General Petraeus wisely stays the course in Afghanistan

In his Senate confirmation hearing to become the war's new commander, Petraeus says it is more a matter of tweaks than a redesign of the campaign. Indeed, the strategy has yet to be fully implemented. Now is not the time to change it.

The war in Afghanistan against the Taliban is not going as planned: June has been the deadliest month for NATO forces there; the campaign in Kandahar has been delayed. At the same time, there has been a change in command of the American and international forces. Naturally, questions are being asked about strategy and tactics.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, wants to ensure that a “serious drawdown” of US forces begins in July 2011 – the date set by President Obama to start bringing troops home and transitioning to Afghan control.

Conservative critics and many military officers don’t like the deadline. It conveys the impression that America will run for the exits and leave Afghans in the lurch. Why should locals cooperate if, a year from now, the Americans will be gone, and the Taliban will return and retaliate?

Other concerns are being raised. Soldiers on the ground criticize the military’s limited rules of engagement that may spare Afghan civilians but endanger troops. Some experts and lawmakers add that the president must change his civilian team that’s dedicated to the region, and not just his top military commander.

And with success in disrupting Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan – with drone attacks playing an important role – the question still remains: Is a boots-on-the-ground war in Afghanistan the best way to combat terrorists in the region?

Ask away. These are legitimate concerns. Airing them is healthy. But now is not the time to change the president’s basic strategy: a surge in troops, a surge in civilian advisers, and a surge in development funds, so that responsibility for the war and rebuilding Afghanistan shifts to Afghans, and so that Afghanistan does not again become a terrorist haven from which to launch an attack against the United States or its allies.

In Senate confirmation hearings Tuesday, Mr. Obama’s designated commander – Gen. David Petraeus – said he would “look hard” at the campaign. But, he added, that look will be more about implementation than redesign.

Among possible “tweaks” are the rules of engagement for US forces in areas where militants and civilians might be mixed. “I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers on the ground,” the general said. At the same time, he intends to stick with the emphasis on reducing civilian casualties.

And Petraeus again stated that he supports and agrees with the July 2011 deadline as “the beginning of a process, not the date when the US heads for the exits.” The deadline, he said, conveys a sense of urgency to the Afghan leadership, but the pace of the tasks to be handed to the Afghans and the drawdown will be determined by conditions on the ground.

What’s getting through to Afghans, though, is the part about the deadline, and not the long-term commitment. It’s the latter that needs emphasis.

The reason why it’s not the right time to change the strategy is quite simple. It hasn’t been fully implemented yet. Troops, civilians, and funds are still deploying.

This combination needs a chance to take hold before it’s scuttled. And there are signs of progress: nearly 7 million children in school, roads and bridges built, and special operations capturing or killing about 130 insurgent leaders over the last few months.

At the end of this year, Petraeus will report to Obama on several benchmarks: security and violence within districts, the training of Afghan forces, the development of local government and services. That’s the more appropriate time to assess strategy.

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