Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Teflon General, Still

Spencer Ackerman at least realizes he was bamboozled or, in contemporary terms, "punked."  He notes what should be obvious, that the affair conducted by General David Petraeus with the latter's adoring biographer, Paula Broadwell, "had nothing to do with his military leadership or achievements."

Perception of those achievements, Ackerman courageously admits, was enhanced as "Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus' brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus."   Nevertheless, now that Petraeus has been brought down, one would expect soul-searching, or at least an objective evaluation of the General's leadership.  One would be wrong.

Broadwell wrote All In with with Vernon Loeb, Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, who composed, as he puts it, "a real-time narrative from the torrent of e-mails, documents, and interview transcripts Broadwell sent my way" about Petraeus' year commanding the Afghanistan war.    Apparently a sheepish over his failure to recognize the relationship between Petraeus and Broadwell, Loeb nonetheless now writes, with no hint of self-reflection

The only contact I had with Petraeus during my work on the book came in 2011 during one of his trips back to Washington while he was still in command of the war. He invited me to go running with him along the Potomac in a gesture that was vintage Petraeus.

No one cultivated e-mail relationships with journalists better than he did; no one could be more personable on a kind of superficial level that nonetheless made people feel good about their interaction with him....

We drove six miles out along the Potomac, were dropped off, and ran back along the dirt tow path. The commander of the war in Afghanistan and I ran side by side, talking about great world events. I could scarcely believe I suddenly had this kind of access.

That tingling feeling may have ensued because "As Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, I had briefly embedded with the 101st Airborne Division under Petraeus' command in northern Iraq in the fall of 2003, and found the general - and what he'd accomplished - impressive and inspiring. Mosul, and much of his sector in the north, were largely pacified."

Similarly, Loeb's newspaper yesterday editorialized 

The resignation of David Petraeus as CIA director is a serious blow to the nation’s national security leadership, and it comes at an unfortunate moment. With the expected departure of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a possible reshuffling of senior officials at the National Security Council, President Obama could have benefited particularly from Mr. Petraeus’s knowledge and seasoning as he begins to grapple with second-term challenges in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. Mr. Petraeus understands those issues as well as any American, and his record of service as a military commander is without equal in his generation...

The editors conclude "the loss of Mr. Petraeus' service" is "a harm brought about by his own actions, for which he has taken responsibility. But it will hurt the country no less."

The usually sober editors of The Philadelphia Inquirer claim

After only 14 months at the CIA, Petraeus can be replaced, which is not the same as saying his leadership won't be missed. He is an exceptional commander, as demonstrated by his successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq and results-oriented tour of duty in Afghanistan. In time, he was expected to produce similar results in directing the CIA.

Fortunately, with his nearly inevitable resignation, Mr. Petraeus no longer will be "expected to produce similar results in directing the CIA."  Journalist Juan Cole, who (unlike this blogger) opposed the escalation of American troops in Afghanistan, explains

What I had been concerned about, despite my admiration for Petraeus, is that he wasn't the right person to head the CIA when among its major tasks was to evaluate the counter=insurgency effort in Afghanistan. Since Petraeus authored that strategy and oversaw a stage of that war as commander, it actually was not fair to have him head the evaluative effort, and he shouldn't have been put in that position.

Counter-insurgency as Petraeus defined it involves a four-stage process. The army has to taketerritory away from a guerrilla movement. It has to clear that territory of the enemy. It has to hold that territory for long enough to reassure the local population that the guerrillas are not coming back and won't punish them as collaborators if they have something to do with the US. It has to build, i.e. build up local institutions such as police, so as to provide security and prosperity in the long run. Counter-insurgency is long and slow and requires winning over local hearts and minds.

Petraeus and other officers boxed Obama in in late 2009 and more or less imposed a counter-insurgency policy in Afghanistan on him. They only gave him this one plan, when he asked for 3 to choose from.

The counter-insurgency idea derived from the view of some in the officer corps that they had had a victory of sort because of the troop escalation or "surge" in Iraq late in the Bush period. As far as I can tell, however, violence in Iraq fell through 2007 not mainly because of US GI's but because a Shiite ethnic cleansing campaign chased most Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had convinced Petraeus to begin with the Sunni armed groups, and to disarm them. Once they were helpless, the Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army went in and ethnically cleansed the remaining ones.

Through 2007 forward, as mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods became more solidly Shiite, the death toll began declining. Angry Shiites who wanted to kill a Sunni would have had to get in their cars and drive for a while to find one.

Petraeus knew about the ethnic cleansing campaign. He was aware that it was creating a new wave of Sunni refugees. But he saw the troop escalation or ‘surge' as the primary reason for the fall in violence.

Based on this misunderstanding of what had happened in Iraq, Petraeus hoped to do in Afghanistan what he thought he did with Baghdad. Hence the mantra, take clear hold build.

But this kind of counter-insurgency would have required hundreds of thousands of fresh troops. Petraeus didn't have them. It was a huge endeavor.

It has largely failed, though US politicians and journalists seem reluctant to say so.

That failure of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is dangerous and poses special dangers for our troops. It is dangerous for the future, since it cries out for clearsightedness lest we plunge into more such mistakes.

As coverage of the issue plays out, the emphasis on l'affaire Petraeus will demonstrate greater interest of the corporate media in matters sexual than in the conduct of foreign policy and national intelligence.     Little attention will be given to the massive human suffering which American policy, though in Afghanistan well-meaning, has helped bring about in the two Asian nations.   Still, the apparent disinterest in deaths of soldiers and civilians alike pale in comparison to the obliviousness, not so well-intentioned, of the American media to the causes and implications of both wars, and to the role played by the sainted General David Petraeus.

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