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At a defining moment in the war, General Petraeus' legacy is on the line.
After the summer, Petraeus will likely be taking the helm of the CIA.
A former UK envoy to Kabul has harsh words for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

The last fighting season: part one

At a defining moment in the war in Afghanistan, General Petraeus' legacy is on the line.

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.”