The last fighting season: part one

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.

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.”

In the interview, Petraeus himself confronted the issue of corruption, saying, “There is a problem and we are confronting it… The definition of the problem is that criminal patronage networks pose a potentially fatal threat to the viability of Afghan state institutions if not dealt with.”

Petraeus added that he had introduced into the COIN field manual contracting guidelines designed to make field commanders aware that fostering corruption undercuts the goals of the mission.

“Money is ammunition, as we have said in the field manual. It’s a big part of COIN. But our contracting guidance says we need to be sure we are putting that ammunition in the right hands and make sure it doesn’t go in the wrong hands,” Petraeus said.

With these daunting challenges of attrition among the Afghan ranks, corruption at the highest levels of the government and a committed insurgency that hides in the country’s impenetrable terrain, one highly placed security official, who knows Petraeus well, spoke on the condition his name not be used, saying, “This is not going to be easy. In fact, it is going to be very difficult.”

Petraeus has held command in both the theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq, where he oversaw what is widely viewed as a successful troop surge in Baghdad that gave the political process enough breathing room and allowed the U.S. to begin to draw down its forces. His command in Baghdad in 2008 was guided in large part by the counterinsurgency field manual that he authored and which was published in 2007. That field guide has served as the playbook for a generation of warriors many of whom have served multiple tours in both conflicts.

COIN, or counterinsurgency, is Petraeus’ realm, and he carries something close to a religious devotion to its lessons. But, as Petraeus always asserts, the theory is only meaningful if it is showing success in the field. All fall through the winter Petraeus has been working on what he calls “inputs,” or the restructuring of the counterinsurgency strategy to make it a more coordinated and streamlined approach, and is now counting on what he calls the “outputs,” or results of successful missions in the field.

Expanding security gains

The key to the next few months, Petraeus explained, will be “expanding security gains” and focusing on “some areas where we still need to gain.”

"We have halted the Taliban’s momentum in much of the country, but not all. And we have reversed that momentum in some very important areas such as Central Helmand, in and around Kandahar and the greater Kabul area … More recently we’re focusing on some areas in the North, such as Kunduz, Ghormach and Badghis.”

To the North was exactly where Petraeus was headed on a cold morning in February.

The early fog rose off the ground as General David Petraeus marched forward from headquarters toward an idling convoy of GMC Suburbans.

Soldiers who had been idling for the better part of an hour suddenly scrambled to attention. Petraeus’ trusted deputy, Col. Erik Gunhus, followed behind him, carrying the general’s lap top computer.

Petraeus is a digital commander who has mastered technology to keep him apprised of every corner of the conflict from the battlefield to inside the Pentagon. He is always wired.

The soldiers saluted sharply as Petraeus ducked into the lead vehicle and within seconds the whole convoy roared off for Bagram Airbase. They were headed for a “battle field rotation” to Mazar-e-Sharif, a jewel of a city which has always been considered a safely held area along the border with Uzbekistan. But recently tensions were rising through Taliban fueled protests over the Florida preacher who threatened to burn a Koran. [Violence erupted in Mazar-e-Sharif in late March in an attack with small arms and knives on the UN mission there which killed 12 people. It marked the worst attack on the UN presence since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S. and Afghan forces alleged the Taliban’s signature was on the attack. But the Taliban did not claim credit.]

Since the fall, the Taliban have shown a stronger presence in the north and Petraeus was on his way to see for himself how the fight was going. There’s some historical precedence here. The ‘mujahadeen,’ or freedom fighters who sided with and were funded by the U.S. in their war against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, had lured the Soviet troops north so that the insurgents could succeed in establishing a base in the south and east. Petraeus, who holds a PhD from Princeton and wrote his doctoral thesis on the lessons of the war in Vietnam, knows his history of counterinsurgency. He is a warrior and a scholar. So as the helicopter ferried him over the snow-capped spine of the Hindu Kush to the north and west toward Mazar-e-Sharif, he contemplated that history and the lessons it offered now.

At the end of winter and on the front edge of the fighting season, Petraeus aimed to steel his troops and the Afghan national forces for the fight that will soon ensue across the country, a chance for the general to assess whether the areas they cleared in the fall can now be held.

