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At a defining moment in the war in Afghanistan, General Petraeus' legacy is on the line.
Over several days in February, Petraeus provided GlobalPost with unique access to intelligence briefings and to members of his team, and offered a glimpse inside this pivotal moment in the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
Several key battles that could expand these gains in the coming weeks will focus on the Central Helmand River Valley and clearing the district of Maiwand, the site of the famous 1880 Battle of Maiwand in which the British military suffered a brutal and bloody defeat. These histories are told and retold here in Afghanistan, and Petraeus knows his history. But he insists that ISAF will succeed in securing Maiwand this spring and in expanding a security hold on the more rural fringes of Kandahar city.
All of these operations are designed to connect the so-called “security bubbles” that Petraeus features in his signature power point presentations. Key to the spring fighting, Petraeus’ team say, will be securing Highway One from Helmand to Kabul by linking the “security bubbles.”
There have been many turning points in the nearly 10 years since the U.S.- led campaign in Afghanistan began, but the fighting that is getting underway now and that will continue to the summer are the ultimate test of Petraeus’ philosophy and counterinsurgency strategy.
Gen. Jack Keane, whom Petraeus often sites as a mentor and whom the Obama administration relies on as a seasoned adviser, recently visited Afghanistan and toured the battle field to see first hand the challenges that lie ahead.
In a long interview this month, Keane reflected on what he saw on the ground, saying, “I think this is the pivotal campaign of the 10 years in Afghanistan. It absolutely is. These big gains were made in the summer and fall last year in Helmand and Kandahar. And I think this spring is the chance to see if the success holds.”
There are few who criticize Petraeus on the record, but one issue that those close to him highlight is that he may be too cautious in managing expectations on the political front. They say there is a lag in perception between the reality on the ground and the U.S. public opinion on the progress of the war.
“We have handed the Taliban an absolute defeat in the south and southwest,” Keane said. “It is not recoverable for them… General Petraeus insists on calling that fragile and reversible because he wants to wait it out… But we are set up well.”
The challenges ahead
For Petraeus, this moment will define a career marked with considerable success but one which even some of his closest confidants and supporters believe may now be presented with his most daunting challenge to date.
Not all are convinced that Petraeus can succeed with this surge in Afghanistan the way he is widely credited with having done in Iraq in 2008. Some worry that he is using an Iraqi playbook in Afghanistan where the fighting is governed by vastly different factors.
In Iraq, the U.S. was leading an urban-based counterinsurgency fought with a local army that had a military tradition and years of training. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is fighting a rural insurgency in some 7,000 tiny, Pashtun villages and trying to stand up an army, drawn from a rag tag assemblage of largely illiterate local militias possessing almost no previous training and that consequently is suffering a significant attrition rate. Petraeus said the attrition rate, due to desertion, drug dependence, poor health and casualties, among Afghan security forces stood at 20 percent, and that in the first two months of the year there were signs that it had clicked up to a point “above what we would like to see,” as he put it.
“There is concern about it,” he added.
If history is a guide, Petraeus is right to be concerned. With the Kandahar district of Maiwand being central part to the battle plan, Petraeus’ team is keenly aware that in 1880 the British suffered a bloody and humiliating defeat at the hands of Afghan forces in The Battle of Maiwand due in part to the desertion rate of the local forces who were supposed to fight alongside them.
The other wild card in Afghanistan is, of course, corruption. The government led by President Hamid Karzai is viewed as the third most corrupt government in the world, trailing only Somalia and Myanmar, according to the 2010 index of 178 countries by Transparency International which tracks corruption worldwide. The billions of dollars in USAID money and military aid that flows through the war-ravaged country has resulted in a classic, post-Soviet cleptocracy that undermines the goals of the military campaign and thwarts the movement toward democracy in Afghanistan.
Candace Rondeaux, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Afghanistan, said that there are many ways in which the torrent of American aid and development money has produced unintended consequences, such as funding the Taliban.
“The Taliban is less and less ideological and more and more of a mafia,” said Rondeaux, in an interview at her home in Kabul where she carries out her research into the nexus of politics, the military, diplomacy and non-governmental organizations. “Here is where the collusion comes in. They are on the take and operate protection rackets.”
“It is a classic transition for an insurgency to become a criminal enterprise, and the Taliban is in that period of transformation that we’ve seen elsewhere,” she says, referring to groups such as the IRA in Northern Ireland or the KLA in Kosovo which both morphed into criminal enterprises.
But, as Rondeaux hastens to add, “Rarely is there so much money in the mix in terms of profit from the poppy harvest and the rackets they’ve built to siphon aid money. It increases the combustibility of the situation and provides huge funding for the Taliban. … Corruption and collusion at this level can threaten to undercut the goals of COIN,” she says.
“So Petraeus,” she adds, “has a very tough balancing act, which is how do you politically manage corruption. It’s a big question, particularly in a place like Afghanistan.”