Why Petraeus Won’t Salvage This War

As Gen. David Petraeus prepares for his next command, his supporters are hoping he can rescue a failing war for the second time in just a few years. But both the dire state of the war effort in Afghanistan and his approach to taking command in Iraq in early 2007 suggest that Petraeus will not try to replicate an apparent — and temporary — success that he knows was at least in part the result of fortuitous circumstances in Iraq. Instead he will maneuver to avoid having to go down with what increasingly appears to be a failed counterinsurgency war.

Petraeus must be acutely aware that the war plan which he approved in 2009 has not worked.  Early this month, he received Stanley A. McChrystal’s last classified assessment of the war, reported in detail in The Independent Sunday. That assessment showed that no clear progress had been made since the U.S. offensive began in February and none was expected for the next six months.

Petraeus is not going to pledge in his confirmation hearings to achieve in 18 months what McChrystal has said cannot be achieved in the next six months. Pro-war Republicans, led by John McCain, are hoping that Petraeus will now insist that the July 2011 time frame be eliminated, creating an open-ended commitment to a high and perhaps even rising level of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

But Petraeus is unlikely to let himself get sucked into such an open-ended war, whether accompanied by a new surge of troops or not. What distinguishes his approach to the daunting challenge he faced in Iraq from those of commanders in other major U.S. wars is the cold-eyed realism with which he approached the question of whether or not his counterinsurgency strategy would work.

As the author of a Ph.D. dissertation on what the Army learned from the Vietnam War, Petraeus had always been extraordinarily sensitive to the political dangers to military leaders of being sent to fight a war that was unlikely to be won. And Petraeus had harbored deep doubts about the Iraq war from the beginning. That was the subtext of the remark, “Tell me how this ends,” which, as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, he often repeated jokingly to a reporter in the spring of 2003.

In mid-2005, he told a retired Army officer privately that it was already too late for counterinsurgency to work in Iraq because the United States had lost the “critical mass” of the Sunni population to the insurgents.

What has been forgotten in the popular narrative of the Petraeus turnaround in Iraq is that he had insisted from the beginning on having a strategy for avoiding being tagged with responsibility if the surge — and his own counterinsurgency strategy — did not work.

At his confirmation hearing, Petraeus took the unparalleled step of telling senators, “Should I determine that the new strategy cannot succeed, I will provide such an assessment.” And he went even further after arriving in Iraq. Petraeus told his staff he would give the strategy “one last try” for six months, but if it wasn’t working by the time of his congressional testimony in September 2007, he would recommend getting out, according to knowledgeable sources. 

As late as July and August 2007, as Petraeus’s staff was beginning to work on his congressional testimony, they were still debating whether the data in the previous months really showed a trend that could be cited as the basis for such a claim. In the end, Petraeus was able to convince the news media and the political elite that the strategy was working. But the implication of his earlier understanding with the staff was that he had been fully prepared to pull the plug on the U.S. military effort in Iraq if he had concluded he couldn’t make a convincing case that it was succeeding.

Petraeus can be expected to approach his new command in Afghanistan with a similar determination to limit his exposure to the danger of being identified with a losing strategy.  Sources familiar with Petraeus’s thinking believe he will carry out a complete review and evaluation of the existing strategy as soon as he takes command.

Rather than renounce the Obama July 2011 timeline for beginning the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government, Petraeus may wish to take advantage of that date as well as the full evaluation scheduled for December 2010. He could use those dates as the basis for a new variant of his early 2007 vow to determine whether the strategy he adopts is working and to convey his assessment to the president.

Meanwhile, he will certainly wish to begin the process of managing public expectations about progress by providing a more sobering analysis of the magnitude of the problems he will face in Afghanistan than has been heard publicly from McChrystal thus far.

One of the purposes of the reassessment of strategy will presumably be to identify objectives that need to modified or dropped because they cannot be achieved. Petraeus may abandon McChrystal’s plan to expel the Taliban from key districts in Helmand and Kandahar provinces as a metric of success because it has proven to be beyond the capabilities of the coalition forces and the Afghan government.

Petraeus’s realism should align him more closely with the Obama administration’s approach than it did with that of George W. Bush on Iraq. With Bush, Petraeus had to manage a president who was always talking about “victory” over the insurgents, whereas Petraeus was thinking in terms of political accommodation, at least with the Sunnis. Both Obama and Petraeus now rule out “victory” over the Taliban, and Petraeus, like Obama, foresees the possibility of a settlement with the Taliban, with the involvement of the Pakistanis.

The coming months will test Petraeus’s ability to navigate the treacherous politics of command of a war that can be managed only as a bloody stalemate at best. Salvaging the war could now be beyond his means, but the general may yet find a way to save his own reputation.

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published February 14, 2014. Read other articles by Gareth.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on June 29th, 2010 at 9:52am #

    Petraeus saved the war in Iraq? But only temporarily? This needs clarifcation; especially in view that ?ab one mn iraqis have lost lives and another 4 mn their homes and habitat.

