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Ignatius, Kaplan, and Klein just don’t get it: Petraeus is changing the Afghan war’s intensity, not its overall strategy

Here is a comment from Paula Broadwell, who is just your typical Army Reserve officer who is doing a PhD and writing a biography of General Petraeus on the side. David Martin probably also should be on her corrections list. By Paula Broadwell Best Defense guest columnist Some pretty smart columnists have written this week ...


Here is a comment from Paula Broadwell, who is just your typical Army Reserve officer who is doing a PhD and writing a biography of General Petraeus on the side.

David Martin probably also should be on her corrections list.

By Paula Broadwell
Best Defense guest columnist

Here is a comment from Paula Broadwell, who is just your typical Army Reserve officer who is doing a PhD and writing a biography of General Petraeus on the side.

David Martin probably also should be on her corrections list.

By Paula Broadwell
Best Defense guest columnist

Some pretty smart columnists have written this week about a “shift in the strategic effort” in Afghanistan under Gen. David Petraeus from a counterinsurgency (COIN) approach to a counter-terrorism (CT) effort, but that strikes me as an overstatement.

Fred Kaplan of Slate states that “a shift in emphasis is… altering the character of the war.” David Ignatius of the Washington Post writes, “Petraeus is experimenting with another mix,” and says that over the last four months, he has become “a CT wolf in a counterinsurgent in sheep’s clothing.” He hypothesizes that the “protean” Petraeus has rewritten “the playbook.” Time‘s Joe Klein cites the same alleged “change” from counterinsurgency (COIN) toward heavy counterterrorism (CT), stating that CT is separate from COIN. What these guys don’t get: CT has always been a part of Petraeus’s comprehensive COIN strategy.

Here’s what Kaplan, Ignatius and Klein should actually be observing: Since Petraeus has arrived in Afghanistan, he has increased the intensity of every element of a comprehensive civil-military COIN campaign, not just the so-called CT element. After my trip to Afghanistan last month, during which I visited at the battalion, division, and ISAF headquarters levels, it is clear to me that the “shift” is not one of focus, but of energy and increased intensity across all lines of the counterinsurgency effort. The Kaplan, Ignatius and Klein observations are based loosely on a recent increase in both air strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) targeted killing — and they are certainly right about that. But take a deep breath, guys: CT operations have always been a key part of the kinetic component of COIN. In his speeches, articles, and doctrine over the past nine years, Petraeus has always been clear on this point. It was evident during his command in Iraq, and is equally so now in Afghanistan. For the record: CT is a subset of COIN. Here’s a visual explanation:

As the Anaconda Slide illustrates, there is more than just a CT effort. The COMISAF Anaconda Strategy’s seven lines of effort include kinetics, politics, intelligence, detainee operations, non-kinetics, international issues, and information operations. Collectively, these efforts seek to “choke” the eight key “needs” of the insurgency

The following provides some evidence of Petraeus’s increased initiatives along each of these critical lines of effort:

The kinetic line of effort includes CT operations, and in this arena, as Kaplan, Ignatius and Klein point out, one cannot deny results. In a 90-day accumulated effects roll-up in late September 2010, ISAF SOF had conducted 2,795 “kinetic” operations (including targeted killing night raids and air strikes), captured or killed 285 insurgent “leaders,” captured 2084 insurgents, and killed 889. As impressive as these numbers are, caution is always advised in determining their precise meaning when dealing with an insurgency as determined as the Taliban.

In any event, killing and capturing are not the only component of the kinetic line. From July to late September, ISAF SOF forces also conducted 1,823 population-centric non-kinetic operations. Petraeus’s comprehensive COIN strategy clearly states that these CT and population-centric operations must be complemented by clear/hold/build operations of conventional forces, training of host nation elements, and local security initiatives. This comprehensive approach is a mantra Petraeus continues to push on his battlefield circulations and in his morning update briefs to field commanders. And ISAF troops appear to be doing it, though some would clearly prefer a steadier diet of kinetics.

During my visit with the 3/187th Rakkasans in Ghazni Province last month, a “CT plus conventional clear/hold/build approach” seemed very much in evidence. Task Force Iron, led by Lt. Col. David Fivecoat, has worked hard to clear the new area of operations and dismantle insurgent networks in the Ghazni area. They did this in cooperation with their Special Operations brethren, Task Force 3-10. But they quickly followed that CT and “clearing” efforts with “hold” and non-kinetic “build” initiatives right out of the Petraeus playbook. In the last eight months, the Rakkasans have spent over $150,000 in economic development, basic service provision, and jobs program efforts to rebuild Khezer Khell School, support Mata Khan Clinic, and institute other important capacity building efforts to empower the sub-district governors.

One potential capacity building “game changer,” adopted this summer under President Hamid Karzai with Petraeus’s “relentless prodding,” is the Afghan Local Police (ALP) initiative. The long-term impact of this program remains to be seen, but early reviews seem encouraging as it moves toward a goal of 20,000 recruits. Along with the Village Stability Operations, Petraeus has pushed hard to promote the ALP. The ALP program, for which there are 68 sites identified in eastern and central Afghanistan, now has around 250-350 police located at each site. Run by the Afghan Ministry of the Interior and mentored by U.S. Special Forces teams, the ALP have already helped with the disruption of insurgency IED networks. The ALP has yet to hit a tipping point, but it is an important component of the stabilization and transition plans that didn’t gain traction under previous ISAF commanders.

