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5 Questions for General Petraeus

5 Questions for General Petraeus

By Jed Babbin - June 28, 2010

In a hastily-assembled hearing tomorrow, Gen. David H. Petraeus will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee as a prelude to his confirmation as the new top commander in Afghanistan

Petraeus – author of the military’s manual on counterinsurgency warfare, who commanded the counterinsurgency in Iraq -- should, and likely will, receive the unanimous support from the committee.  But the hearing should nevertheless be a forum for a penetrating analysis of President Obama’s policy in pursuing the war.

Announcing Gen. McChrystal’s relief and Petraeus’s nomination, the president was emphatic in saying that his action was a change in people, not policy.  But the nation-building policy begun by President Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan and continued by Obama, is – by objective criteria – failing.  It deserves to be dissected publicly, and Petraeus is the best person to explain how it could work.

Here are some of the questions that committee members should pose.

Question 1:  The latest report to Congress by the ISAF commander was submitted in April.  The report says, in part, that the Afghan insurgency “…has a robust means of sustaining operations.”  It mentions the availability of weapons and the fact that the Taliban has “consistent streams of money to sufficiently fund operations.”  The money comes in part from the opiate trade and, “Externally, funding originates in Islamic states and is delivered via couriers and halawas,” an Islamic informal banking system. 

How can the counterinsurgency succeed unless these sources of funding are cut off?

Question 2: In his classic text, “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice,” the late David Galula writes that for an insurgent to succeed, he must have a cause – political, religious, economic or social – that the counterinsurgent cannot also espouse.  The Taliban’s cause is Islamic fundamentalism, seeking to reimpose what existed in Afghanistan before 2001 and which is a dominant force in neighboring nations such as Iran and perhaps Pakistan.  That cause is apparently succeeding in Afghanistan.  The April ISAF report says, “[Taliban] organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding…The strength and ability of [Taliban] shadow governance to discredit the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan Government is increasing.” 

What is the competing cause offered by the Afghan Government, and how can it be made more attractive than the Islamic fundamentalism that has existed in Afghanistan for decades or even centuries?

Question 3:  You would, presumably, agree that Iraq and Afghanistan are in many ways not comparable.  In Iraq, you had several advantages that are absent in Afghanistan, such as the rising of Iraqis against al-Qaeda known as the “Anbar Awakening” which apparently resulted from your actions in creating local security and gaining the trust of local sheiks.

What are the major advantages and disadvantages you foresee in Afghanistan and how do they compare with those you faced in Iraq?

Question 4:  The April report describes the Iranian involvement in Afghanistan in compelling terms. On one hand, Iran is giving some diplomatic support to the Karzai government.  But on the other, as the report says, “Most concerning, Iran continues to provide lethal assistance to elements of the Taliban, although the quantity and quality of such assistance is markedly lower than the assistance provided to Shia militants in Iraq. Tehran’s support to the Taliban is inconsistent with their historic enmity, but fits with its overall strategy of backing many groups to ensure a positive relationship with potential leaders and hedging against foreign presence.”

Can the counterinsurgency succeed without first terminating Iran’s lethal assistance to the Taliban?

Question 5:  Galula also wrote that an insurgency is a protracted struggle. He gives the examples of China (22 years), Greece (5 years), Indochina (9 years), Malaya (12 years) and Algeria (8 years).  The Taliban have been conducting their insurgency – in power and out -- since their movement began in earnest in about 1989.  British Prime Minister David Cameron has apparently set a firm deadline to withdraw British troops in 2015, and President Obama has established July of next year as the point at which we will begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.  In an assessment of Afghanistan last September, Gen. McChrystal wrote, “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."  We are now more than nine months through Gen. McChrystal’s year.  Last weekend, CIA Director Leon Panetta said that progress in Afghanistan is slower and more difficult than anyone anticipated.

The next major Afghanistan policy review will occur in December.  What measures of success or failure do you believe should be applied in December to decide the way forward?

President Obama once characterized Afghanistan as a “war of necessity,” but his strategy for pursuing that war has always been riven by internal inconsistency, doubt and disagreement within his team.  Announcing the troop surge in a speech to West Point cadets last December, he said, “As your Commander-in-Chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service.”  He said then, “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”

Al-Qaeda was never the dominant force in Afghanistan, only a parasite feeding off a willing host.  To achieve Obama’s goal, it is essential to defeat the Taliban and prevent its return. 

Petraeus should explain how that can – or can’t -- be accomplished in Afghanistan with Obama’s wavering policy.  If Iraq is the measure of the permanenance of what can be accomplished by the American method of counterinsurgency, the answer is clear: it cannot.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush.

Jed Babbin

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