KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- They rendezvoused in Afghanistan this week at the end of very different journeys, the Cold War intelligence chief called back to duty at the Pentagon and the cerebral Army general who arose at a time of profound institutional soul-searching. Their professional partnership, characterized by deep respect but also occasional tension, has already left its imprint on the oversized legacies of Robert Gates and David Petraeus. Respectively the longest-serving and most consequential secretary of Defense in modern times, and the preeminent military leader in generations, Gates and Petraeus met again this week at the eleventh hour to contemplate a familiar question: Can they salvage another failing war and reverse the battlefield fortunes of a war-weary America?
There are not enough PowerPoint graphics in the world to truly divine the answer to that question. The mysteries are simply too profound, even for two as faithfully committed as Gates and Petraeus. That kind of belief can blind just as surely as it enlightens, and despite positive momentum shifts in the Afghan campaign, there remain potential fatal flaws in their strategy. They include continued insurgent sanctuary in Pakistan, a deeply flawed partner in the Afghan government, and above all the passage of time in the United States’ longest-ever war that has dangerously narrowed its margins of error. Yet in their extensive travels and musings in Afghanistan in the past week, Gates and Petraeus also provided a glimpse of a counterinsurgency campaign at a potentially critical pivot point, seen through the eyes of its chief architect and advocate.
A HARD FIGHT
If you had to choose a single spot where the manifest troubles of America’s nearly decade-long war in Afghanistan congeal, you would be hard pressed to find a better vantage point than a gash at the feet of the Hindu Kush called Forward Operating Base Joyce. That is where Gates’s helicopter descended on Tuesday out of a crystalline halo of sunlight and dust as he made a tour of the country on the eve of this month’s White House review of Afghan war strategy. A rough collection of blast walls, containerized housing, and weaponry set against dung-colored mountains, FOB Joyce puts the “cautious” in the cautious optimism U.S. officials have lately expressed about progress in the war.
In the shadow of a high ridge that demarks the Durand Line and the border with Pakistan, FOB Joyce sits near the mouth of a latticework of remote valleys that spill from the mountains into Afghanistan. They form a natural infiltration route for Taliban insurgents and extremists who enjoy sanctuary on the other side of the border. Meanwhile, the 15 local tribes and sub-tribes that inhabit this remote section of Kunar Province are ideologically conservative and historically resistant to perceived invaders going back to the armies of Alexander the Great and the British and Soviet empires. Earlier this year, their relentless attacks on U.S. combat outposts forced Regional Command East to abandon the nearby Korengal Valley altogether, which Taliban propaganda exploited as an ignoble retreat. Attacks on U.S. forces stationed at FOB Joyce have increased by 200 percent just since last year.
“Every single day in this valley, we are either dropping bombs or shooting Hellfire missiles, because this is a very, very kinetic fight,” said Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the intense, silver-haired commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which has responsibility for the border region. Expanded to seven brigades as part of this year’s surge of 40,000 allied troops to Afghanistan, Campbell’s troops have captured or killed 3,800 insurgents in the Regional Command East region since midsummer, dropping 850 bombs in the process. “Out here we’re fighting the Taliban and a few al-Qaida, but probably the most dangerous enemy we face is the Haqqani network, because they have sanctuary in Pakistan,” he said. “We should make no bones about that fact, because they go back and forth across the border at will.”
After pulling forces out of the Korengal Valley, the U.S. strategy going forward is to consolidate the roughly 140 combat outposts and forward bases it has strewn throughout the mountains in order to better focus securing major population centers in the region. “We can’t fight in every single valley, because there are thousands of them, so at some point I’m going to recommend that we transition out of those small combat outposts where we’re surrounded by high ground and there’s only one way in and one way out,” said Campbell. “We have to set the conditions to bring our forces out of the mountains and reposition where the population lives.”
That Regional Command East has yet to even transition to a more population-centric counterinsurgency posture reflects the past year’s main focus on expelling the Taliban from strongholds in southern Afghanistan. The intense fighting is a sure sign, however, that the war in RC East remains hotly contested and years away from a decisive conclusion.
