The last time I heard Gen. David Petraeus, commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, talk about Afghanistan, he was endorsing the Karzai government’s efforts to explore negotiations with reconcilable elements of the Taliban. Now the Central Command chief is putting together a massive strategy review for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf that pretty much everyone in the defense community is waiting to see. Today he’s on a panel at the U.S. Institute of Peace conference talking Afghanistan.
He prefers the term “transnational violent extremists” to “terrorists” — as in, Afghanistan can’t again become a haven for transnational violent extremists. Petraeus opens with the challenges in Afghanistan, where there “is nothing easy,” and they’re well known: a deterioration of security; rampant corruption; poor governance.” And then:
“Afghanistan is not Iraq,” Petraeus says, reminding that “every case is unique” in counterinsurgency. (What about the so-called Sons of Afghanistan program, which is basically a template lifted from Iraq? He doesn’t say.)
He quotes Gen. David McKiernan’s much-cited “tyrannies of topography, distance and weather” to distinguish the two countries, and adds that the “human terrain” is much different, in terms of illiteracy rates, tribal ties and natural resources. Basic services — electricity and water, in particular — lag well behind Iraq, which itself is not exactly service-heavy. Petraeus might have added that Afghanistan basically lacks infrastructure as well.
“Achieving progress, needless to say, will take time,” Petraeus adds, requiring a “sustained” commitment. Progress in security needs to go hand-in-hand with development of infrastructure, the rule of law and governance capabilities, including the provision of credible elections. (All this is basic counterinsurgency stuff.) More Afghan security forces are necessary, but so are “greater civilian contributions” and greater international assistance.
“It’s not possible to solve the problems internal to Afghanistan without addressing the challenges” to Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan, and especially in Pakistan’s northwest frontier province, which Petraeus cites as more dangerous to Pakistan than India. (Diplomatic!) “The central Asian states must also be part of the strategy for Afghanistan,” he contends. That might be an interesting component to Petraeus’ south-Asia review. There are also congruent interests with “Iran, although there are also conflicting interests,” and with a smile, Petraeus quickly changes the subject away from that controversy.
“Partners, not occupiers,” was how Petraeus summed up the basic relationship between the United States, NATO and Afghanistan. It’s as much a goal as a description of the situation America faces in Afghanistan. In the end, a “sustained commitment” from the United States to the entire region has the greatest chance of producing success and stability, from the perspective of U.S. interests. Not a word about talks with the Taliban this time around, though.
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