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Petraeus Takes Command as Afghan War Problems Escalate

5 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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The Taliban is more the enemy of the Arabs than the West. The Taliban want to impose their version of Islam throughout the Middle-East. We are fighting a war in Afghan that the Arabs should be fighting (BO knows that in his heart). Unless the Afgans train up their forces soon to resist the Taliban we should not be surprised if Karzi doesn't strike a compromise with them. We leave with the promise that if they give us any future trouble we will slag them. We will still be gunning for al-Quada wherever they hole up.

June 27 2010 at 12:28 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Okay, McChrystal made the big mistake and was forced to resign. He was told from his first day at West Point that he was not allowed to critisize his commanding officer. He did the only honorable thing he could do. Obama could have been a little more diplamatic about how he handled the situiation, but this is Obama we are talking about. Now people need to start asking questions, like, are things as bad in Afgahnistan as McChrystal hinted? Does Obama have a plan that is even close to being realistic? Greater Military minds than Obama's have tried and failed to win in Afghanistan, so is he wasting the lives of American's on a no win situation? Bush messed up a lot of things in his 8 years in office, but he listened to his Military when they said Afghanistan was a loose, loose situation and he made the minimum investment in Afghanistan that NATO would allow.

June 24 2010 at 11:28 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

This is so much like LBJ and Vietnam. Is this a characteristic of Dem Presidents? LBJ wanted to run the war and would not take advice from the officers on the ground and consequently the war dragged on with no goal, no aim. I hope this is not what will happen in Afghanistan but Obama's paranoia or perhaps ego has set himself up to be the blame of whatever goes wrong. Interestingly, Obama's most rabid supporters and writers nicknamed Patraeus as "Betrayus" just a few months ago. In Obama, or liberal fashion, the bar has swung 180 again and he is the savior. This is not looking good. Bush selected a goal in Iraq and stuck to it and even Obama has admitted that it worked (which is why he kept Gates on as Sec of Def from the Bush administration). This "revolt of the generals" does not bode well for this administration, the same group of advisors who waited nearly 90 days to send McChrystal the reinforcements that he asked for when his troops were being overwhelmed by the insurgents coming in from teh failed war in Iraq. In those 90 days, an awful lot of US soldiers died. Yes, this is beginning, for the first time, to look like the Vietnam White House.

June 24 2010 at 9:26 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Truwriter's comment

There are some similarities. Both are two-President wars. In Vietnam, President Johnson started the war escalation in 1965 and by 1968 there were about one-half million US troops in Vietnam. During this entire period General Westmoreland was in command and was quite successful until caught unawares by the Tet Offensive in January 1968. After this set back Westmoreland recovered militarily, but was replaced by General Creighton Abrams in June 1968. The principal disagreement that Westmoreland had with President Johnson was that Westmoreland wanted to expand the war into Cambodia and Laos. By January 1969, President Johnson was replaced by President Nixon who was the President when the war officially ended in January 1972. Early in his Presidency, Nixon began troop withdrawals, but continued the policy of massive aerial bombing. In 30 April 1975 Saigon fell and North Vietnam now controlled South Vietnam. So after about ten years the US was back where it started. Today the country of Vietnam is a functioning partner in international markets. That’s about it….

June 24 2010 at 11:05 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Get over it. This is America and like the great American pastime: three strikes and Yer Out!

June 24 2010 at 7:07 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

...this isn't a war where we defeat a country like Japan or Germany. Afghanistan is a place where the terrorists of the world gathered to train and cause havoc. Remember 911, the USS Cole, our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Marine barracks in Lebanon. We are trying to rid the world of a training ground for these people. Its hard to fight when there are no uniforms to tell the good guys from the bad so this becomes a psychological war. Win the people over. When the people will stand up for their country they can push the bad guys out but they remember the oppressive Taliban and they are afraid we'll leave and they'll come back. When you tell them we'll be gone in the summer of 2011 you already lost their trust.

June 24 2010 at 7:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Obama made a mistake. Of course, those who elected him also made a mistake that the rest of us are literally paying for now.

June 24 2010 at 6:46 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply

While our Troops fight the President is crying about someone telling the truth instead of smoke and mirrors like he always does! Time for a change starting in november.

June 24 2010 at 6:39 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply

read McNamara's book "on reflection" ...and see where this war is headed! The scenario is similar to Viet Nam.

June 24 2010 at 6:31 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

One of my good friends in the Army just deployed to Kandahar and my nephew is in the Navy. With it being the deadliest month since the war started we are praying for our troops.It is time for the Whitehouse and congress to stop all this almost criminal nonsense!

June 24 2010 at 6:19 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

Afghanistan is not a orginized country with a central goverment for and by the people.
How do you fix it ?
Lots of money.
Loss of lifes.
Lots of time.
Lots of luck.

June 24 2010 at 5:50 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply

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