The South Asia Channel

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 ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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 is an investigative journalist and historian specializing in U.S. national security policy. His most recent book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2006).

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