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New Guard, Old Policy in Afghanistan

Author: Greg Bruno
June 24, 2010

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President Barack Obama's decision to replace General Stanley McChrystal with General David Petraeus as the Afghan war's top commander is seen as a shrewd tactical move (WSJ) that will ensure continuity of the Afghan mission. The shakeup following a caustic Rolling Stone profile was about personnel, not strategy, the president said. That's good news for America and its allies (AP), as Taliban violence surges and U.S. troop totals climb toward an August high of 104,000. But questions are emerging as to whether the war's strategic direction should have been thrown out with the loose-lipped general.

Counterinsurgency is losing support (NYT) among troops for its overly restrictive rules of engagement and open-ended commitments. Army strategists such as Colonel Gian Gentile of West Point and Andrew Bacevich of Boston University have long advocated that counterinsurgency, or COIN, is too costly and overly detrimental to American foreign policy. CFR President Richard N. Haass argues that a shift in strategy should have been part of Obama's calculation in dismissing McChrystal. Yet as Adam Serwer of the American Prospect notes, the appointment of Petraeus will likely kill any talk of ditching COIN.

Timeline: U.S. War in AfghanistanOpponents of the current approach point to a string of recent strategic missteps. In the southern city of Marjah, casualties continue to mount (NYT) in an offensive that was expected to swiftly rout Taliban fighters. The tough slog in Marjah in turn forced a delay in the launch (WashPost) of a planned Kandahar campaign. There is also growing concern over Obama's vow to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, a strategy CFR defense fellow Stephen Biddle says "reduces the credibility of American promises to prevail to stay long enough to beat the enemy." (Petraeus, for his part, has not ruled out (BBC) recommending that the pullout be delayed.) With coalition death tolls approaching 1,900, frustration among allies is also mounting. Canada, the Netherlands, and Romania are all pondering a full pullout (RFE/RL).

As Afghan and Western support for the American-led war effort falters, the Obama administration and its military leaders themselves have looked to refocus attention on efforts to improve Afghanistan's political, security, and governance sectors. In assessing Kandahar, for instance, military officials sought to tamp down expectations of an operation they had talked up just months before. "We almost hesitate to call it an operation because that gives the sense that there will be some moment when the operation commences," General Petraeus told CFR.org in an interview last month. "There's not a D-Day with this."

Instead of a crushing military push, commanders say the goal in Kandahar will be to present a "rising tide of security" in the south, augmented by efforts to improve governance and basic services. Petraeus told lawmakers in June 2010 that the U.S. military hopes to increase electricity generation to the Kandahar area (PDF), (a claim the general made before collapsing during testimony, perceived by some as an equally discouraging omen). Yet Western analysts in southern Afghanistan say expectations are exceedingly low that American governance efforts will succeed. Afghans are already fleeing (NPR) in advance of the anticipated uptick in violence from the summer offensive.

Measuring success in America's longest war will therefore take more time, analysts say. Biddle, who served as an adviser to General McChrystal, says it's hard to know if current approaches are succeeding. "We're at one of those moments where it's very hard to tell whether things are going well or badly. Counterinsurgency always has this 'darkest before the dawn' quality." Yet Anthony Cordesman, a longtime Afghan war watcher, says time may no longer be on Washington's side. "It is time . . . to be far more realistic about the war in Afghanistan," Cordesman argues. "It may well still be winnable, but it is not going to be won by denying the risks, the complexity, and the time that any real hope of victory will take."

Additional Analysis

CFR's Micah Zenko and other security experts ponder what General Petraeus' appointment will mean for the Afghan war in this New York Times online debate.

The Center for Strategic & International Studies dissects the Afghan war's metrics in this overview report.

The RAND Corporation's Cheryl Benard and Elvira N. Loredo examine how to confront Afghanistan's corruption.

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