Monday, November 30, 2009

The Future in Afghanistan from General Petraeus

The following article from Parade Magazine is written by Colonel Jack Jacobs, my company commander when I was in Infantry Officer Candidate School in 1969. He was an extraordinary young man as a captain then; he has become an expert commentator for NBC and has written his own book about his military experiences. As you will see at the end of the article, Jacobs was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam. He received this award just before our class graduated from OCS.

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He oversees U.S. forces in 20 countries—including Iraq and Afghanistan -
General Petraeus Gives A War Briefing

by Col. Jack Jacobs

published: 11/29/2009 in Parade Magazine

He looks like a wiry, weather-beaten cowboy, a coiled spring with a leather face. He talks quietly, in measured phrases. With a neutral accent you can’t quite place, his speech has a comforting cadence. Still, you can almost feel the dynamic tension in his brain as he pauses from time to time to choose his words carefully.

He is U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the boss of Central Command. He is responsible for everything that happens—or fails to happen—in an area of operations that spans 20 countries in Southwest and Central Asia, including two where American troops face danger and death every day: Iraq and Afghanistan.

As President Barack Obama recently studied his national-security team’s recommendations on how to prosecute the war in Afghanistan, I spoke with Petraeus at his headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.

Thirty-five years ago, I was an Army captain on the faculty at West Point, and Petraeus was a young cadet there. I remember him well. He was soft-spoken, but his eyes betrayed an intense, almost burning, spirit. I asked him why he became a soldier in the first place, and he said, “I lived not far from West Point and became familiar with its people. They had discipline and were dedicated, and I wanted to be just like them.”

Petraeus graduated among the top 5% of his class and chose to join the infantry. He became a paratrooper and a Ranger and was promoted rapidly. The Army sent him to graduate school, and he earned a Ph.D. from Princeton. In 2000, he was promoted to brigadier general. His subsequent rise from one star to four was extraordinarily swift.

Some critics say that Petraeus has always been voraciously ambitious, with his sights set on the highest rank and responsibility, but the general himself said, surprisingly, “Even at West Point I was never committed to a long career in the Army and instead fell in love with it incrementally.” Whatever his thirst for authority, he is now in charge of campaigns whose outcomes will affect America’s security for decades to come.

Petraeus made no bones about the problems he sees in Afghanistan, where operations are under the command of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who reports to Petraeus and was two years behind him at West Point. “Security has deteriorated in the course of the last two years,” Petraeus said, and he agreed with the assessment of his boss, Adm. Michael Mullen, who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the situation in Afghanistan is now perilous.

Petraeus acknowledges that after eight years of war against a determined and elusive enemy, many Americans, including some members of Congress, question whether the war in Afghanistan remains worth fighting. Petraeus himself, however, has no such doubts, even as he predicts that the campaign there could last another decade—or even longer.

After quickly ousting the Taliban and its al-Qaeda comrades in 2001, the general explained, the U.S. became preoccupied with Iraq. Afghanistan was ignored, and the enemy returned. Permitting Afghanistan once again to become a homeland for Islamic terrorists and revolutionaries—as it is currently on the verge of becoming—creates too much danger for a large portion of the world, Petraeus said. Like McChrystal, he believes that the U.S. must fight both the terrorists of al-Qaeda and the insurgents of the Taliban—and that doing so successfully will require more troops.

The decision to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq from the current 120,000 to about 50,000 by August will allow some troops to be shifted to Afghanistan, where about 68,000 Americans already serve. But what kind of forces does the U.S. need there?

“Afghanistan is not Iraq,” Petraeus said. “Iraq has had strong central government for a long time. Afghanistan has not.” His view on the nature of power in Afghanistan—namely, that village and tribal traditions are what matter—results in a strategy far less dependent on massive force and more on helping local leaders provide for, and protect, their people. From such a perspective, conventional units like infantry brigades are less useful than special-operations forces—small, nimble, clandestine outfits that can eliminate pockets of terrorists in the most inaccessible places and train local militias to defend themselves.

I asked whether the U.S. has enough unconventional troops to implement such a strategy effectively. “You’re right,” the general replied. “We don’t have sufficient people who are trained in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. But Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates has directed an expansion of these forces. It’s a growth industry, and we will get what we require.”

The war in Afghanistan is complicated by the nature of the enemy. Its fighters don’t wear uniforms that identify them as Taliban or al-Qaeda. “There is a wide spectrum of enemy,” Petraeus said. “There are a few true believers, but there are many others who support the enemy only because they feel threatened or intimidated and are just trying to survive.”

Any strategy the U.S. puts in place in Afghanistan will be affected by the problems of its neighbor, Pakistan, a nation that is politically fragmented, culturally divided, unable to control large swaths of territory within its own borders—and armed with nuclear weapons.

“I used to think that Iran was the most dangerous place on earth,” I told Petraeus, “but now I’m not so sure. It’s probably Pakistan.”

He reflected silently for a long moment. “To be sure,” he said finally, “Pakistan is dangerous. But something happened about six months ago that may improve security in the region for a long time to come. The Pakistani military, government, and clergy joined hands and dedicated themselves to the elimination of security threats inside Pakistan.”

After the U.S. invasion in 2001, Petraeus went on, the Taliban fled Afghanistan for the lawless tribal territories of neighboring Pakistan. There, its fighters lived largely undisturbed. Eventually, they began to operate openly and with ease. In April, they captured Buner, a district of 500,000 people only 60 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Though ultimately routed from the area, the Taliban’s resurgence was a wake-up call to Pakistan’s fractured leadership.

At the time of my conversation with Petraeus, Pakistan’s army was on the offensive in South Waziristan, a border province insurgents use as a staging area for attacks on Americans in Afghanistan. Thus far, the results on the battlefield had been good, but the Taliban was retaliating with deadly suicide bombings designed to weaken Pakistan’s resolve.

“The Pakistanis should be commended for their courage,” Petraeus said. Yet his statement begged the question of how long Pakistan’s fortitude can persist in the face of increasing carnage. Weakness in Pakistan will make Petraeus’ job in Afghanistan extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible.

Once the President settles on a strategy for Afghanistan, I asked, what will America need, besides more troops and good intelligence? “Time,” Petraeus replied, “and, as General McChrystal observed, lots of humility.”

Petraeus was deeply moved by an occasion in July 2008 when he presided over the simultaneous re-enlistment of hundreds of U.S. troops. Many had already served three tours in combat and were facing yet another separation from family and friends. “I don’t think I will ever forget the strength of their commitment to service and sacrifice,” he said.

I have met many generals and admirals. Many have often been outspoken, opinionated, and occasionally impolitic, especially in difficult circumstances. David Petraeus seems different. While all professed a love of their nation, Petraeus echoed my own experience and that of many other combat veterans.

“We fight to defend the country, and we fight to accomplish the mission,” he said. “But most of all, especially when combat is most difficult and dangerous, we fight for each other.”

Col. Jack Jacobs (U.S. Army, ret.) is the author of “If Not Now, When?: Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need” and the on-camera military analyst for NBC. He received the Medal of Honor in 1969 for bravery in combat in Vietnam.

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If you put a man in charge because you have faith in his leadership abilities, then LET HIM LEAD. General Petraeus has stated his plan for Afghanistan. Considering his success in Iraq, he should be given the chance to carry out his strategy in Afghanistan as well.

Charles M. Grist

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