War Stories

Is Petraeus “Beyond Naive”?

He thinks we should negotiate with our enemies—just like Obama.

Gen. David Petraeus

If Gov. Sarah Palin ever becomes president, will she tell Gen. David Petraeus that he’s “beyond naive” and “dangerous”?

That, you may recall, was how she characterized Sen. Barack Obama’s advocacy of talking to our enemies “without preconditions.”

Yet look at what Petraeus—not just the architect of the Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy but also Sen. John McCain’s demigod—said on Oct. 8, toward the end of an hourlong address to the neocon elite at the Heritage Foundation.

Asked about a British officer’s recent statement that at some point, we’ll have to strike a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, matter-of-factly, “You have to talk to enemies.”

He added that the British know this especially well, as they’ve “sat down with thugs throughout their history, including us, I suspect.”

Petraeus quickly added that, of course, you have to go into the talks with an agenda, and you have to know what your objectives are. But his point and these particular caveats are consistent with the distinction that Obama has repeatedly made between “preparations” and “preconditions”—the former being common sense and the latter being an insistence that the other side satisfy our demands before we so much as sit down with them (a position that even President Bush, its most dogmatic advocate, has recently begun to reconsider, especially in North Korea).

Palin’s condemnation of Obama was no freelance swipe. McCain, too, has shaken his head in grave condescension and muttered that the junior senator from Illinois simply doesn’t understand the world. Would he dare say the same of Petraeus?

In Iraq, the general recalled in his Heritage speech, “we sat down with some of those who were shooting at us”—a painful task but “an explicit part of our campaign.” These talks formed the basis for the Anbar Awakening—in which Sunni insurgents allied themselves with U.S. forces to beat back the common foe of al-Qaida in Iraq—and for the tactical success of the “surge” itself.

Petraeus, the former commander of multinational forces in Iraq and soon the chief of U.S. Central Command, added that he didn’t know how much of his Iraq strategy would work in Afghanistan. Some of its concepts are “transplantable,” he said, while “others perhaps are not.” (Here, too, the general contradicted McCain, who has said in two debates that Petraeus will win in Afghanistan by replicating his Iraq strategy.) However, one concept that Petraeus said he will try to transplant is precisely this idea of talking with those enemies who might share, or be persuaded to share, some of our strategic goals. “This is how you end these kinds of conflicts,” he said at the Heritage Foundation. There is “no alternative to reconciliation.”

Some insurgents, of course, are irreconcilable—al-Qaida, for instance, and the more militant Taliban fighters. If we’re at war with them, they must be killed and defeated; any other option is a pipe dream. But one aspect of counterinsurgency involves identifying and co-opting those insurgents who are not so hard-line or who might be weary of fighting or leery of their more ideological comrades. Petraeus noted that Afghan President Hamad Karzai is already doing this, reaching out to certain Taliban factions, using the Saudis as intermediaries.

Will this work? Is there any basis for a “Pashtun Awakening” in Afghanistan to match the Sunni alliance-of-convenience in Iraq? Do the Taliban factions break down along tribal lines, whose fissures might be exploited? Some Afghanistan-watchers have their doubts.

Yet one implication of Petraeus’ remarks is that if there are no such openings for maneuver, then this war—which, our senior military leaders say, is going badly and getting worse—may be hopeless. In any case, the strategic goal—to keep Afghanistan from once again becoming a base for international terrorists—will probably require broader, regional cooperation to beat down al-Qaida in neighboring Pakistan. It’s the jihadis in northwestern Pakistan who are keeping the Taliban going in Afghanistan. And compared with the dangers of an unstable Pakistan, Afghanistan is a sideshow.

The point here, though, is that according to the soldier-strategist whom John McCain admires most, talking to at least some enemies is a necessary ingredient of success.

A Republican partisan might note that the Taliban in Afghanistan are not the same as the mullahs of Iran. That’s true. But from the McCain-Palin point of view, the Taliban are worse. They’re killing American soldiers now, and they’re trying to recapture an unstable sovereign state by force. It would be more repugnant to engage in face-to-face talks with them than with most other bad guys in the world. Yet if Petraeus is right—if we’re going to have to do this with the Taliban—then why is it naive and dangerous to do the same with the leadership of Iran?