Afghanistan war: Top three challenges facing General Petraeus

Topping General Petraeus' to-do list in the Afghanistan war: Making his own counterinsurgency strategy work in Afghanistan where General McChrystal could not.

By , Staff Writer

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    Afghanistan war: Gen. David Petraeus, pictured in this June 16 photo, will be taking on a bigger challenge than the one he confronted at the dawn of the Iraq surge in 2007.
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Gen. David Petraeus, the commander viewed by some in Washington as the man who single-handedly turned around the Iraq war, will be taking on a bigger challenge than the one he confronted at the dawn of the Iraq surge in 2007.

He’ll be in charge of a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan that’s just getting under way, much as he was in Iraq. But he’s starting almost nine years into this current war, rather than three years in as he did in Iraq. That means he faces more entrenched power players. Historically, the longer an army takes to shift to counterinsurgency strategy, the lower the odds are of success, as a study found last year. And sustaining the Afghanistan war – now costing over $70 billion a year – is taking its toll on American and Afghan public support. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the cost of the war.]

The remarks that Gen. Stanley McChrystal made to Rolling Stone magazine are the reason that Petraeus is replacing him, but it’s also the case that the war effort and the COIN strategy has not been going well.

Recommended: Petraeus scandal: Did anything illegal happen? Five questions so far.

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan

General McChrystal boasted of success ahead of an operation in the town of Marjah, but afterward struggled to deliver the kind of governance needed to prevent the Taliban from coming back. Before McChrystal's ouster, war-planners indefinitely postponed a major offensive due to start this month in the southern province of Kandahar in order to rethink their approach.

Meanwhile, the country remains as violent as ever. With six days left in the month, June 2010 is already officially the deadliest for foreign troops in Afghanistan since the war began, with 79 casualties.

With Petraeus expected to sail through congressional confirmation hearings early next week, what are some of the key challenges he will face when he takes charge in Kabul?

Making COIN work

In US military circles, Petraeus is the godfather of COIN. The counterinsurgency approach hinges on protecting local populations from insurgents as much, or more than, chasing the enemy. Also crucial is quickly demonstrating the fruits of peace after groups like the Taliban are cleared from an area by bringing in capable government and development projects.

The approach has been widely credited with turning Iraq around, though there’s a growing community of scholars and strategists in the US who argue that Iraq grew more peaceful for other reasons. The US showed a new willingness to buy off Sunni Arab insurgents in that country and widespread religious cleansing in Baghdad and a number of other hotly contested cities before the campaign began meant there was less dry tinder on the ground to burn.

“What actually happened in Iraq wasn’t what people in Washington think happened,” says Col. (ret.) Pat Lang, a former head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency’s Middle East desk.

Petraeus’s job is to prove people like Lang wrong. The strategy is often described as a three-pronged approach of clear (meaning fighting to get the Taliban area out of an area), hold (keep them out), and build (both government and infrastructure). The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF) that Petraeus will take charge of has only been good at the first so far.

Afghan Corruption and the Karzai government

Petraeus will be saddled with a strategic partner – the administration of President Hamid Karzai – that is increasingly unpopular and at times seems out of touch. The election that brought Karzai to power was badly marred by fraud.

After the “clear” phase in Marjah, where the Taliban were partly able to take power because of the predations of corrupt central government officials and local warlords, the government McChrystal sought to install has yet to take root.

In Kandahar, the next major push for the international effort, Mr. Karzai's half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, is one of the local warlords and has grown wealthy since the war began. Locals have accused him of seizing land by force and being involved in smuggling. Many Afghans say he’s involved in the opium trade, a charge he has denied.

“In eight years [President Karzai] hasn’t been able to bring democratic, accountable government so I don’t know why anyone would think he will now,” says Rahman Oghli, a member of parliament from the northern Faryub Province and an opponent of the government. “The people in government and around Karzai have been lining their pockets and the people know this.”

In a leaked diplomatic cable last year, US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, said Karzai was an ineffective partner that called into question the ability to carry out COIN successfully.

Petraeus's task will be to get Karzai in tune with the US, even as the US pushes to stop the corruption that many Afghans say infuriates them and has simultaneously enriched many of the powerful in Kabul.

Getting civilians and the military to work together

A crucial component of the COIN strategy is getting USAID, civilian diplomats, and contractors to work closely with the military to bring the development and aid in the wake of military operations that the strategic theorists expect will win hearts and minds.

But so far, coordination has been poor. McChrystal had a frosty relationship with the Mr. Eikenberry, and the civilian and military sides had little experience in working in concert as they’re being asked to.

Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) called for more leadership changes at the US Embassy in Kabul in an interview with "Good Morning America" on Wednesday. “The relationship between civil and military is not what it should be,” he said. He said he understood why McChrystal was fired and supported the decision. “I also point out to the president, with my strong support of Petraeus, we also need a new team over there as well – perhaps at the embassy and other areas."

The good news for Petraeus is that major efforts have been made to address the problem since the year began. Civilian “commands” to coordinate with local NATO military commanders have been set up throughout the country, and diplomats in Kabul say they’re bearing some fruit – never mind that McChrystal went after both Richard Holbrooke, Barack Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Eikenberry in his Rolling Stone interviews.

If Petraeus can find a way to get aid spent more effectively and quickly in the midst of military operations, that will be a major step forward.

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan

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