08.15.10

Petraeus' Thankless Task

As the much-admired general heads to Meet the Press today, it’s becoming clear that he faces a terrible, thankless job in Afghanistan.

The much-admired general heads to Meet the Press today, telling host David Gregory that he has the right to delay Obama's 2011 pull-out target for troops in Afghanistan. He also insisted that he will never run for office and called WikiLeaks' document dump " reprehensible." It’s becoming clear that he faces a terrible, thankless job in Afghanistan, says Reihan Salam.

In his interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press, Gen. David Petraeus, perhaps the most celebrated American military officer since the Second World War, made it fairly clear, without ever saying so explicitly, that a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan is not in the offing. A majority believes that the U.S. won’t succeed in its efforts to eliminate the terrorist threat in Afghanistan, fueling growing support for withdrawal, or something just short of withdrawal. And so Gen. Petraeus finds himself fighting a war on many fronts: against a Taliban insurgency fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money, against crippling corruption in Afghanistan’s civilian government, and against deepening cynicism at home.

As President Obama struggles with a sputtering non-recovery, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is almost double what it had been at the time of the inauguration. Powerful congressional Democrats, including notorious weather-vane Sen. John Kerry, are starting to ask awkward questions about the pervasive corruption that plagues Afghanistan’s government.

This month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai imposed tight control on anti-corruption investigations that had been getting ever closer to his inner circle. Of the billions in dollars in drug money and aid that has been flowing out of Afghanistan over the last several years, it seems very likely that at least some has lined the pockets of the high officials who are working alongside the U.S. military to secure Afghanistan’s civilian population.

To put the corruption in context, U.S. military expenditures in Afghanistan by the end of September will be around $105 billion. As of 2008, Afghanistan’s GDP was just under $11 billion. Jonathan Zasloff argued last summer that simply bribing Afghan households with generous payments that far exceed annual incomes might prove cheaper and more effective than our current approach. Leaving the Zasloff argument aside, vast sums of money are flowing into an impoverished, war-ravaged society, and it is inevitable that unscrupulous officials will skim off the top. It is also inevitable that cash-strapped U.S. taxpayers will find themselves unamused by the spectacle.

Worse still is the sense that the U.S. and its NATO allies are setting themselves up for failure. In July, Mark A.R. Kleiman of UCLA and Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon released an explosive report on how counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan strengthen the Taliban insurgency. Kleiman and Caulkins persuasively argue that Afghanistan will produce the vast majority of the world’s heroin and opiates regardless of what NATO forces do, and so the “success” of counter-narcotics efforts only shifts production into insurgent-held territories, thus giving the Taliban a crucial source of revenue its members then use to finance armed attacks on civilians and U.S. and NATO military personnel.

As a civilian, Petraeus could make millions as a consultant and motivational speaker, delighting audiences of well-heeled business executives with elaborate PowerPoint presentations on “the art of the turnaround.”

Petraeus’ Bedside Reading PicksThere is no doubt that Gen. Petraeus, by all accounts a cerebral and clear-eyed soldier, understands these poisonous dynamics, yet he is also keenly attuned to the political environment. Like his predecessor Gen. Stanley McChrystal, forced to resign under humiliating circumstances, Gen. Petraeus has traditionally placed a heavy emphasis on providing security for Afghanistan’s civilian population as a way of undermining support for insurgents. Yet this cuts against the desire to limit the number of U.S. casualties. Though the insurgents are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in the Afghanistan conflict, civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces, like the five civilians killed last week in an air strike in Helmand province, are the source of growing anger and frustration among Afghans. The level of violence in Afghanistan is at its highest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, particularly in the restive south where insurgents spill in and out of neighboring Pakistan.

Meanwhile, it seems increasingly clear that the focus of the fight against terrorism has moved far beyond Afghanistan. Yemen and Somalia are just two of the countries where the CIA is stepping up a sophisticated, multilevel campaign to contain the terrorist threat. Notice, however, that there has been no talk of flooding Yemen or Somalia with U.S. troops. Somalia has been a failed state for decades now, and Yemen has been on the edge of failure for years. The Afghanistan experience has nevertheless made the U.S. national-security establishment wary of another open-ended commitment.

After rescuing the U.S. military effort in Iraq from total disaster, Gen. Petraeus had every reason to fade from the scene. As a civilian, he’d make millions as a consultant and motivational speaker, delighting audiences of well-heeled business executives with elaborate PowerPoint presentations on “the art of the turnaround,” or something similarly vaporous. Many conservatives have suggested, with varying degrees of seriousness, that Gen. Petraeus run for president, to serve as an Eisenhower-like figure who stands loftily above the political scrum. Yet rather than pursue money or power, for now at least, the general has taken command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, perhaps the most thankless job imaginable. He deserves our gratitude. But chances are he won’t get it.

Reihan Salam is a policy adviser at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.