Petraeus’ Advice (04 May 2009)

Pakistan will become a ‘mortal threat’ if the Taliban manage to take power in that country, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in recent testimony before Congress. The immediate cause for this warning was the agreement the government of Pakistan has entered into with local leaders of the Taleban permitting the introduction of Islamic Sharia law in the Swat-Valley adjoining the Afghan border. The Taleban has, moreover, advanced to approximately 100 km from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Clinton suggested that with present trends the Pakistani nuclear bomb may fall into the hands of the extremist Muslim movement. A mortal threat.
The developments in Pakistan are negating the plans of President Obama to make a new start in Central Asia. At the Afghanistan conference held this spring in The Hague, a list was unveiled topped by the demand to win the hearts and minds of the population through durable assistance and restrained military behaviour. Clinton, when speaking in The Hague, offered the Dutch approach in the province of Uruzgan as a model for the United States and other partners in the NATO effort to stabilize Afghanistan.
The American military leaders think differently. They do not think that the allies are sufficiently vigorous. By withdrawing troops from Iraq more manpower will become available for Afghanistan. With money and fine words the local warlords and clan leaders must be seduced to choose the side of the invader. But the actual American presence ‘on the ground’ is at least as important in the thinking of the generals as are the good intentions of the new planners. If need be the allies can simply stay home is the audible complaint among those wearing stars.
How serious matters have become is illustrated by remarks made by the commander of the US Central command – of which Afghanistan is a part. Gen David Petraeus, architect of the ‘surge’, the temporary reinforcement of American troops in Iraq in 2007 (which according to prevailing propaganda has delivered results) has declared: “We do believe we can achieve progress [in Afghanistan], but it’s going to get worse before it gets better. When you go into the enemy’s sanctuaries, they will fight you for it. There will be tough months ahead, without question.” He also had a recipe for overcoming the huge dilemma with which the Americans are confronted – how to fight a motivated and well trained opponent in the midst of a population that is not at all inclined spontaneously to choose the side of the Westerners, but whose sentiments must nevertheless be respected. Petraeus: “You have to apply it [the U.S. strategy] in a way that’s culturally appropriate. You don’t move into the villages; you have to move to their edge.”
“Tough months ahead!” Or tough years? Or tough decades? The British and the Russians have in the days of ‘the great game’ broken their teeth on Afghanistan. The Russians did so once again in the 1980s. It is now the turn of the Americans and their partners to repeat the exercise in a nightmare-like scenario which they have authored themselves. What were heroes for the free world when the Russians were trying to control the area are, today, corrupt political leaders for sale. But the NATO allies are placing their bets on them.
Gloomy thinkers – or realists – have warned Pres Obama that Afghanistan could well become the geopolitical quicksand that will suck in and smother his government. The Americans have of course plenty of experience in quicksand territory: Vietnam and Iraq are the examples now frequently pointed at. But it applies also to Pakistan, in whose political quicksand Washington, through the invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, has more and more been drawn without the ability to exercise any control whatsoever on the course of events.
Behold the failed attempt to swing things around in the Pakistani forcefield by the George W Bush government when it reintroduced Benazir Bhutto. She had been judged capable to keep the Taleban plus the military government of Gen Musharraf under her thumb, all the while promoting democracy as well. What is the reality today? The Pakistani democracy, or what passes for it, is making room for the Taleban. The Pakistani military secret service remains narrowly connected with the fighters for Allah, while the Armed Forces engage in pretence; they act as if their fight against the Taleban is something serious.
Under the circumstances a new beginning of American policy in the area is obviously completely out of the question; and they have conspired to push the United States in a disastrous mess. The mess originates in an idea that Americans have about themselves. In the eyes of the average American their country cannot be “simply a nation among nations”, as Roger Cohen formulates the thought in a review article for the New York Review of Books. Cohen: “America was born as an idea, and so it has to carry that idea forward. It is in many ways the last ideological country on earth. We all know that India and China are rising, but we’d be hard pressed to say what they stand for. An American revival without its universalist embodiment of liberty, democracy, the rule of law and free enterprise seems to me impossible; the trick is in how that’s done in an interconnected world where problems require joint action”.
Much would be gained by an open acknowledgement on the part of President Obama that the United States is, after all, simply a nation among nations, and will operate as such. The first chore within that revised plan of operations would be to give up the ideologically inspired positions “in the villages and even at the edges” of other countries. That would be in line with Petraeus’ advice about a ‘culturally appropriate’ strategy.