The training of host nation elements is another critical component of the Anaconda Strategy that Petraeus has promoted over the past 100 days, especially that of professionalizing the force. Again, there are signs of progress, though much still remains to be done. One of the big ideas Petraeus embraced when he moved to Afghanistan last summer was “the need to change the COIN math, to figure out how to increase the numbers of ISAF/ANSF and to reduce the numbers” of fighters. The kill/capture roll-up rate mentioned above is one side of that ledger, and the other side is the now-complete surge of ISAF troops and the increase in ANSF troops. Though questions remain regarding their quality, the military and police training program is, in fact, ahead of October 2010 goals (Afghan National Army, Goal: 134K, Actual: 139K; Afghan National Police, Goal: 109K, Actual: 122K). As Petraeus acknowledges in his own presentations, thanks are due in part to the ground work laid by General McChrystal and ongoing efforts by Lt. Gen William B. Caldwell, but Petraeus has also accelerated efforts on this front. His trip to Brussels, London, and Rome this past week, and his effort to rally international support (especially for military and police trainers) seem to be yielding results. Back in Kabul, staff officers in the CJ5 claim that while sometimes it feels like “NATO has culminated,” Petraeus is working to energize and refocus the contributions of allied nations. Again, time will tell how successful he is. And he’s certainly not going to bat 1.000, with Italy, Holland and Canada already having announced near-term departure dates. But his efforts seem to be having an effect with most other NATO members.

To garner additional international support, Petraeus has formed a healthy partnership with his civilian counterpart, Ambassador Mark Sedwill, as he did with Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Iraq. This week, the two conducted a “relentless communication” campaign in Europe, briefing NATO/ISAF Ambassadors in Brussels. Petraeus met with the Belgian and British prime ministers. He also met with the Belgian, British, and Italian ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs; and various chiefs of Defense in their respective countries. In Italy, he briefed the senior representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan at an International Contract Group on Af-Pak in Rome. It appeared a dizzying pace, but maybe not for vintage Petraeus, who puts as much emphasis on diplomacy and strategic communications as he does on counterterrorism. This belief in communication continues in routine meetings with coalition ambassadors in Afghanistan.

These efforts have been complemented by an accelerated political line of effort that include reconciliation, reintegration, governance, and — under Brig. H.R. McMaster — a focus on inclusivity, transparency, and anti-corruption. One initiative where Petraeus has focused immense attention and effort, for example, is a focus on fixing COIN contracting. As Petraeus’s new October COIN Contracting Guidance says, “With proper oversight, contracting can spur economic development and support collective Afghan and ISAF objectives. But by spending large quantities of international contracting funds quickly and with insufficient oversight, some of those funds have unintentionally fueled corruption, financed insurgent organizations, strengthened criminal patronage networks, and undermined our efforts in Afghanistan.” Petraeus made anti-corruption efforts “commander’s business” and has focused equal attention on this aspect of the campaign as he has the CT effort. Now, in partnership with Karzai, he’s trying to hold contractors accountable. It’s a task that has defeated most everyone who has taken on corruption in Afghanistan, but Petraeus remains determined to make progress.

Petraeus has also placed increased emphasis on reconciliation and reintegration efforts in his first four months. “Reconciliation” focuses on senior Afghan leaders, most of who are hiding in Pakistan leading by cell phone. News of recent negotiations with senior Taliban this week indicates that small reconciliation efforts may be underway. “Reintegration” is conducted with those who are on the ground in Afghanistan — mid-level leaders including district shadow governors and below. The objective, Petraeus said in a recent interview, “is to take away as many of the rank and file, take them off the battlefield again turn them from bad guys to good guys” or at least prevent them from “trying to kill our troopers and our Afghan partners and civilians.” Intel chatter interdicted via low-level voice intercepts has shown that some senior-level insurgents feel coalition force pressure across their networks. Some reports indicate they may be willing to “cut a deal,” as the recent negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban portend. Speculation about negotiations has cast some doubt in the minds of low-level insurgents who speculate that “senior insurgent leaders are defecting,” according to a senior ISAF official in October.

Gathering that type of atmospheric about the Taliban has only been possible through increased intelligence efforts, another area of emphasis. Some of these intelligence initiatives were initiated under McChrystal while Petraeus was still CENTCOM Commander. These efforts included acquiring 2,000 more intelligence officials for the command, and pushing intelligence analyst out on raids because “if you want them to know what is going on, they have to know what is going on,” according to CJ2, MG Mike Flynn. Petraeus has also promoted the “fusion cell” concept from the strategic to the tactical levels; he deems this more important even than the other enablers like ISR platforms, SIGINT intercepts, and full-motion videos. Additionally, the biometrics program, which overlaps with the detainee operations line of effort and now has over one million Afghans registered, has helped empower the Afghan government in its correction, detention, rule of law efforts, and local intelligence gathering efforts.

The comprehensive COIN effort would not be complete without credible voices and strategic communications plan, both of which fall under the information operations line of effort. In that vein, Petraeus’s COIN guidance says simply that U.S. forces should “be the first with truth.” His Information Operations Task Force has condemned the brutal Taliban killing of sub-district governors or Taliban attacks on sacred mosques, and he has ordered an investigation into the botched rescue attempt that killed Linda Norgrove. Petraeus is also candid about the many challenges in this war, admitting that his 15-hour days, 7 days a week are sustainable but he doesn’t have “much of a reserve.” Petraeus conscientiously avoids the word “optimistic,” labeling himself instead as a qualified realist.

For the other realists who are watching Afghanistan, there has not been a shift in the war strategy. The strategy that President Obama sent Petraeus there to execute hasn’t changed, and neither has Petraeus’s momentum: this is a multi-pronged comprehensive COIN strategy, intensified across all lines of effort — and Petraeus is “all in.”

Paula Broadwell, a West Point graduate, is the author of the forthcoming book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus (Penguin Press, 2011). The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or Derek Jeter.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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