The first decision made by General David Petraeus as successor to General Stanley McChrystal as commander of international forces in Afghanistan has been to abandon the policy he himself drafted in order to win the war and rebuild Afghan stability and government.
He has done so because it has not worked. It has failed to “clear” Taliban forces from the areas taken by the troops of the international security force. The guerrillas leave when foreign troops launch an offensive. The Taliban inflict casualties on invaders as they go, leaving behind mines, roadside bombs, booby-trapped houses—and apprehensive peasants and townspeople who know that the Taliban will eventually return and punish or kill Afghans who have collaborated with the foreigners.
The prospect of giving Afghanistan a functioning and competent democratic government and a new and functional army is slight. That was what the counterinsurgency doctrine drafted by Petraeus was supposed to do. It was based on past efforts by America and its allies to reestablish order and good government in revolutionary or war-ravaged societies. The policy has rarely succeeded, but is now, or at least briefly was, standard operating procedure, as set forth in the Army Field Manual—written by Petraeus.
Minimize artillery use, rockets, and airstrikes to spare civilians, even when this makes the troops angry because they believe they are put at risk. Win hearts and minds, drive away guerrillas, establish good government for the rest.
A new policy was made known in Kabul at the end of July. It is selective assassination, “targeted killings” of Taliban leaders, using air strikes and drones, the latter often controlled from the United States, plus midnight raids and snatch missions by special-operations troops. American military sources in Afghanistan say they now have evidence that Taliban fighters are reluctant to be promoted to leadership posts out of fear of being made the target of these killings.
While the U.S. command in Kabul warmly promotes this policy to the press there is an air of desperation to it. Insurrections, like armies, never lack for ambitious men ready to step into the posts of lost leaders. Men at war, especially this kind of war, become habituated to casualties, and successful leaders are inclined to believe they are invulnerable.
The second problem with the policy is that Afghanistan has no shortage of potential Taliban leaders. According to the latest projection, the population is well over 31 million. Setting aside the children and women, that still leaves a lot of insurrectionists-in-waiting. (A New York Times report quotes military spokesman as saying the U.S. now has killed more that 130 of them. Not an encouraging start.)
The final problem with this policy is typically American. It assumes that others are not like us. The logic of a policy that says killing leaders will make the Taliban surrender, implies that if the insurgents killed senior U.S. leaders in Afghanistan, the Americans would go home. Would they? I think not. And the Taliban, even if they were leaderless, are already home.
In what would seem an excess of optimism, U.S. officials in Kabul, “judging that they have gained some leverage over the Taliban,” because of the targeted killings, now are supposedly debating “when to try to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to end the fighting.” They are “robustly” arguing with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai about this, according to a Times report. Given Karzai recently was at odds with the United States over his negotiations with the Taliban, this adds to the confusion, and suggests that U.S. policy in Kabul has stalemated and officials are whistling in the dark.
My own view is that we are far from the end-game in Afghanistan, so long as U.S. ambition is to maintain a lasting presence in Afghanistan. The same goes for Iraq. President Barack Obama claims that his promise to end the Iraq war is fulfilled. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is successfully concluded. Iraq has held national elections, although has as yet no prime minister or government. American “combat troops” will be out by the end of this month—except for the fifty thousand U.S. soldiers who will stay. They will help with development, governance, training—and terrorism or combat.
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).