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At a defining moment in the war in Afghanistan, General Petraeus' legacy is on the line.
KABUL – The snows of the Hindu Kush have melted and the poppy harvest is winding down.
That means Afghanistan’s "fighting season" is about to begin.
The fighting, of course, never really stops, it just intensifies this time of year as Taliban fighters who pulled back to wait out the winter in safe havens inside Pakistan are now returning to Afghanistan.
And the Taliban returns over the rugged steppes of the Hindu Kush flush with the illicit revenue from vast poppy fields that make Afghanistan the world’s leading supplier of heroin.
For Gen. David H. Petraeus, this spring will mark a major turning point with more troops in the field than ever in the 10-year conflict. For Petraeus, it also begins what is expected to be his last fighting season here. And GlobalPost confirmed Wednesday from several well-placed sources that Petraeus is to be the White House’s pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency in the fall.
But, as many military experts argue, the coming months present for Petraeus the defining moment of an extraordinary American journey of leadership in the post-Sept. 11 era. Petraeus is on his fifth wartime command in eight years, making him one of the nation’s longest serving commanders in what has become the nation’s longest war.
Since at least the 19th century, fighters seeking to rid Afghanistan of imperial interlopers, from the British to the Soviets and now the Americans, have made the trek back and forth across the mountains along the border with Pakistan. And the commanders of these empires, including decorated generals just like Petraeus, have awaited these Afghan fighters in battles that popular history has defined as doomed for foreign occupiers.
Petraeus knows his history, but still believes the U.S. military campaign will defy its judgment.
Between now and the end of October, Petraeus said, he is confident he will have successfully executed a carefully drawn, counterinsurgency strategy.
“We are obviously much better positioned to react as the fighting season commences,” Petraeus said in a wide-ranging interview with GlobalPost in February at his military headquarters in Kabul.
“It typically starts in the southern areas and works its way up to the north and northeast beginning in April,” Petraeus added, although this year the season has been delayed by a later than usual poppy harvest.
By all accounts it’s a bumper crop that will put the Taliban in good stead. They are said to be full of confidence after starting the fighting season with last week’s brazen prison break in Kandahar which freed some 500 of its fighters in a stunning embarrassment for the U.S. and the Afghan government.
Still Petraeus insists the 42-nation coalition known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that he commands is more than ready for the fight.
“The biggest difference from last year is that there are many, many more troops. We have 110,000 more to be exact and they are now in places that last year were very important safe havens and strongholds for the Taliban,” said Petraeus.
“We know the Taliban is intent on trying to take back some of these areas that have meant so much to them. And we have to, and will be, prepared for that. We want not just to solidify the gains we have, but to expand them,” he explained.
Last November marked the point at which the Obama administration’s surge of 30,000 U.S. troops was completed, making for a total of 100,000 U.S. forces on the ground and approximately 140,000 when all of the ISAF contributing countries, such as the U.K., Germany, Australia, Canada and others, are included. Also last fall, an effort came together to train and coordinate more closely an array of Afghan security forces, to which 70,000 trained Afghan fighters have been added in the last year bringing their troop totals to approximately 275,000 including army and police.
Petraeus’ math on the total of 110,000 troops added within the past year, a figure he used consistently in the interview, includes within it a “plus up” of 10,000 U.S. and allied forces, according to two sources close to Petraeus. This further increase of 10,000 troops, which has not been widely discussed and did not surface in his hearings before Congress last month, has been quietly achieved through battlefield geometry and, according to the two sources, a bit of bargaining with the Defense Department to provide an extra level of support this fighting season.
Those two facts on the ground – increased troop levels and a more coordinated approach – will enable ISAF to effectively degrade the Taliban and to clear its key strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand, Petraeus says. That will be the key to the overall operational goal of ensuring that Al Qaeda never again relies on Afghanistan as a sanctuary.
Building upon these successes in the field, the Obama administration, the American people, most pointedly its military families, as well as America’s allies, who are fading in their support of a grueling war, are all expecting the summer to mark a turning point at which ISAF can begin a drawdown of forces. Two military officials said if all goes right this May and June that by July a drawdown of one brigade would likely take place.
In the more distant future, Petraeus says he is confident that by 2014 the U.S. and ISAF will be able to complete a staged handover to Afghan national forces. By 2014, Petraeus said he believes the Afghan forces will be sufficiently trained and experienced enough to take the security of their own country into their own hands. But two highly placed sources said that 2014 would not mark a complete withdrawl of troops and that tens of thousands of U.S. troops were likely to stay on past that point to advise and assist Afghan forces and sustain existing bases.
“We think we will be able to commence transition here in the months that lie ahead,” said Petraeus, adding that Ashraf Ghani, who oversees the transition for the Afghan government and with whom Petraeus meets frequently, has recently made that recommendation.
But the gains that were made in the fall will have to be consolidated this spring, Petraeus added, or the U.S. and allied troops could stumble and lose critical momentum toward that transition.
“A lot of this hinges on the Afghan forces to do more as we do progressively less … We are going to thin out, not just hand off,” explained Petraeus.