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06.24.10

Petraeus vs. the Mafia

The president did well in choosing Stanley McChrystal’s successor, but David Petraeus can’t succeed in Afghanistan without a credible partner. Former U.N. official Peter Galbraith on the general’s Karzai problem.

I have sympathy for General Stanley McChrystal, with whom I worked during the relatively brief time that our tenures in Afghanistan overlapped. He was hard-working and determined. Recognizing that non-combatant deaths brought new recruits to the Taliban, he insisted on zero civilian casualties, with some success. Although there are more NATO troops in Afghanistan conducting more missions than ever before, non-combatant deaths are down.

Still, President Obama was right to fire McChrystal, even if it was stretch to suggest that his conduct raised constitutional issues of civilian control over the military. General McChrystal was not insubordinate but he—and much more his staff—were disrespectful, albeit mostly in circumstances where they clearly did not expect to be quoted. If you want to have a vinous dinner with your staff in Paris, don’t bring along a reporter.

President Hamid Karzai heads a government ranked the second-most corrupt in the world, where power rests with thousands of warlords, power brokers, and militiamen.

In swiftly replacing McChrystal with the well-regarded David Petraeus, President Obama emphasized that he was changing the general, not the policy. This is unfortunate because the policy is precisely what needs to change.

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U.S. strategy depends on having a credible Afghan partner. While President Obama describes his Afghan counterpart as the democratically elected leader of a reliable ally, saying it doesn’t make it so. President Hamid Karzai heads a government ranked the second-most corrupt in the world, where power rests with thousands of warlords, power brokers, and militiamen. While some may hold elected or appointed positions, this is incidental to their exercise of power, which depends on the number of armed men at their disposal or because of the wealth they have been able to accumulate. Karzai holds his office not as the choice of the Afghan people but as the result of a massively fraudulent election, as he himself now concedes.

Americans view the war as a contest between the U.S.-backed Karzai government and the Taliban insurgency. The reality is more complex. In the Pashtun south where the insurgency is strongest, local power brokers and officials have relations with the Taliban, who are tribesmen and relatives. They make deals with each other to run drugs, trade weapons, eliminate rivals, and rig elections. Both sides collaborate in order to profit from massive U.S. expenditures. The U.S. spends hundreds of millions on Afghan security companies who use the proceeds to pay off the Taliban not to attack, or, in some cases, to stage attacks so as to enable the local warlord (a.k.a. security contractor) to hire more men at higher prices.

McChrystal’s strategy entails clearing insurgents from Taliban-held districts so as to enable the Afghan government to establish its administration and eventually take over security and policing from the NATO troops. International donors supplement these efforts by funding economic-development projects. Success depends on the government providing a sufficiently honest administration to win the loyalty of a population that is also enjoying economic gains. The hope is that less committed Taliban will change sides while the population at large turns on the hardliners.

This strategy only works if the Afghan government is capable of providing honest administration. Where local power brokers are in league with the Taliban, it is fatal to cooperate with the government. In too many instances, the nominal government authorities are powerless, corrupt, working with both sides in the conflict, or all of the above. Karzai’s national government cannot remedy any of this. It is corrupt, ineffective, and widely seen as illegitimate. Some senior government officials, including President Karzai, through his half-brother in Kandahar, have their own links to the Taliban.

At General Petraeus’ confirmation hearing, senators should bear down on two questions: Can the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy work without a credible Afghan partner? And is Karzai’s government a credible partner?

The honest answer to both questions is no.

Peter W. Galbraith served as deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Afghanistan in 2009.