Outside editorial: Petraeus is right man for job, but must still prove himself

Posted: Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Kansas City Star:

This was the easy part: Gen. David Petraeus won Senate confirmation on a 99-0 vote as the new Afghanistan war commander.

From here forward, it gets trickier.

The American story in Afghanistan now is of rugs, drugs and thugs. Afghanistan's legitimate options for economic success, including rugs, seem limited. Meanwhile, illegal drug money has drawn in and funded international terrorists, with the support of local Taliban, strict Muslims who rule through intimidation and piety.

President Barack Obama chose a fine replacement for Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Still, Americans should not expect huge changes, in strategy or results, anytime soon under Petraeus.

After all, he has been reviewing and helping plan what's been going on in Afghanistan for the last year. McChrystal was following the counterinsurgency manual trying to subdue the Taliban and get the country under control. Petraeus wrote that manual.

The tactic relies on applying a force surge to regain security, turning local insurgents who are turnable away from the enemy, and shifting responsibility to locals when they are ready. Petraeus worked this tactic well in Iraq in 2007. It's still early, but Afghanistan 2009-2010 doesn't yet look to be a success.

But, as Petraeus has noted, Iraq is not Afghanistan. As former Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker explained, Iraq had resources, was used to civil society and a functioning government, and valued education. The United States was rebuilding that nation.

In Afghanistan, none of the positives exist. It's building a nation from scratch.

Petraeus worked well with Crocker. One of McChrystal's failings was a disdain for the civilian leadership team, including Richard C. Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. Petraeus reportedly has already been in close contact with his civilian partners, and his history indicates that will continue.

Even so, the job in Afghanistan is huge, starting with creating a working partnership with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

But there are problems with Karzai. Afghans believe he stole the recent election. His aides say he is questioning whether "the West" is a good partner. And his family has been tied to the drug trade.

Perhaps Petraeus' single greatest success in Iraq was the Sons of Iraq program. In that, he took advantage of a growing dissatisfaction among Iraqi insurgents who had thrown in with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Before Petraeus approached, many were weary of violence against their fellow Iraqis.

One worry about Petraeus taking over the Afghanistan command is that troubles are creeping back into Iraq, involving many of the old Sons of Iraq. But Afghanistan now is the greater concern.

Petraeus is noted for the success of "the surge." The Afghan surge, however, is almost in place, and right now, it's meeting the bloodiest resistance to date. In June, 102 Western troops were killed, a new high for NATO. More than half the dead were American.

It's clear Petraeus is the right man for the job in Afghanistan. The question is, can he make the strategy work again?

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