    What gareth may be saying is that fewer americans get killed there solely because US is paying sunnis not to fight americans.
    Petraeus made progress? Again solely for americans!
    Petraeus doubted the war in iraq? On which factor [s] or apodictic principle?
    That it is not OK to wage a war u can’t win, but OK the ones u can win?
    And not on the principle that no land has the right to attack another? And especially a land which posed no danger to US!
    Proof being where? Not one american to date was hurt by one iraqi, even after enormous slaughter of innocent people in iraq!

    Gareth must have been drinking or smoking s’mthing while writing such a piece.
    Or not? In add’n, he’s much too much personalizing the two agressions; omiting the role of WH-congress-CIA-pentagon in both wars.

    I think praising or blaming an individual for success and failures appears always as a misevaluation.
    McChrystal has done the same thing. He blamed individuals instead of uncle. But, then, who ever did and lived happilly ever after?
    How ab McArthur? tnx

  2. Max Shields said on June 29th, 2010 at 11:04am #

    At the end of the day we have total devastation, civil wars created by US intervention, senseless and meaningless civilian killing. We have war crimes piled on top of one another from Korea to Vietnam, to Iraq, Somalia, 800 colonial outposts, US funded Israeli genocidal colonialists, Central and South America, US death squads around the globe, and Afganistan…and we’re noting that one of the butchers may “salvage” his “reputation”!?

    O the madness!

  3. VPK9 said on June 29th, 2010 at 7:00pm #

    Not to be a downer with the realism, but we do need to take a pragmatic approach to this. The US, and much of the rest of the world, needs oil. The real reason why our governments are willing to commit troops to Afghanistan, as opposed to every other country in the world without a democracy, is because whatever happens, if we’re going to avoid a gargantuan economic catastrophe, we will need a steady flow of oil from the Middle East. So, the optimal solution is to create a stable nation with the situation of the general population being as good as possible, and international ties with the west. If we’re going to achieve this, we need to apply our efforts to nation building, and actually use psy ops to improve the public perception of the occupying forces. That means: don’t use drone strikes to destroy schools, build hospitals, schools, repair mosques & homes, etc. Show the people that when the US soldiers arrive, they will help the local population. When the Taliban show up, the Taliban blow up the school where your children were going to be educated, or attack the hospital where your family was going to get medicine. Actually operate in a humane way, and give the government some legitimacy. That strategy has the best chance of success, both to preserve our selfish, materialistic way of life, and to create the best possible nation for the Afghan people.

  4. Late Revolution said on June 29th, 2010 at 11:26pm #

    I think our way of life would best be preserved if the American taxpayer weren’t sacrificing his social security to pay for one unwinnable and pointless war with barely intelligent creatures after another. And just perhaps if the United States’ wonderful club of corporations would start putting some technological research into solar powered vehicles rather than the latest app for a toy phone, our future and way of life might not rest in maintaining a gargantuan supply of oil. We also might not have a geyser of the shit turning the ocean into sludge.

  5. Don Hawkins said on June 30th, 2010 at 1:50am #

    Pointless war with barely intelligent creatures after another.

    A most amazing thing to write. So here in the States we have intelligent creatures do we. To be truthfully honest am at a loss for words here so;

    Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost. Arundhati Roy

    If advanced spacefaring aliens exploit resources like humans we’d better hope they don’t find us anytime soon. Hawking

    Am going to take a chance here and say Hawking should have said spacefaring aliens as advanced is probably the wrong word.

  6. Don Hawkins said on June 30th, 2010 at 2:46am #

    I just sent this to CNBC and in the subject box I wrote “the fools on the hill, four”. Did they read it you know I think they did in Asia and England and here in the States it’s early not that many people awake yet.

    Hummm,

    Yesterday on Fox new’s I watched intelligent creatures first James Inhofe who said cap and trade is dead you know the America people don’t want it. Then Glenn Beck started his show off with climate change is a hoax remember the e-mails and then went on to show his hockey stick of GDP. Then I got up early and watched red eye and people in there thirty’s and forty’s oh such intelligent creatures ever see it? Well the day is young so am wondering just today how many intelligent creatures will tell us how the world work’s and the best way to think. You have to admit just on the off chance we are headed into hell and to say cap and trade is dead that I think we all know is a joke on the human race just more of the watered down stuff knowing full well what’s coming down the track intelligent creatures are we? Well I will watch for more intelligent creatures today with my head to one side a little and my mouth open just a bit and watch in complete amazement am sure at some intelligent creatures and maybe just hear me me me along with that laughter of the Gods that seems to be getting louder.

    A fig for partridges and quails,
    ye dainties I know nothing of ye;
    But on the highest mount in Wales
    Would choose in peace to drink my coffee.
    ~Jonathon Swift

    Give them hell today ye dainties as I have a feeling the chickens are about to come home to roost. Shocking, well if that’s what your thinking those are my thoughts too.