On his stop at FOB Joyce and another base for the 101st “Screaming Eagles,” Gates confronted the costs of such hard fighting. An intensely private and reserved man, he also revealed a glimpse of the personal toll four years of war have taken. Gates awarded three Silver Stars for combat valor to a battalion that had lost 12 men already on this deployment, and privately consoled members of a sister unit that recently lost six soldiers killed by a rogue Afghan border policeman.
“We know how tough the fight is. We are mindful of your losses and the hardship that you have. This is tough terrain and a tough fight,” Gates told the assembled troopers, stressing that they are making a real difference in a war to fight the extremists on “their 10-yard line, rather than ours.”
“I’m actually the guy that signs the orders and sends you over here, and I consider my highest priority to get you what you need to do the job to complete your mission and to come home safely,” said Gates, recalling his well-documented battles to force a calcified Pentagon bureaucracy to focus on the wars at hand in Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than developing exotic weaponry for future wars. “I feel a personal responsibility for each and every one of you since I sent you here. I feel the sacrifice and hardship and losses more than you will ever imagine.”
THE LONGEST WAR
Well before he became the architect and commander of the “surge” strategy that turned around the Iraq War beginning in 2007, David Petraeus visited Afghanistan to assess the conflict for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. As Petraeus recalled this week in Kabul, he reported back to Rumsfeld as far back as 2005 that Afghanistan was going to be the “longest campaign” in the long war on terror.
“Even back then, you could see the Taliban starting to reestablish themselves, recognize the lack of human capital after 30 years of war, and see that the infrastructure had been very badly damaged. All of those challenges were just below the surface, and I could see real storm clouds on the horizon,” Petraeus told National Journal. Even then, Petraeus, who wrote the Army’s seminal counterinsurgency doctrine that underpins his Afghan strategy, could see that the numbers of U.S., allied and Afghan forces didn’t add up to the mammoth challenges in Afghanistan.
“If you do the counterinsurgency math, you come to recognize that a certain density of security forces is required, and without that density you cannot achieve security,” he said. “Without security, you lack the foundation necessary for everything else, whether it’s development, the economy, or governance.”
This week in Kabul, Petraeus made his strongest case to date that the counterinsurgency math not only finally adds up in Afghanistan, but also is paying quantifiable dividends. U.S. and allied force levels have increased by 80,000 troops since early 2009, he noted, and Afghan security forces are on track to expand to 304,000 by November 2011. As a result, U.S. and allied forces have arrested the momentum of the Taliban in many parts of the country, and according to Petraeus reversed it in the southern Taliban strongholds of Helmand Province and Kandahar.
However, for the man responsible for achieving enough progress in Afghanistan to put time on a political clock in Washington that is ticking towards July 2011, perhaps no recent development was more welcome than NATO’s embrace of a glide path for turning security responsibility over to Afghan forces that begins next year and descends gradually through the end of 2014.
“The importance of the end of 2014 for Afghan forces to take the lead throughout the country really can’t be overstated,” said Petraeus, echoing the sentiment of numerous commanders in-country. “I was in a remote Afghan village, and even there the elders had all gotten the message about 2014. To them, it meant the international community pledging to stay with them in this tough fight.”
As he tries to turn the tide in Afghanistan, however, Petraeus is noticeably without the kind of civilian alter ego and “diplomatic wingman” that he enjoyed in former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. By contrast, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry has alienated the notoriously mercurial Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials by voicing criticisms later made public, whether in leaked cables or in Bob Woodward’s Obama’s War. Meanwhile, special envoy Richard Holbrooke’s brusque style, so effective in staring down Slavic strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, has apparently badly bruised the South Asian sensitivities of Karzai and his cohorts, and lately Holbrooke has been all but invisible on Afghan policy.
