War Stories

The Afghanistan Test

Petraeus’ and NATO’s new strategy is much closer to Obama’s than McCain’s.

Gen. David Petraeus. Click image to expand.
Gen. David Petraeus

The final presidential debate didn’t touch on foreign policy, but two events this week involving Afghanistan bolster the impression, gained from earlier debates, that Barack Obama has a grip on reality while John McCain does not.

First, today’s Washington Post reports that NATO officials have directed their commanders in Afghanistan to reduce their reliance on air strikes in order to avoid killing civilians. In skirmishes where air strikes are needed to defeat Taliban insurgents, commanders are even instructed to consider a “tactical withdrawal” instead if civilians are in the area.

Of the roughly 1,400 Afghan civilians killed so far this year, 395 have been casualties of Western air strikes—killings that, though unintended, have intensified anti-Americanism, tarnished President Hamid Karzai’s government (by dint of association), and boosted support for the Taliban. In a counterinsurgency campaign, which is aimed primarily at the hearts and minds of the local population, the consequences are not just tragic for the victims and their families but disastrous for the goals of the war.

In August 2007, at a campaign rally in New Hampshire, Obama cited these civilian casualties as his reason for wanting to send at least two more combat brigades to Afghanistan. “We’ve got to get the job done there,” he said, “and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous problems there.”

Earlier this month, on Fox News and in the vice-presidential debate, Republican Gov. Sarah Palin took that statement wildly out of context, saying of Obama, “Some of the comments he’s made about Afghanistan, what we are doing there, ‘just air raiding villages and killing civilians’—that’s reckless” and should “disqualify” him to be commander in chief. (The fact that Palin repeated the remark suggests that it had McCain’s imprimatur.)

Judging from their order this week to the commanders on the ground, NATO’s top officials endorse the position of Obama.

The week’s second telling event, also reported in today’s Post, is that Gen. David Petraeus has launched his long-awaited reassessment of U.S. strategy in the Middle East and South Asia, viewing the war in Afghanistan as one part of a broader, regional approach. (On Oct. 31, Petraeus is scheduled to take over U.S. Central Command, which entails all American troops in those areas.)

The strategic review, which involves more than 100 advisers working in six task forces, will focus on two issues in particular, the Post reports: reconciliation of moderate Taliban insurgents with the Afghan government (or at least with the fight against al-Qaida) and diplomatic initiatives with neighboring countries toward the ultimate goal of weakening jihadist forces in Pakistan.

One of the scholars whom Petraeus has consulted at some length in his review is Ahmed Rashid, the brilliant Pakistani journalist and author of Taliban and Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, which are widely regarded as the best books on the subject.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs (not yet online), Rashid and Barnett Rubin, a professor at New York University and another prominent specialist on the region, write that the crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be resolved only through a “grand bargain,” which offers political inclusion to as many reconcilable Taliban insurgents as possible—in exchange for their cooperation against al-Qaida—and diplomatic initiatives designed to stabilize Afghanistan and address the legitimate sources of Pakistan’s insecurity. These initiatives, the authors emphasize, must be taken in cooperation with China and Saudi Arabia—heavy investors in Pakistan—and with a contract group to be formed by the U.N. Security Council.

This concept seems consistent with the approach that Petraeus would like to take, if he can find a concrete path.

Neither presidential candidate has outlined such a broad strategic plan for dealing with Afghanistan or Pakistan. Both have overemphasized military solutions, which Rashid and Rubin say are necessary but not sufficient to solve the problems at hand. But Obama has at least embraced diplomacy as an essential tool for dealing with security problems in general. In the first two debates, he also recognized that Afghanistan could not be settled without cooperation from Pakistan.

McCain, on the other hand, has said that Petraeus will win in Afghanistan simply by using the same strategy that he employed as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. (Petraeus himself dismissed this notion in an Oct. 8 speech at the Heritage Foundation, noting, “The biggest lesson of counterinsurgency is that every situation is unique.”)

To the extent that McCain favors diplomacy, he wants to conduct it through a League of Democracy, which he envisions as an organization of nations, apart from the United Nations, that share democratic values and institutions. The idea sounds good, except that even democratic nations disagree on policy (see the Iraq war) and that most security issues these days cannot be divided along the lines of democracies vs. authoritarians. Specifically, neither China nor Saudi Arabia—two nations that Rashid and Rubin say are vital to solving the Pakistan problems—would belong to McCain’s league.

Obama may need to take a few more steps along the road that he’s been following. McCain is just daydreaming.