Running out of time, Petraeus implements Biden's counterterrorism plan
Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, discusses how, during the debate within U.S. President Barack Obama's inner circle over the best military strategy for Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus was the main proponent of a classic "protect the people" counterinsurgency strategy. During the debates, Petraeus railed against Vice President Joe Biden's proposal for a narrower "kinetic" counterterrorism approach that would focus on killing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders with bombs, missiles, and special-operations raids. Obama eventually gave Petraeus's plan the nod. Attempting to implement the soft touch recommended by counterinsurgency theory, former commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal severely limited the use of airstrikes and artillery and ordered U.S. ground units to disengage from firefights rather than risk firing into occupied buildings.
But that was then. Under pressure to show measureable results, Petraeus now seems to be warming up to Biden's approach more than he is likely to admit. According to the New York Times, the past three months have witnessed a sharp acceleration of airstrikes and commando raids on Taliban leadership targets. From June through September, U.S. pilots dropped 2,100 bombs and missiles on Taliban targets, a 50 percent increase from a year ago. Officers attribute the increased rate of attacks on better target intelligence, provided by a greater number of drone surveillance aircraft. Between early July and early October, special-operations forces killed 300 midlevel Taliban commanders and 800 foot soldiers, and captured another 2,000. According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, a recent internal study requested by Petraeus showed that 90 percent of the campaign's operational success has come from just 5 percent of the forces, led by his command's special-operations raiding teams.
With time running out until the December strategy review and July's scheduled drawdown, Petraeus has cast away McChrystal's soft touch. Furthermore, the counterinsurgency mantra of "clear-hold-build-transfer" no longer seems relevant given the time pressure to deliver credible progress. Petraeus's strategy now appears to be pure coercion, directed at mid- and higher-level Taliban leaders. Perhaps Petraeus has removed the Counterinsurgency Field Manual from his nightstand, and replaced it with Thomas Schelling's Arms and Influence, the Cold War-era primer on the utility of military coercion.
Petraeus's tactical shift may be getting results. According to the New York Times, the general is in sending aircraft and clearing the roads to shuttle high-level Taliban leaders who are now seeking an audience with Afghan government representatives. The fear of a Hellfire missile, a laser-guided bomb, or the nighttime arrival of commandos seems the most logical explanation for the growing willingness of some Taliban commanders to talk. The metrics of counterinsurgency success -- growing acceptance by the population of the legitimate government, improved policing, falling corruption, etc. -- have not arrived and could not account for the changed calculations of these Taliban leaders.
The Afghan government and the Taliban are obviously a long way from a truce. The negotiating authority of the Taliban envoys is in question. And, according to the New York Times, the Taliban emissaries must remain anonymous, lest they be killed by the Pakistani intelligence service, which apparently has yet to sanction the idea of a settlement. In spite of these frailties, Petraeus seems eager to arrange these talks -- they seem to be the best way of showing resultsbefore the December policy review.
Obama is no doubt equally eager for progress toward a truce, if only to get another chance at resetting his Afghanistan policy. If he gets that chance, it won't be due to counterinsurgency theory but rather to tried-and-true coercion, enabled by a surprisingly small number of drone handlers, intelligence operators, and special-operations raiders. Could that make Joe Biden Obama's best military advisor?