Knowledgeable sources say Petraeus has also struggled to establish a good working relationship with Karzai, who favored relieved predecessor Gen. Stanley McChrystal. With each successive replacement of four-star commanders in Afghanistan in the past two years, sources say the already conspiratorial Karzai has become increasingly suspicious of his American military interlocutors, representing a major vulnerability in a counterinsurgency strategy that depends on the Afghan government winning the support of the populace.
When asked this week whether he was optimistic that recent progress added up to a tipping point or game changer like the “surge” in Iraq ultimately proved, Petraeus checked himself. This isn’t the Iraq war, he stressed. “And I don’t do optimism or pessimism,” said Petraeus. “I would just quote Ryan Crocker: This is hard, and it’s hard all the time.”
At “Camp Leatherneck” in the dust bowl of southern Helmand Province, Gates was assured that U.S. Marines were on the cusp of finally clearing the region of major Taliban redoubts. The nearby and formerly hotly contested town of Marja was finally cleared and now largely “held” by Afghan security forces, with the Helmand “security bubble” expanding daily.
“We’re still engaged in a winter campaign to root out Taliban remnants, but that’s a fight we’ll win, because we’re pushing the Taliban back every day,” said Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commander of Regional Command Southwest. The Taliban were still fighting ferociously in the Sangin District, he conceded, because it represents their last major logistical and drug trafficking hub in the region. “The enemy is fighting desperately to keep Sangin because that’s their treasury. So they are willing to fight and die in place there, and we’re giving them that opportunity.”
The field reports were equally upbeat in Kandahar Province in Regional Command South, the epicenter of U.S.-led operations in the past year to wrest Taliban control of its stronghold and birthplace. Beginning last summer with 17 combat battalions, Operation Dragon Strike has largely cleared the four districts surrounding Kandahar of major pockets of insurgents, local commanders said. Perhaps most notably, the Afghan army had committed a full corps of roughly 6,000 troops to that operation.
“In the past, we would clear areas in the south over and over again but never held them over time because we didn’t have Afghan forces to partner with,” said Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Afghanistan. By contrast, Afghan army and police forces are now shouldering roughly 60 percent of the burden in most operations in the south.
“So we have cleared a lot of territory that the Taliban has never lost before, and we’re now patrolling it daily along with Afghan army and police units,” said Rodriguez. “The enemy will reset over the winter and try and come back with a murder and intimidation campaign, but they hold a lot less territory now and we will continue with the build phase of operations with the goal of eventually connecting the expanding Helmand and Kandahar security bubbles.”
PLAYING TO STRENGTH
At a news conference with Karzai on Wednesday at the presidential palace in Kabul, Gates said the past year’s progress in the Afghan strategy had exceeded his expectations. “I spent the last two days getting a ground-level view of the country, and our troops are operating at an extraordinary pace in areas where they have never been in the past, and where Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead in operations,” Gates said. “As I return to Washington, the U.S. government will be finishing a review of the strategy here, and I go back convinced that it’s working.”
After the press conference, Gates and Petraeus joined Karzai and a handful of other officials for a private dinner. Some of the tensions between their camps bubbled to the surface during the week’s meetings. There are those who worry that Petraeus is so intellectually imposing that his subordinates rarely question his decisions, creating a “yes man” dynamic that makes him resistant to opposing views. For his part, Petraeus sometimes chafes at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for trying to micromanage his interactions with the press.
But in Kabul this week, the strengths inherent in their partnership were more apparent. When a reporter raised the potentially awkward issue of secret State Department cables revealing the view of numerous U.S. officials that Karzai is duplicitous and unreliable, Gates smoothed over the controversy by expressing U.S. embarrassment about the WikiLeaks exposures and calling Karzai a statesman. In four years of private discussions with Karzai, Gates said, neither man had uttered a word that would prove embarrassing if made public.
For his part, Petraeus was instrumental in designing a strategy to salvage the Afghan war, and at the one-year mark he has executed it skillfully enough to shift the time horizon from July 2011 to December 2014, perhaps buying enough time on the political clock for the strategy to succeed. Playing to type this week, Robert Gates provided the adult supervision to David Petraeus’s iconoclastic field leadership, and their partnership passed another crucial test.