General Petraeus Hearing: Now Comes the Hard Part

After the confirmation lovefest comes the hard part: Making progress in a region that hasn’t seen a military success since Genghis Khan. Retired Col. Ken Allard on the obstacles ahead for Petraeus.

General David Petraeus (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The hastily arranged confirmation for David Petraeus was less hearing than lovefest. "You are an American hero,” said Senator John McCain, “and I believe you will be quickly and overwhelmingly confirmed.” That’s an exceedingly safe bet, for the same reasons that a drowning man grabs the nearest oar. Petraeus, the long-suffering hero of the Surge, now transcends all but the most churlish criticisms. If he pulls off anything resembling a victory in Afghanistan, he could conceivably end his career as the Army’s first five-star general since Omar Bradley—and deservedly so. Another former general, candidly assessing the challenges ahead, privately argues that “the last person to (succeed) in this tribal region was Genghis Khan.” Other than on Capitol Hill, most knowledgeable observers consider all talk of deadlines, timelines and “phased withdrawals” as sheer political hype. Of far greater concern:

One Dutch commander last year compared Afghanistan to “walking through the Old Testament.”

1. Local governance and municipal “services” are non-existent in a resolutely primitive society where leaders cannot be bought but can readily be rented. One Dutch commander last year compared Afghanistan to “walking through the Old Testament.” Unlike Iraq, the baseline in Afghanistan is zero, despite the hopeful rhetoric about being there for the long haul.

More Daily Beast contributors on the Petreaus hearings.2. One similarity to Iraq is that police and security forces must be created from the tribes that have dominated the area for thousands of years. Nation-hood is at best an abstraction and, while the use of force is well-understood, rules limiting its use are not. While security concerns trump everything else, Taliban norms are far simpler to apply.

3. McChrystal’s chief intelligence officer raised eyebrows earlier this year when he argued that the top-heavy U.S. intelligence establishment was not well-organized to support commanders engaged in irregular warfare. (Lacking common travel agents and zipcodes, our intelli-crats may not be all that useful in other places either.) But insurgents relentlessly focus on using networked intelligence to gain the upper hand throughout Afghanistan’s unyielding terrain.

To paraphrase Kipling, those merciless plains conceal the remains of many foreign soldiers, where victory usually goes to the last man standing rather than to the first to set timelines. But confirmation was the easy part. Kabul, Pakistan, and a savage little war lie just ahead.

Colonel Ken Allard (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as Dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia. He wrote the military review of the U.S. engagement in Somalia. His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as an on-air military analyst with NBC News.