August 20, 2010

Petraeus’s Media Offensive Checked by Reality

US General David Petraeus’s media assault on the American and NATO peoples yielded a polarizing reaction: confidence that Petraeus is the only general capable of salvaging the war in Afghanistan, or disillusioned outrage at ghosts of Vietnam announcing progress while diluting July 2011 as “conditions-based.”

"We're making progress and progress is winning if you will,” Petraeus insisted to a half dozen media outlets last weekend.

The beauty of Petraeus’s plan lifted him off the hook. By emphasizing that President Barack Obama wants his straight military opinion - even if that means delaying transfers to the Afghan National Army and the withdrawal of US and NATO forces - no one’s anger lands on Petraeus’s shoulders. Though his skeptics might equal his admirers, the blame redirects off of him and ultimately onto Obama, leaving Petraeus free to erode July 2011.

Of course this may not be the best strategy if Petraeus wants to stay Afghanistan long enough to “win.” The more unpopular he turns Obama, the less likely Obama postpones his deadline (although he looks as though he will regardless). And a second layer of Petraeus’s strategy is malfunctioning too. Because Afghanistan could always “progress” without fully stabilizing, the true ground conditions can be spun both ways, positive and negative. Some see mounting casualties and a corrupt government, others expanding security (oil spots) and open schools. Each could be right, temporarily obstructing an argument against Petraeus’s optimism.

But judging means by their end, he chose the wrong time to launch his media assault.

Two days after Petraeus carpet-bombed a series of media heavyweights - CNN, MSNBC, CBS, The Washington Post, The New York Times - Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered all US private military contractors (PMC) out of Afghanistan by the end of 2010. US military officials immediately rejected the demand as impossible and claimed that Karzai was performing for his own audience. Though true to an extent, Karzai appears to be removing one force outside his total control after accepting another - Petraeus’s Local Police Force.

Karzai’s demand also put US officials in the awkward position of toning down the message they had previously hyped up: Afghan security forces and the improving security environment in general. Now security and security forces are nowhere near ready to withdraw the 19,000 PMCs Washington employs in Afghanistan, underscoring the reality that America still lacks sufficient troops to accomplish its declared goals. Just like that Petraeus’s message was gone.

Karzai is unlikely to successfully push through US resistance and actually expel all PMCs, leading to the possibility of a failed confrontation or compromise. But in either case the message remains focused on insufficient security. While a state should use every tool at its disposal during warfare, the idea that the US military cannot operate efficiently without PMCs subverts the occupation of Afghanistan - don’t try to hold what you can’t hold. PMCs are now being used to fill America’s military void in Iraq.

Like credit cards, PMCs allow Washington to live beyond its war means for a fee - and rising interest can negate their value.

Petraeus was hit by a second missile the very next day. Weeks of anxiety that Afghanistan’s parliamentary election in September faces heightened security concerns gave way to Noor Mohammad Noor, spokesman for the Independent Election Commission (IEC), informing reporters that 15% polling stations will be shut down. They may not be the last and those remaining open aren’t necessarily safe.

"The main problem for these elections is security," said IEC chairman Fazel Ahmed Manawi. "The backbone of any election is security; without it there cannot [be] proper voting."

That polling stations are closing due to insecurity offers a measurable example that the US campaign in Afghanistan is behind schedule. Wasn’t the surge supposed to provide security by now? How is delay “progress”? Expectations are a highly volatile substance in counterinsurgency, to be handled with more care than US officials demonstrate. The IEC already delayed the election from May, eagerly approved by Washington since the vote might have ended in disaster, but current trends indicate a contest similar to August 2009's presidential election.

With local actors competing directly for their surroundings, September will flush out a host of power-hungry characters that could take advantage of “closed” or isolated polling stations, triggering a repeat of Karzai’s re-election.

Still more problematic closures will be narrowed to the south and east, denying the main constituency America and Karzai must win over. Though wealthy individual actors can easily seize power in Afghanistan, the basic principle remains that if those in contested areas cannot vote, they will lack any representation or stake in Afghanistan’s future. The Taliban provide the most visible political alternative. And while they will use violence to disrupt the election, including assassination, the Taliban are likely to wait for Karzai and his allies to create their own disorder with Afghans and the international community.

PMCs and September’s election pose dual threats, delivering political and military payloads into US counterinsurgency. Simply too little time exists to minimize polling closures. Now Washington must hope the election isn’t derailed by violence or corruption, and hope doesn’t qualify as strategy. Generating media fallout the entire duration, another controversial election could run through Obama’s review in December making Afghanistan harder, not easier, to let go of.

The showdown with PMCs may be even trickier. Security bubbles around dozens of Afghan and US officials would pop; drawing US forces, including Special Forces, off the front lines cuts into an already limited force. Those running training and logistics operations would need replacing. And four months is so unrealistic that US officials have already made their position known to Karzai, causing immediate friction. The White House and Pentagon should move rapidly with Congress to pass comprehensive oversight if they seek to avoid unnecessary conflict with Karzai.

These big ticket items prove that Afghanistan, while potentially stabilizing in certain areas, isn’t “improving” as Petraeus and company argue. And there will be no seamless transition. Silence from the White House only builds tension. If September becomes another casualty of time like Marjah and Kandahar, why will July 2011 be any different? Obama may cause an uproar and fail to sustain the popular approval necessary in a counterinsurgency if he suddenly backtracks, especially if he rubber stamps Petraeus’s “advice.”

Look what happens three days later.


  1. The day that Obama put Patreus in charge of Afghanistan.
    Was the same day that Obama ceased power to Patreus concerning Afghanistan.

    Obama can not second guess Patreus.
    He can not fire him.
    Patreus is a true lone Viceroy.

  2. Petraeus had that level of power when Obama came to office. That he's the only card Obama has left was the first thing that concerned us about his promotion. Though he could be fired too, the more probable outcome is that Petraeus can't be fired.