Defense

Gates, Petraeus: Partners in War

Two historic figures met in Afghanistan this week to contemplate a familiar question: Can they salvage another failing war and reverse the battlefield fortunes of a war-weary America?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks with members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division at a forward operating base in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province on December 8, 2010.
James Kitfield
Dec. 9, 2010, 5:52 a.m.

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.”

GAIN­ING MO­MENTUM

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.

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