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Petraeus, Afghanistan and the Lessons of Iraq

Written by George Friedman

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May 6, 2008
By George Friedman stratforgpit.jpg

Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded the surge in Iraq, was recommended April 23 by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to be the next head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, this means Petraeus would remain in ultimate command of the war in Iraq while also taking command in Afghanistan.


Days after the recommendation, there was yet another unsuccessful attempt on the life of Afghan President Hamid Karzai on April 27. Then, media reports May 3 maintained the United States might strengthen its forces in Afghanistan to make up for shortfalls in NATO commitments. Across the border in Pakistan, Islamabad and the Taliban neared a peace deal April 25, the first fruits of the Pakistani government’s efforts to increase its dialogue with the Taliban — though these talks appeared to collapse April 28. Clearly, there appears to be movement with regard to Afghanistan. The question is whether this movement is an illusion — and if it is not an illusion, where is the movement going?

Petraeus’ probable command in Afghanistan appears to be the most important of these developments. In Iraq, Petraeus changed the nature of the war. The change he brought to bear there was not so much military as political. Certainly, he deployed his forces differently than his predecessors, dispersing some of them in small units based in villages and neighborhoods contested by insurgents. That was not a trivial change, but it was not as important as the process of political discussions he began with local leaders.

The first phase of the U.S. counterinsurgency, which lasted from the beginning of the Iraqi insurgency in mid-2003 until the U.S. surge in early 2007, essentially consisted of a three-way civil war, in which the United States, the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite militias fought each other. The American strategic goal appears to have been to defeat both the insurgents and the militias, while allowing them to attrit each other and civilian communities.

Reshaping the Struggle in Iraq
Petraeus reshaped the battle by observing that the civil war was much more than a three-way struggle. Tensions also existed within both the Iraqi Sunni and the Shiite communities. Petraeus’ strategy was to exploit those tensions, splitting both his opponents and forming alliances with some of them. Petraeus recognized that political power in the Sunni community rested with the traditional tribal leaders — the sheikhs — and that these sheikhs were both divided among themselves, and most important, extremely worried about the foreign jihadist fighters from al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda ultimately wanted to replace the sheikhs as leaders of their respective communities. It used its influence with younger, more radical Sunnis to create a new cadre of leaders. The more U.S. pressure on the Sunni community as a whole, the less room for maneuver the sheikhs had. U.S. policy was inadvertently strengthening al Qaeda by making the sheikhs dependent on its force against the United States. Similarly, the Shiite community was split along multiple lines, with Iran deeply involved with multiple factions.

Petraeus changed U.S. policy from what was essentially warfare against the Sunnis in particular, but also the Shia, as undifferentiated entities. He sought to recruit elements previously regarded as irredeemable, and with threats, bribes and other inducements, forced open splits among Sunnis and Shia. In doing so, Petraeus also opened lines to the Iranians, who used their fear of a civil war among the Shia — and a disastrous loss of influence by Iran — to suppress both intra-Shiite violence and Shiite violence against Sunnis.

The result of this complex political maneuvering coupled with the judicious use of military force was a decline in casualties not only among American forces, but also among Iraqis from intercommunal warfare. The situation has not by any means resolved itself, but Petraeus’ strategy expanded splits in the Sunni and Shiite communities that he tried to exploit. The most important thing Petraeus did was to reduce the cohesion of U.S. enemies by recognizing they were not in fact a cohesive entity, and moving forward on that basis.

The verdict is far from in on the success of Petraeus’ strategy in Iraq. The conflict has subsided, but certainly has not concluded. Indeed, we have seen increased attacks in Sunni regions recently, while conflict with radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces in Baghdad is increasing. In many ways, the success of Petraeus’ strategy depends on Iran continuing to perceive the United States as a long-term presence in Iraq, and continuing to regard suppressing conflict among Shia important so the Iraqi Shia can constitute a united bloc in the government of Iraq. But the strategy is not foolproof; should the jihadists and some of the Sunni sheikhs decide to stage a countersurge in the months ahead of the U.S. election, the fabric of political relations would unravel with startling speed, and the military situation would change dramatically. Petraeus certainly has improved the situation. He has not won the war.

The Afghan Challenge
Applying Petraeus’ politico-military strategy to Afghanistan will be difficult. First, the ratio of forces to population there is even worse than in Iraq, making the application of decisive military force even more difficult. But even more important, unlike in Iraq — where the U.S. effort began purely on a military track — U.S. involvement in Afghanistan began on a political track much like Petraeus brought to bear in Iraq in 2007.

As we have pointed out many times, the United States did not actually invade Afghanistan in October 2001. That would have been impossible 30 days after 9/11. Instead, the United States made political arrangements with anti-Taliban factions and tribes to use their force in conjunction with U.S. airpower. The payoff for these factions and tribes was freedom from the Taliban and domination of the national government of Afghanistan, or at least their respective regions.

The first level of force the U.S. introduced into Afghanistan was a handful of CIA operatives followed by a small number of U.S. Army Special Forces teams and other special operations forces units. Their mission was to coordinate operations of new U.S. allies among the Northern Alliance — which had been under Russian influence — and among the Afghan Shia and Tajiks, who had been under Iranian influence. The solution ran through Moscow and Tehran on the strategic level, and then to these local forces on the tactical level.

