General Petraeus' remarks yesterday should close the book on John McCain's overly-simplistic strategy for restoring stability to Afghanistan. After today, it's difficult to imagine anyone saying that McCain has even the slightest idea of what he is talking about when it comes to that country.
For the entire campaign, McCain has repeatedly made the point that to achieve victory in Afghanistan, the U.S. military need only look to the 'surge' strategy that proved so successful in Iraq. During the presidential debate, McCain invoked the surge, and said that "that same strategy will be employed in Afghanistan," but even before that, he ripped Barack Obama, saying "it is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan." Yet for all this confidence and bluster, it took just a few short remarks by General Petraeus to cut the central premise of McCain's Afghanistan policy off at the knees. Just look:
"People often ask, 'What did you learn from Iraq that might be transferable to Afghanistan? The first lesson, the first caution really, is that every situation like this is truly and absolutely unique, and has its own context and specifics and its own texture,"
General Petraeus is the pre-emininent figure when it comes to counter-insurgency, so vaunted in his profession that followers of his way of war have gifted him with near mythic status, calling him "King David." Others may have contributed more to the discussion of counter-insurgency, but no figure is more associated with the term than General Petraeus. An open declaration by the man who has mastered the lessons of Iraq, that those same lessons cannot be simply mapped onto Afghanistan, is absolutely devastating to McCain.
Let's be clear. Petraeus is not saying that there aren't things to be learned from Iraq that could be useful for Afghanistan. Quite the opposite. He readily admits that there may even be some concepts which translate well into the Afghan milieu, such as encouraging local reconciliation and empowering local actors to stand against the Taliban and al-Qaeda similar to the awakening councils in Iraq.
Yet even there, Petraeus' statements undercut McCain; for it is precisely those concepts from Iraq, which Petraeus says would work in Afghanistan -- reconciliation and empowering local groups -- that John McCain has repeatedly shown he doesn't understand. If McCain cannot grasp the teachings from Iraq that do apply to Afghanistan, how can he be expected to comprehend the more critical pieces of Afghanistan's strategic puzzle -- the dependence on opium production; a larger and more entrenced tribal movement; damaging incursions emmanating from a country with which we are allied; and most troubling of all, a history of hostility to any kind of foreign intervention -- that are totally unique.
There is now near universal recognition that Afghanistan is in serious, serious trouble. The fact that we have gone from naked admissions that Afghanistan is an "economy of force campaign," where we can only "do what we can," to grim assessments that the country "is in misery," testifies to how quickly the situation is deteriorating. Either John McCain or Barack Obama is going to inherit a big problem, with a window for a solution that is closing rapidly.
A key criteria for assessing both candidates' fitness for commander-in-chief is whether they have a strategy that can arrest this devolving problem. Barack Obama has committed himself time and again to a comprehensive plan for restoring a modicum of stability to Afghanistan, one that depends on a re-deployment from Iraq. General Petraeus too, in his new role as head of Central Command, appears to have quickly broadened his strategic view, and has begun to pay Afghanistan its due attention. But John McCain is stuck, insisting on looking at this national security crisis through the prism of Iraq, repeating the same fixation, the same insistence, the same failures that have marked the last eight years.