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Petraeus Takes Command as Afghan War Problems Escalate

4 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
For the second time in his career, Gen. David Petraeus has been handed control of a war that seems unwinnable.

Within hours of relieving Gen. Stanley McChrystal on Wednesday, President Barack Obama named Petraeus, who was the top commander in Iraq at that war's lowest ebb, as the new top commander in Afghanistan.

His problems will begin immediately, as Petraeus himself recognized a week ago discussing Afghanistan with the House Armed Services Committee:

"There will be nothing easy about any of this, to be sure,'' the four-star general testified, adding, "The going is likely to get harder before it gets easier.''

It's bad enough already, with the twin pillars of U.S. strategy -- to protect Afghanistan's civilian population and to support moderate, clean government -- seeming to recede by the week.

Nearly 100,000 U.S. troops are now in Afghanistan, yet security has never been so elusive for them or for Afghan civilians. So far this year, a record 153 Americans have been killed in IED attacks in what the United Nations calls "an alarming trend.''

Counting explosions that maim or kill Afghan civilians, the United Nations said IED attacks are up 94 percent over this period last year. Afghan officials are being assassinated at a rate of almost 30 a month. Suicide attacks, once unknown in Afghanistan, are occurring at a rate of about three per week, demonstrating "a growing capability of the local terrorist networks linked to al-Qaeda,'' the United Nations said.

Even as Petraeus was appearing at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, a female suicide bomber in Afghanistan detonated a bomb hidden under her burqa, killing two U.S. soldiers and injuring more than a dozen bystanders, wire services reported. The attack took place in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province.

Highlighting the inability of U.S. forces to protect Afghan civilians: 332 children were killed or badly injured between March and June, the United Nations reported. Taliban attacks on schools, which included putting IEDs inside classrooms, kidnapping and killing school staff , and arson, " increased steadily in the whole of the country,'' the United Nations said.

Much of the increase in violence, according to senior U.S. commanders, is because U.S. forces are pushing into areas in which the Taliban has had free rein. "And one thing that happens when Western forces show up in an area that is increasingly Taliban controlled is you get violence,'' said Stephen Biddle, senior analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

More Stanley McChrystal Coverage:

- McChrystal Relieved of Duty; Petraeus to Take Command in Afghanistan
- Jill Lawrence: Obama's Petraeus Move: Good Management -- Hold the Psychoanalysis
- Petraeus 'Best Hope' for Afghanistan, but War Issues Looming on Capitol Hill
- Transcript of President Obama's Remarks on Gen. Stanley McChrystal
- Walter Shapiro: McChrystal, Afghanistan, and the Era of Foreign Policy Austerity
- David Corn: Will a McChrystal Dismissal Be Bad News for War Critics?

That's one reason McChrystal had delayed a long-promised offensive in Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold: Local people, even if they do not support the Taliban, don't want "a big battle going on in their homes and neighborhoods,'' Biddle said.

Earlier this month, at a NATO meeting in Brussels, McChrystal explained why he had delayed until this fall sending more combat troops into Kandahar: People didn't want them there.

"When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them," McChrystal said at the time. "It's a deliberate process. It takes time to convince people."

That problem awaits Petraeus to resolve. So, too, does the problem of Afghanistan's fledgling army and police force.

Central to the U.S. strategy of providing security in Afghanistan is the accelerated recruiting and training of Afghan soldiers and police officers, but here, too, dismal news confronts Petraeus. This is critical, for Petraeus has cautiously signed on to the White House policy decision to begin turning over security to the Afghans by July 2011.

The United States has poured $25.2 billion into the effort to build Afghanistan's security forces, but those forces are a shambles, according to a new, independent assessment by the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan think tank. The Afghan security forces are riven by ethnic and sectarian tension, while factions of the Pashtun defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, and Army chief Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, are conducting a virtual war with each other.

There are other problems, including the Afghan army's inability to move, feed or resupply its own troops. Worse, the money and weapons the United States pumps into the army and police "feeds an illicit shadow economy,'' with factions within the security forces channeling the lucre through their own patronage networks and beyond into the black market, the report said.

This kind of factionalism and power corruption has infected the rest of government as well, hampering its ability to extend a positive presence much beyond Kabul. That has set back U.S. hopes that its nine-year investment in Afghanistan would result in better Afghan government. On this as well, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been a disappointment.

"The Karzai regime's unrestrained pursuit of power and wealth,'' said the ICG report, "has bankrupted its credibility.''

That gloomy assessment echoed a similar corruption investigation, this one into trucking and security contractors in Afghanistan hired to transport critical war supplies to the troops. The investigation, by a panel of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was prompted by reports that contractors were paying off Taliban not to attack truck convoys -- in essence, using Pentagon money in a protection racket.

The subsequent congressional findings confirmed these reports. What the Pentagon has inadvertently created, the report said, is "a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others.''

There's no other way to maintain the massive supply chain for heavy equipment coming by ship to Pakistan, except over land by truck, logistics offices say.

Yet the Pentagon's system of contracting "fuels warlordism, extortion, and corruption, and it may be a significant source of funding for insurgents,'' the House panel said, adding that the Pentagon "has been largely blind to the potential strategic consequences'' of this arrangement in which the Taliban may be buying weapons with American dollars.

Finally on the list of problems confronting Petraeus is what is widely considered a dysfunctional team of U.S. political, diplomatic and military officials with a hand in the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy.

Tensions exist, for example, because Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry want a rapid pull-out of U.S. troops in July 2011, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates (and Petraeus!) insist that any withdrawals be "based on conditions on the ground'' rather than on an artificial deadline.

Some analysts already are calling for Eikenberry's replacement with someone more like Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador in Iraq, with whom Petraeus formed a close working relationship. Together they devised a joint political-military strategy that guided each of their decisions -- precisely the kind of road map that's been lacking in Afghanistan.

"We face a very tough fight in Afghanistan,'' the president said Wednesday, as Petraeus stood by his side, slightly stooped as if already weighed down by the task ahead. "But Americans don't flinch in the face of difficult truths or difficult tasks. We persist and we persevere.''

And with that, Obama patted Petraeus on the shoulder in a "good luck'' gesture, and sent him on his way.

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