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Beyond the McChrystal, Petraeus drama: a counterinsurgency reality check

Given all the hurdles to a successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, it is not too early for Petraeus and Washington to begin thinking about Plan B.

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• It relies on Pakistan to take strong complementary actions against the Taliban and other militant groups, but the Pakistani security establishment still regards some of these groups as strategic partners.

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As he did in Iraq, Petraeus will likely bring many trusted military and civilian advisers with him to Kabul to conduct a new assessment of the situation. One can imagine that they will identify all of these problems. But in this case, knowing is not half the battle.

The biggest hurdles are not likely to change regardless of which general is in charge.

US commanders and diplomats can coax, cajole, and threaten President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders to govern effectively and curtail rampant corruption, but ultimately the Afghans have to decide for themselves that they want to do it. The US can train Afghan soldiers and police, but it cannot guarantee that they will put themselves on the line for their country. America can help build a central government, but only Afghans can choose whether they will be loyal to it. American commanders and diplomats can offer all kinds of incentives to Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban havens within its borders, but only Pakistan can decide whether it will actually pursue such efforts with much determination.

No matter who is in charge, then, success or failure in Afghanistan rides on factors beyond the commander’s control.

Though counterinsurgency may be the best way to secure US interests in South and Central Asia, in this case it assumes troubling levels of strategic risk. While many pundits suggest that this particular command change minimizes the disruption to ongoing military operations, this far higher order of risk is inherent to the strategy.

To be sure, there is still a distinct possibility that the US will succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, thereby enabling an orderly withdrawal of most US forces in the not too distant future. The situation in Iraq in early 2007 appeared similarly bleak before a fortuitous confluence of events produced a dramatic security turnaround. However, the appointment of a new commander does not fundamentally alter the rather grim dynamics working against the current strategy. Given all these considerations, it is not too early to begin thinking about what Plan B looks like.

Brian Burton is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan national security think tank in Washington.

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