciliation, Petraeus said, because "you can't kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency."

On the "kinetic" side, however, you have to pursue the incorrigibles relentlessly. That's where the Afghan troop surge comes in.

Such strategies and tactics have helped in Iraq, he said, and could work again in Afghanistan, taking into account cultural differences between the two. "You have to apply it in a way that's culturally appropriate," he said. "You don't move into the village [in Afghanistan], you have to move on the edge of it." Iraq had a strong central authority; Afghanistan didn't.

Petraeus said he was encouraged that, unlike Iraq, there was a consensus in America that the Afghan war was the right one.

But as the naval blockade, sealing off the Confederacy from the outside world, was a crucial element in Lincoln's strategy, there is no way to cut off Afghanistan's porous border from its neighbor Pakistan. And because Pakistan is an ally, not an enemy, there is no way to cut off Pakistan from the outside world.

One has to wish the anaconda well, but I am more worried about the Islamic extremists' own python that is slowly but surely wrapping its coils around the weak and dispirited Pakistani government. Compared with Pakistan, Afghanistan is but a sideshow.

LAST WEEK the most celebrated American general of our time, Central Command's David Petraeus, came to talk at Harvard University - four stars glittering on each shoulder, and an impossible number of campaign ribbons laddering his chest.

Petraeus is credited with turning around the Iraq war for George W. Bush, and is tasked with doing the same for Barack Obama in Afghanistan. You might say that respect for General Petraeus is one of the few bipartisan things left in Washington these days.

Petraeus shares with Obama an interest in Abraham Lincoln, and he met Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose "Team of Rivals" he had read. He had also read Bruce Catton's "Grant Takes Command," and said that he had often fallen asleep at night "reading about Grant in tough times."

Petraeus might be forgiven for comparing himself with Ulysses S. Grant, the general to whom Lincoln, after finding so many generals wanting, finally turned to get the Civil War won. Petraeus even spoke of a modern "Anaconda Plan" that had helped reduce Al Qaeda in Iraq, and could be revised for use against the Taliban in what is now called the Af-Pak theater - a recognition that Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of the same problem.

The anaconda, of course, is a large snake that encircles and squeezes its adversary to death before devouring it. Anaconda was a plan that the Union Army devised to squeeze the life out of the Confederacy in Lincoln's time.

Basically the idea was to take control of the Mississippi River in order to cut the south off from the west, and the Tennessee River Valley to deprive the Confederacy of agriculture, industry, and transportation hubs. This led to Sherman's march to Atlanta and the sea, cutting the Confederacy in two.

Grant captured the enemy's capital, Richmond, in an anaconda-like way, strangling it by cutting off all the city's approaches. But an absolutely key element of Anaconda was the blockade of southern seaports so that no aid could come from abroad, and no cotton could be exported to finance the war.

It took longer than anyone hoped or expected, but in the end it prevailed.

Petraeus makes no exact parallel between fighting a conventional war, such as Generals Meade and Lee fought at Gettysburg, and fighting an insurgency in South Asia. But it is the strangling part that interests him. He would throw coils of force around Al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters, not all of it military. He would use diplomacy, civil action, reconstruction, agriculture, as well as schools, even religious engagement in an inter-agency approach, involving many talents that the United States could bring to bear - "non-kinetic" activity, as they say in the military.

There would be a political side of the snake as well, making every effort to probe the fissures in the Taliban, to separate the "reconcilables" from the "irreconcilables."

There must be an emphasis on reconciliation, Petraeus said, because "you can't kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency."

On the "kinetic" side, however, you have to pursue the incorrigibles relentlessly. That's where the Afghan troop surge comes in.

Such strategies and tactics have helped in Iraq, he said, and could work again in Afghanistan, taking into account cultural differences between the two. "You have to apply it in a way that's culturally appropriate," he said. "You don't move into the village [in Afghanistan], you have to move on the edge of it." Iraq had a strong central authority; Afghanistan didn't.

Petraeus said he was encouraged that, unlike Iraq, there was a consensus in America that the Afghan war was the right one.

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