Petraeus Is the Problem

07/01/2010 12:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is amazing how little commentary there has been on the key issue raised by the McChrystal Affair: Should U.S. war policy be made by Rolling Stone? The very fact that it took a magazine article for President Barack Obama to remove Gen. Stanley McChrystal provides the strongest possible reason for allowing Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban.

One point must be understood above all: McChrystal was not fired because he disrespected civilian authority, despised his administration colleagues and was running a dysfunctional operation. He was ousted because he allowed the public to find out -- the one unforgivable sin for a U.S. executive branch long accustomed to operating its wars with little public or congressional knowledge or accountability, behind a PR curtain maintaining the myth that U.S. foreign and military policy is conducted democratically.

If the Rolling Stone piece had not appeared, McChrystal would still be running the war in Afghanistan, still ignoring e-mail messages from Richard "Wounded Beast" Holbrooke, still feeling betrayed by Karl "Traitor" Eikenberry, still blowing off Joe "Bite Me" Biden and James "Clown" Jones, and still disparaging Barack "Disengaged" Obama.

Gen. David Petraeus' role in the affair is particularly significant.

Petraeus is by his own testimony a close personal friend of his protégé, and he was primarily responsible for McChrystal having been appointed to head U.S. forces in Afghanistan. It is inconceivable that he did not know how McChrystal felt about his civilian team members, or was unaware of their inability to work together. If the McChrystal cohort talked this way in front of a reporter, can you imagine how good buds Dave and Stan talk about a Holbrooke, Biden or Obama over a cold one with no one else around?

Petraeus' failure to act before the scandal occurred means he failed as CentCom commander. One of his major responsibilities was obviously to assemble and deploy a smoothly functioning team to conduct military and political warfare in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater -- one of the most sensitive arenas in which the U.S. has operated since the end of World War II.

Petraeus' failure is matched, of course, by that of Obama and his top advisers. Neither Petraeus nor Obama should have needed a magazine profile in order to reorganize a team that was clearly broken.

And will this team be able to work together now? Does Petraeus, who has been chosen to take over military operations in Afghanistan, have any more respect than his protégé for Holbrooke, whom he has referred to as "my diplomatic wingman"? Does he resent the Eikenberry cables any less, or admire Joe Biden or Barack Obama any more?

Petraeus is of course far more politically astute than McChrystal, and is unlikely to allow us to peer again into the dysfunctional mess behind the curtain. Indeed, his many admirers in the media can be expected to convey the message that his new team is functioning smoothly. But it is unlikely that the team that will now run the "AfPak" war will function behind the scenes any more effectively than it did before, because the problem is not one of personalities but policy failure.

The lesson of the McChrystal affair is stark: America is losing, badly. As the New Statesman reported June 22: "The Taliban have now advanced ... to the very gates of Kabul [and] control more than 70 per cent of the country. According to a recent Pentagon report, Karzai's government has control of only 29 out of 121 key strategic districts." The U.S. has been unable to successfully wage Petraeus' "COIN" counterinsurgency strategy in southern Afghanistan because this strategy requires a competent local government, not the criminal syndicate of relatives, cronies and warlords presided over by Karzai.

As Richard Holbrooke failed to learn in Vietnam, the United States cannot turn a corrupt, unpopular and undemocratic government into one capable of running a country--particularly in areas where the population identifies with its opponents. In one of the most hard-to-believe but significant reports during the Marjah offensive in Afghanistan, the New York Times cited Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand province, as saying: "We've got to re-evaluate our definition of the word 'enemy.' Most people here identify themselves as Taliban. We have to readjust our thinking so we're not trying to chase the Taliban out of Marja, we're trying to chase the enemy out." This incoherence from a general helping lead the U.S. offensive!

If the U.S. were succeeding in Afghanistan, its policymaking team would be functioning relatively smoothly, with each player privately taking credit for success and publicly patting each other on the back. But, as in the present situation, failure has no fathers. Key players who see their reputations going up in flames seek above all to let it be known that they are not responsible for defeat. Vice President Biden and Ambassador Eikenberry have every reason to complain that the military is not taking their advice, which then fosters resentment in Gen. Petraeus, who is not about to take instruction from "wingman" Holbrooke, who undoubtedly wants to be taken more seriously.

It is possible that Petraeus can achieve something that can be sold to the American people as a "victory" -- at least until after the 2012 presidential race, which is obviously Obama's top priority. FOX News has reported that "a military source close to Gen. David Petraeus told FOX News that one of the first things the general will do when he takes over in Afghanistan is to modify the rules of engagement to make it easier for U.S. troops to engage in combat with the enemy," i.e., a return to an earlier U.S. policy of attacking population centers and thus killing civilians.

Perhaps this more "kinetic" (read brutal) strategy, combined with increased assassination, reported by the New York Times to already be "a high priority, with a tripling of ... elite Special Operations units over the past year", the additional U.S. troops and a delay in promised U.S. troop withdrawals, can prevent a total collapse of the Karzai government. According to former CIA agent Mark Sageman, a key Taliban weakness compared to the Mujahadeen in the late 1980s is a lack of Stinger missiles capable of bringing down U.S. aircraft.

Petraeus' record since becoming head of Central Command, however, gives little reason for optimism. The general's aura of success from the Iraqi surge is such that he has escaped blame for the fact that it is his policy even more than McChrystal's that has failed in Afghanistan. And there has been virtually no discussion of his even greater incompetence in escalating the war into Pakistan, which threatens a long-term foreign policy disaster dwarfing Vietnam. (See two of my earlier articles in Truthdig, "Replace Petraeus" and "Unintended Consequences in Nuclear-Armed Pakistan").

His perceived success in Iraq -- achieved with the help of bribed Sunnis and McChrystal's targeted assassinations of al-Qaida and other extremists -- has little relevance to Afghanistan, where the Taliban is a far stronger and more cohesive force, the Karzai regime is a government in name only, and its army and police force are far less motivated and functional than their opponents. A U.S. inspector general study, according to the New York Times, has just found that "despite spending by the United States of $27 billion on the training of Afghan security forces since 2002, even top-rated Afghan units could not operate independently," and that "the 50-page report ... details drug abuse, heavy attrition, corruption and illiteracy among the Afghan security forces."

Whatever happens, however, one thing is sure. The fact that it required a Rolling Stone article to relieve an ineffective commander atop a dysfunctional team has dramatized the bankruptcy of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

The case has never been stronger for the U.S. allowing Karzai and the Pakistanis to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban that includes their refusing to allow al-Qaida to operate in Afghanistan. Karzai clearly wishes to negotiate such a settlement. But, as the New Statesman reported, "Barack Obama certainly opposes it. In this, he is supported by the notably undiplomatic US envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, described by one senior British diplomat as 'a bull who brings his own china shop wherever he goes.' "

This is a serious mistake. Most observers believe the Taliban would agree to a negotiated settlement that includes enforceable provisions that would not allow al-Qaida to operate out of Afghanistan, thereby fulfilling the main reason the U.S. claims to be there (even in the unlikely event that al-Qaida would wish to return from Pakistan).

Of course, such a negotiated settlement would embarrass the Obama administration at this point. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, negotiating a settlement now is the worst possible solution except for all the others. If it is more difficult today to negotiate a settlement and withdraw than it was a year or two ago, it will be even more difficult to do so a year or two from now -- in the midst of a presidential campaign.

Fred Branfman is a book author, journalist and anti-war activist. In addition to being published in Truthdig, his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper's, Playboy, the New Republic and other publications.