    Don

  7. bozh said on June 30th, 2010 at 6:20am #

    US, via BHO, already received one Nobel Prize for peace. Now’s the time for another, because US soldiers are helping aborigines.
    And after indigenous pop and US agree on what kind of help wld be given, US wld be ready for another Peace Prize.
    But even after US receives a third Peace Prize, the natives may still not get their first one.

    Red people are also waiting fr their first ever Peace Prize even tho they to have won peace there and not just euro-asians.
    At least 20 US prezes deserve a Peace Prize for getting peace on turtle island. Geronimo, sitting bull, bald eagle, cochise, ohawahoha shld also get some mention.
    What do u think don ab this? Remember that norwegians were the first americans. They arrived on turtle island ca 20-2k yrs ago. But not finding any people there to christianize, most left for europe. tnx

  8. Don Hawkins said on June 30th, 2010 at 6:59am #

    Bozh that’s a tuff one how about viva Las Vegas and in so doing we must remember what happens to the wide-eyed observer when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly? –Stephen King

    Sociology 101 or maybe 202 at an institution of higher learning of course probably learn much more at say on the job training at say Goldman Sachs. The truth at Goldman of course is one and one is never two but thirty shocking to some at first.

  9. bozh said on June 30th, 2010 at 8:26am #

    Don,
    To bankster’s one dollar or ein taler given away = $1. 20. I said, “give away”, but if not return of $1.20, legs wld be broken. And u’d be lucky at that.

    Y’am sure that every american who lost her/his home to the banksters and other crooks [WH-congress-judiciary-cia-fbi-army echelons] wld have preferred broken legs and arms over losing a home and thereafter wife, children, bed, etc.

    I know, i know. There is no money in breaking legs; so, WH-congress avoid doing that. But there is bundle of money in just the shrubbery and trees around the house, let alone the house.
    And u knew, didn’t u, that one old tree is worth $5k to lumber mills. The lesson is?
    Never plant plants or trees on ur property because the WH might not then want ur property.
    On our property; oops, my property i only keep stones, bats, bramble, pitch forks and the like….. tnx

  10. bozh said on June 30th, 2010 at 8:49am #

    Don,
    The best american is an american of euro-asian ancestry. The worst american is an american of american [or turtle island as some say] ancestry; followed by americans of afrikan origin.
    Only an few afrikans– who look like a baboon or a nappy ho and yelling like a bubba– are good americans.
    The priosoners are worst off. But they are composed also of euro-asians and not just natives and multi-colorado afrikans.
    Chinese in china, on the other hand, are just asians and that’s why euroasians hate them.
    I, to be on safe side, say i am part zulu, zambesi, euro, zuni, shemitic, sumerian, roma, with cosa nostra connection.
    People are in awe of that. I get lotsof respect and even admiration. I have also let CIA know of my ancestry. I now feel 159% safe! tnx

  11. Late Revolution said on July 1st, 2010 at 12:12am #

    Boy, that ‘barely intelligent creatures’ bit really got to you, didn’t it, Don? This is where I’m supposed to feel ashamed for using that term to off-handedly describe the people we attack. I’m sorry, but at last check, the people of Afghanistan were woman-oppressing, mostly illiterate worshippers of a nonexistent deity who tells them strapping high explosives to their chests and waltzing up to a public gathering with their finger on the detonation button is the best way to grow and evolve as a society. Please. Save the goddamn political correctness, will you? I’ve listened to it in the corrupt media and everywhere else for twenty-five years now. There’s nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade. Of course, you’re one of those people who doesn’t bother grasping the point I was trying to make, but rather focuses on two words. Let me ask you this, Mr. Conscience of the World? Would you let one of those noble Afghani human beings stay at your cozy suburbanite house for a while? Let him watch the kids while you and the wifey go out for your once-every-three-months-God-how-we-hate-each-other-but-the-Lord-says-we-shouldn’t-get-a-divorce excursions into the safe part of the city? Doubtful. Because they’re not quite like us, are they? They’re savages, essentially. I’m not looking down my nose at anyone, here. Americans are selfish, greedy, and corrupt. Many people in this world are, however, just plain lower than people who don’t fasten bombs to their kids’ chests. Just friggin’ admit that, already. Small-minded people like you are the reason the United States is a nation of lawsuit-filing windbags.

  12. Don Hawkins said on July 1st, 2010 at 3:04am #

    Late Revolution I’m supposed to feel ashamed for using that term to off-handedly describe the people we attack. Here in the States it’s in the grocery store it’s at church it’s at your job it’s on TV a prison for the mind. Remember use the force for knowledge and defense never for attack. We don’t hear that to often on say the floor of the Senate do we.

    It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness
    and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the
    concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness,
    greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits
    of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the
    produce of the second.
    John Steinbeck

    Oh and why do we attack the we being the greatest nation on Earth other greatest nations on Earth the real reason.