Fixing the First War: As US-Pakistani Tensions Mount, General Petraeus Steps In


June 18, 2008 – They seem an odd couple: the general who engineered President Bush’s surge in Iraq, and the presidential candidate who has promised to undo it. But look again. Gen. David Petraeus’s broad new agenda as the likely next commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees U.S. forces in the entire Middle East and Central Asia, seems to echo some of Barack Obama’s views about the critical front in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though he hasn’t even been confirmed yet, NEWSWEEK has learned that the energetic Petraeus is already informally involved in talks with the new Pakistani government, including its ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, about counterinsurgency plans for the tribal regions, where Taliban and Al Qaeda elements still hold sway. And in his discussions with the Pakistanis, Petraeus has indicated he would add up to two additional Coalition brigades to Afghanistan once he takes over CENTCOM, according to a senior diplomatic official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity owing to political sensitivities. Interestingly, that’s close to what Obama has called for, as well.

Petraeus’s quiet talks with the Pakistanis are unusual, given that he hasn’t been confirmed yet. Rick DeBobes, staff director for the Senate Committee on Armed Services, said he was surprised to hear about them. While he conceded that Petraeus is a likely shoo-in for confirmation—Obama, for one, said even before the Senate hearings on Petraeus that he would vote for him—DeBobes noted that the general isn’t expected to take command until the fall, and “there’s always the issue of the appearance of presumption of confirmation.” (A CENTCOM spokesman, Lt. Matthew Allen, said he could not immediately comment on Petraeus’s talks and on current CENTCOM policy toward Central Asia.)

The discussions would seem to belie some press reports that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is foundering. True, the Pakistani military is incensed over the deaths of 11 of its soldiers last week in a U.S. airstrike, and it is deeply annoyed that President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, a U.S. ally, has threatened to send troops across the border to chase Taliban footsoldiers. Pakistani officials say they are mystified that U.S. planes fired on what Islamabad described as a fixed command post known to U.S. forces in Gorah Parai, a tribal area close to the Afghan border. But the U.S. and Pakistani militaries, in an effort to paper over the differences, have agreed to conduct a joint investigation of the incident. “That is our hope, and we are working toward that,” Lt. Col. Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman, told NEWSWEEK today. He said that an announcement was likely soon.

Pakistani frustration has been building for some time over indiscriminate covert U.S. airstrikes inside their borders. “When you [U.S. forces] act there’s often more collateral damage than killing the bad guys,” Mahmoud Ali Durrani, the former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, told me in an interview last year. “We cannot afford that.” The Pakistani Army and intelligence services are also furious that they are routinely blamed for doing too little when they think most of the problem lies with Washington. Durrani said the trail of U.S. mistakes goes all the way back to the failure to encircle Tora Bora in the mountains of Afghanistan in December 2001. “You needed to stop them rather than drive them into Pakistan. That was Mistake No. 1. There should have been blocking force … But you had to put boots on the ground, and you were not willing to do that … The U.S. used only special forces, and [because of bad information by the Afghan warlords] a lot of people got their revenge against X, Y, Z. Every time a marriage party was hit you lost more support. The second flaw was your eyes left the ball. You went to Iraq. There was a vacuum in Afghanistan. And they got a motivational area in Iraq. They got support in Iraq. Al Qaeda rejuvenated. And what Pakistan is getting now is the blowback from that rather than the other way around.”

The biggest problem that Washington has right now is the serious gulf of mistrust between the Pakistani Army and the new civilian government led by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of the Pakistan People’s Party (and the power behind him, Asif Ali Zardari, the controversial husband of the murdered Benazir Bhutto). The PPP has not fully won the trust of the Army, which is dominated by Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani, a former subordinate to Pervez Musharraf, Bhutto’s longtime adversary. It is the Army that is still leading talks with militants in the tribal regions, but Gilani has insisted on additional conditions, mainly that the militant members of the Mehsud tribe not conduct cross-border attacks or other actions abroad. The PPP-led government is also trying to find a way around dealing with Baitullah Mehsud, the notorious Islamic radical commander, by opening up talks with other members of the tribe.

Petraeus is apparently trying to emulate the strategy he used in Iraq’s Anbar province, where intensive discussions brought many former insurgent leaders over to the U.S. side against Al Qaeda in Iraq. He and the new Pakistani government are discussing a plan of action that would, along similar lines, separate the “irreconcilables” (like Baitullah Mehsud) from the “reconciliables.” A key question Petraeus will face is, with the U.S. military stretched tight, how can he beef up the U.S.-NATO presence in Afghanistan without jeopardizing the success of his surge in Iraq? Already the general has begun to hint at a drawdown in Iraq, where smaller-size U.S. units—say, a company—would work at the brigade level with the increasingly competent Iraqi Army. But we won’t really know whether Petraeus can effect a winning strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan until he assumes control of CENTCOM.

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