“Clear. Hold. Build.” They are the three sides of the pyramid of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, supplemented by the critical civilian role of aid and development which runs tandem to the military operations. But on this tour of the battle field, Petraeus was gathering more than just ground truth, he was also arming himself with the hard evidence he’ll need to convince the American people that this war effort can succeed in its goals. In just a few weeks, he would be heading to Washington to testify to congress and answer hard questions about the progress of the war.

"The wrong war, with the wrong strategy"

In some ways, military experts say, the months ahead provide the ultimate test of Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy, the final kick for this marathon runner’s long-distance military career. And at this point, it looks to be all up hill.

Military analyst and author Bing West, a Marine combat veteran who served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, has been one of Petraeus’ tougher critics. West insists that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is ill-defined and therefore ill-fated.

West’s devastating critique of U.S. military strategy in the post 9-11 era is spelled out in a new book titled “The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan.” Essentially, West argues that Petraeus’ counterinsurgency manual, which focuses on how soldiers and Marines must be “national builders as well as war-fighters,” is deeply flawed because it undercuts the fighter “ethos.” He adds that even within the logic and the guidelines of the manual itself, the force ratios have never been adequate in Afghanistan to protect the population and defeat the enemy. Neither is possible, West claims, even with Obama’s surge in troop levels.

The result, West argues, is a stalemate in Afghanistan: “On the one side, the United States lacks the numbers to secure thousands of villages and the Afghan security forces lack confidence. On the other side, the Taliban cannot mass forces due to fear of U.S. firepower.”

In short, West observes, “We have fought the wrong war with the wrong strategy.”

But even West concedes that Petraeus succeeded against odds in Iraq and that the next few months are determinative for his surge strategy in Afghanistan.

Suppport from regional governors

One source place of hopeful and growing support for his approach is in the provincial governorates.

GlobalPost interviewed four provincial governors, two of whom were willing to speak on the record. All of them were supportive of Petraeus’ strategy and saw this spring as a pivotal moment for their country.

Kabul Governor Zabihullah Mujaddedi said that Petraeus had gone out of his way to meet with provincial governors and hear their concerns. Mujaddedi has been particularly concerned about poor intelligence leading to the capture of innocent people and a persistent problem of civilian casualties.

He said that Petraeus has also provided money through the so-called CERP funds for emergency response projects, which have allowed Kabul to repair bridges, retaining walls, roads and two district governors’ offices. But Mujaddedi said the frustration with an ineffective and often-corrupt central government was still the greatest obstacle to the country forging ahead. [Several weeks after GlobalPost interviewed him in early February, Mujaddedi resigned saying he would no longer serve as a “figure head” under a failing central government that ignored the concerns of the office of the governor.]

Ruhullah Amin, the governor of Farah Province, was wearing a gray pinstripe suit jacket over a traditional shalwar khamiz on the day I spoke with him in Kabul. He had just visited Petraeus inside the ISAF headquarters and he said it was not his first time meeting him.

“He has gone out of his way to make himself available to us,” said Amin, speaking for a group of governors who have maintained steady contact with Petraeus. “And his style stands out as very different from any of the other generals we’ve had here.”

Amin described a trip he took with Petraeus last year and compared to an encounter with McChrystal, who he found abrasive and dismissive. McChrystal he said summoned him to headquarters at one point, where he was “indecently” searched and made to wait for the appointment. Petraeus, on the other hand was respectful and went out of his way to abide by the customs of the country. Petraeus invited him to accompany him on a C-130 flight from Kabul to Farah and Amin said Petraeus wanted to see the province through local eyes, including a tour of Gulistan, which at that time was a particularly hot area under the control of the Taliban.

“He went and he walked through the market. He was holding babies and talking with people. And you thought, if anyone can get this done, he can,” said Amin.

That’s quite a statement coming from Amin, who I have known for nearly five years. He has a signature sense of humor and a healthy sense of irony and has used both skills in the past to express frustration with U.S. policy and a lack of an overall strategy in Afghanistan.

“He understands we need to go step by step. It’s not only the job of the U.S. , it’s our job and the job of our neighbors to bring stability. The U.S. can’t do it alone. And I think General Petraeus understands that,” added Amin.

“When I met with him,” Amin added, “I felt there was some hope that peace will come to this country.”

This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.