Will Petraeus succeed where McChrystal failed?

(To be read in continuation of my article of September 27,2009, titled "Obama's Af-Pak Troika Fails To Deliver" )

by B.Raman

(June 24, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Gen.Stanley McChrystal, the US and NATO Commander in Afghanistan, arrived in Kabul in the early months of the Obama Administration with the roar of a tiger. He disappeared like the tail of a snake on June 23,2010, when President Barack Obama fired him and replaced him as the US and NATO commander in Kabul by Gen.David Petraeus, the present head of the US Central Command.

President Barack Obama had been justifiably angered by the irreverent remarks of Gen.McChrystal and some of his aides during a series of discussions with a journalist of the "Rolling Stone" magazine. An article carried by the magazine in its latest issue based on their irreverent remarks caused considerable embarrassment in the Pentagon and the White House. The dismissal of the General was an inevitable outcome.

Even before the sacked General landed himself in an inexcusable position due to his irreverence amounting to insubordination, the halo with which he had taken over command of the NATO forces in Afghanistan last year had disappeared because of his failure to come out with a strategy which could enable the NATO forces to prevail over the Taliban. Ever since the General took over in Kabul last year, the operations of the Afghan Taliban, from sanctuaries in Pakistani territory, had increased in daring and success. Mr.Obama's hopes of the beginning of an exit with grace from Afghanistan from the middle of 2011 are in the process of being belied due to the failure of Gen.McChrystal to work out an effective strategy against the Taliban and its Pakistani mentors.

What worked for the General during his previous posting in Iraq----his skills in special operations and his ability to divide and prevail over Al Qaeda and its ex- Baathist allies from the disbanded army of Saddam Hussein---- did not work in Afghanistan. The Taliban in Afghanistan is a united force, which has successfully resisted US-inspired attempts to create a split between the so-called Good and Bad Taliban. In Iraq, Al Qaeda with its volunteers from outside---mainly from Saudi Arabia---- was in the forefront of the battles. It was easy to create a divide between the outsiders in Al Qaeda and the native Iraqis, who hated the Saudis of Al Qaeda as much as they hated the Americans. They were prepared to temporarily swallow their dislike of the Americans and collaborate with them against the outsiders of Al Qaeda.

In Afghanistan, the native Pashtuns of the Taliban have been in the forefront of the battles against the NATO forces. The role of the outsiders of Al Qaeda in the battles waged by the Taliban against the NATO forces has been minimal. Conditions for a successful divide and prevail strategy did not exist in Afghanistan and do not exist even today. Moreover, in Iraq, the role of Iran, despite its aversion to the US, was beneficial to the US operations against Al Qaeda and its associates. In Afghanistan, the role of Pakistan, while seemingly beneficial, has really been detrimental to the US war efforts.

In Afghanistan, a different mix was required----better conventional capabilities in Afghan territory, better covert capabilities in Pakistani territory to target the Taliban sanctuaries and rear bases and the political will to call Pakistan to order and to force it to stop playing its strategic games in Afghanistan. Instead of devising such a strategy, McChrystal followed a strategy largely based on illusions------- illusions of a coming split in the Taliban, illusions of a diminution of public support for the Taliban and illusions of Pakistani co-operation in dealing with the Taliban.

The illusions proved his undoing. His reported decision to postpone the much-trumpeted offensive against the Taliban in the Kandahar area scheduled for later this year spoke volumes of his failure to come to grips with the situation on the ground. A General minus the acquired-in-Iraq halo committed the sin of speaking disparagingly of his own political and professional superiors and has paid the price for it. His irreverence enabled Mr.Obama to rid himself of a General on the brink of battle failure on grounds of misconduct instead of on grounds of battle failure which could have reflected on Mr.Obama’s political and professional judgment.

It was easy to get rid of McChrystal. It is going to be difficult to turn the tide of the war in favour of the NATO. Gen.Petraeus, whom Mr.Obama has chosen for this purpose, had also acquired a halo in Iraq. The halo has become dimmer since he took over as the Commander of the Central Command. As the Commander, he has to share the responsibility for the set-backs in Afghanistan and for the failure to make headway against the Taliban.

As General Petraeus gets going in his new assignment, he has to tell himself repeatedly that Afghanistan is not Iraq, that the Pashtuns are not Iraqis or Saudis, that the Taliban is not Al Qaeda or Saddam’s ex-Baathists, that Pakistan is not Iran. He will have a new set of foes unlike any he had known and encountered in Iraq. In Sunni Pakistan ,he will have an Islamic State more devious and more dissimulating than a Shia Iran.

He will need a new strategy which will weld together the Pashtuns owing loyalty to President Hamid Karzai and the Tajiks and other non-Pashtuns loyal to the leaders of the old Northern Alliance. India understands the mindset of a Pakistani Sunni better than many other countries in the world. He will benefit by a share of the Indian wisdom.

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com )