BOSTON — Napoleon was once asked if he preferred courageous generals or brilliant generals?
“Neither,” he famously answered. “Give me lucky generals.”
Luck is always an element of war, and Gen. David Petraeus is going to need it as he once again takes up command in a war that is badly faltering.
Petraeus landed in Kabul Friday after making the first mission of his new command to stop in Brussels at NATO headquarters.
It was a smart and absolutely necessary first move after his fast-track confirmation hearings in the wake of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s very bad luck to have been stranded in Paris with a Rolling Stone reporter who had the good luck to see the former commander being himself.
The Rolling Stone reporter, Michael Hastings, shared those observations in a devastating cover story titled “The Runaway General” that shocked America in its portrayal of McChrystal’s stunning arrogance and his open disdain for the administration of President Barack Obama. Bad luck, indeed. McNamara was sacked before you could say “touch wood.”
But underlying the unguarded truths and profanity of McChrystal and his aides was a much more profound body of work by Rolling Stone about a deep fault line that cuts through the U.S. war effort. That is, the bad blood between the military and civilian leadership in a counterinsurgency campaign that requires the two sides to work closely together. All week, GlobalPost has run a series of articles titled “War by Other Means” which documents this divide and how this may be the single greatest challenge that Petraeus faces as he hits the ground.
Working to make his luck, Petraeus wisely chose NATO headquarters as his first stop for many reasons, but certainly one primary one was to try to shore up an alliance that is showing deep stress cracks in its foundation.
Opposition to the war in Europe is strong. It toppled the Dutch government, it had much to do with the resignation of Germany's president and it has prompted both Canada and the Netherlands to announce that they are withdrawing their troops. Even in the United Kingdom, there are rumblings that the newly elected conservative government is reexamining the country's commitment to a war that after nine years seems to be going nowhere.
Three years ago, I sat with Gen. Petraeus in his office in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, where he was chosen to head up another war where the insurgents had the upper hand and the fragile international coalition that supported the U.S.-led effort was crumbling.
Then Petraeus’ military strategy, a surge of 30,000 troops aimed at securing Baghdad and ending ethnic bloodshed, was well underway, and it was showing success.
He illustrated the progress to me with charts on "weekly attack trends" and printouts from his legendary penchant for Powerpoint displays. They were all spread out on a delicate tea table.
"I believe these successes can hold," Petraeus told me, and then just as quickly he pushed the papers aside and tapped on the vaneer of the tea table and said, "Touch wood."
I had interviewed General Petraeus several times before that over the years, and I had noticed that this small superstition was something of a habit. I noticed he knocked on wood all the time. In fact, he said "touch wood" on at least three other occasions in the course of that one hour conversation in Baghdad back in February of 2008. And on another occasion when I saw him in Washington as he was reporting to congress what he felt was demonstrable success, he did it again, knocking on wood right there inside the chamber. I asked him about this tendency at one point and he conceded that, yes, he was a little bit superstitious. He believes in luck. And somewhere the ghost of Napolean must be smiling.
All week, GlobalPost has featured a series titled “War by Other Means: Economic aid as a weapon of war.” The series by GlobalPost Kabul correspondent Jean MacKenzie revealed the following:
• More than $20 billion in U.S. aid is being used as a weapon of war, rather than a tool of development. This approach, according to aid experts, can dramatically backfire. In many cases, blurring the line between civilian and military aid prevents any real progress, and in some instances actually makes things worse. A tragic case in point is highlighted in our story: The Law of Unintended Consequences.
• Billions of dollars spent over nine years to train and equip the Afghan security forces are badly bogged down, making the possibility of a timely U.S. withdrawal look ever more remote. Critics say the U.S. has sought to create the appearance that the situation is improving by training and in some cases arming local militias in the hopes that they will fight the insurgency. But some of these militias and their commanders have past links to insurgents and some counter-insurgency experts wonder if the U.S. may in effect be training forces that could ultimately side with the Taliban.
• In setting up groups that are armed, empowered, but not firmly under government control, the United States is setting in motion forces that many analysts fear could lead to internal conflict or even civil war.
• The United States is often insufficiently aware of the undercurrents in a certain area - tribal tensions, ethnic conflict, and historical grievances. This at times causes the U.S. forces to make decisions that alienate the local population and aggravate an already tense situation.