Less than an invasion, it was a political operation backed up with airpower and a small number of U.S. ground forces. In other words, it looked very much like the strategy that Petraeus implemented in Iraq in 2007. This strategy was followed from the beginning in Afghanistan. Having forced the Taliban to retreat and disperse, the United States failed to prevent the Taliban from regrouping for two reasons. First, the political alliances it tried to create were too unstable and backed by too little U.S. force. Second, the Taliban enjoyed sanctuary in Pakistan, which Islamabad was unable or unwilling to deny them. As a result, the Taliban regrouped and re-emerged as a capable force, challenging insufficient U.S. and NATO forces on the ground.

It must be remembered that the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan in the first place because they were militarily capable and because they recruited a powerful coalition on their side. And there was another reason: The Pakistani government, worried about excessive Russian or Iranian influence in Pakistan and interested in a relatively stable Afghanistan, supported the Taliban. That support proved decisive. Various tribal and factional leaders calculated that given Pakistani support, the Taliban would be the most capable military force — and that therefore resisting the Taliban made no sense.

Petraeus faces a similar situation now. The amount of force the United States has placed in Afghanistan is not impressive. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force has just 47,000 troops deployed in a country of 31 million with a challenging geography. That 31 million has lived with war for generations, and has both adapted to war and is capable of fielding forces appropriate to the environment. Most tribes in Afghanistan calculate that the Americans do not have the ability to remain in Afghanistan for an extended period of time — as measured in generations. In due course, the Americans will leave.

The forces that had rallied to the U.S. standard in the first instance were those that had been defeated by the Taliban and forced to the margins. The majority of the country remained neutral on seeing the American entry or, at most, entered into tentative agreements with the Americans. Given their perceptions of U.S. staying power, the most rational thing for most of them to do is to pay lip service to the Karzai government — simply because it is there — while simultaneously either staying out of the fight or quietly aiding the Taliban. After all, the Taliban won before. If the Americans leave, there is no reason for them not to win again, at least in eastern and southern Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government also has paid lip service to fighting the Taliban, but clearly has not been effective in this fight. Moreover, the attempt of the new Pakistani government to negotiate with the Taliban signals that Pakistan’s old policy of accommodation toward the Taliban has not ended. While the Americans may go away, the Pakistanis are going nowhere. Standing with the Americans against a force that took Afghanistan once before — and still has not incurred the true enmity of Pakistan — is, put simply, a chump’s game.

Divide and Conquer?
Petraeus’ goal should be dividing the various factions of the Taliban as he did with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Attempting this very thing in Afghanistan has gone on for quite some time, but like trying to divide water, the Taliban flows back together remarkably quickly. The United States can always bribe the Taliban leaders, but it has been bribing them for years. They don’t stay bought.

In the meantime, the Afghan government remains in Kabul, ultimately dependent on the United States for its physical survival and infrastructure. Threats to Karzai and others are constant. Attempts are made to build national institutions, including military forces. But in the end, Afghan loyalty has never been to the nation, but to the tribe and the clan. So Karzai can rally the country only by building a coalition of tribes and clans. He has failed to do this.

In Iraq, the key was to supplement the military track with a political one. In Afghanistan, the problem is that there has always been a political track. And while pursuing this track worked at first, it has proven an unstable foundation for anything else. Its instability shook the Taliban out of power. And now the United States is facing this constant shifting.

If the problem in Iraq was introducing political suppleness, the problem in Afghanistan is the opposite: It is reducing the political suppleness. The way to do that is to introduce military force, to change the psychology of the region by convincing it that the United States is prepared to remain indefinitely and to bring overwhelming force to bear. That was the point of the U.S. announcement that it would take over the burden dropped by NATO.

The problem is that this is a bluff. The United States doesn’t have overwhelming force to bring to bear. The Soviets had 300,000 troops in Afghanistan. They held the cities, but the countryside was as treacherous for them as it is for the Americans. The force the United States can bring to bear is insufficient to overawe the tribes and cause them to break with the Taliban. And therefore, the United States is in a holding pattern, hoping that something will turn up.

That something is Pakistan. If Petraeus follows true to his Iraqi form — where he engaged the Iranians based on their own self-interest, inducing Tehran to rein in al-Sadr — then his key move must be to engage the Pakistanis in the fight against the Taliban. The problem is that it is not clearly in Pakistan’s self-interest to create a civil war in Pakistan with the Taliban, and the new government in Islamabad does not appear to have the appetite for such a struggle. And the Pakistani army continues to have elements sympathetic to the Taliban. If the army is not prepared to put up much of a fight in Pakistan’s northern tribal areas, it certainly is not looking for armed conflict with the Taliban — many of whose members are in fact Pakistani guerrillas — in Pakistan’s nontribal areas.

In sum, Petraeus improved the situation in Iraq, but he hasn’t won the war there. And applying those lessons to Afghanistan is simply repeating what has happened since 2001. Petraeus is a good general, so it is unlikely he will continue that same course. But it is also unlikely that he will be in a position to force the Pakistanis to deny Taliban sanctuary. We therefore don’t know what he will do in Afghanistan. But, as we have said before, it is a deteriorating situation, and he will be forced to act on it. That’s why he was placed at the helm of CENTCOM.

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