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Petraeus opens media offensive, challenges Obama's Afghan exit date

Published time: August 20, 2010 12:00
Edited time: August 20, 2010 12:00
US President Barack Obama (L) and General David Petraeus (AFP Photo / Mandel Ngan)

US President Barack Obama (L) and General David Petraeus (AFP Photo / Mandel Ngan)

The new commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan says a July 2011 deadline for ending the protracted military operation may turn out to be mission impossible.

Despite, or because of, US troop fatalities nailing a monthly record high in July (coming off another record high set in June), and the Taliban enjoying rock-star status among defiant and desperate pockets of the Afghan population, US General David Petraeus warns he may find it impossible to adhere to a reduction in forces as promised in December by his Commander-in-Chief, US President Barack Obama.

In what has been billed as a PR campaign to bolster American confidence in the protracted War in Afghanistan (according to one public opinion poll seven out of ten Americans have lost faith in the war effort), Petraeus took the muddy, less-traveled road and commandeered a media blitzkrieg that dashed hopes of an early troop pullout.

Asked whether he might recommend that coalition forces remain in Afghanistan beyond the controversial July 2011 deadline, Petraeus told the Meet the Press program: "Certainly yeah, again, the president and I sat down in the Oval Office and he expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice."

Petraeus then reiterated that any withdrawal must be viewed as a process, not an event, and determined by any number of foreseeable and unforeseeable factors.

"I think the president has been quite clear in explaining that it's a process, not an event, and that it's conditions-based," the four-star general continued.

President Obama announced the deadline in December of last year, alongside the somewhat contradictory news that he would call up an additional 30,000 more troops for Afghanistan.

"These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces," the US president told cadets at West Point Military Academy. "And allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."

In another interview over the weekend, this one with The New York Times, Petraeus stressed that his mission had nothing to do with seeking “a graceful exit.”

“The president didn’t send me over here to seek a graceful exit,” Petraeus replied from his office at NATO headquarters in downtown Kabul. “My marching orders are to do all that is humanly possible to help us achieve our objectives.”

We can only hope that Petraeus, given his lack of appreciation for “graceful exits,” does not lead US and NATO forces into a humiliating and disgraceful exit instead – which handed Soviet forces their own 10-year 'Vietnam.'

Finally, the Washington Post on Monday reported that Petraeus “remains supportive of President Obama's decision to begin withdrawing troops next July, but he said it is far too soon to determine the size of the drawdown."

The Post observed that "the general's presence in Kabul, as opposed to the US Central Command headquarters in Tampa, could make him a far more forceful voice for attenuating the drawdown if he chooses to make that case."

Some alternative voices of dissent, far beyond the mainstream media radar, spoke out against what is certainly a disconcerting drumbeat for more war.

“Let's be clear about what's happening here,” argued Norman Solomon, the author of “War Made Easy,” in The Huffington Post. “The top US military commander in Afghanistan, with the evident approval of the White House, has launched a fierce media blitz to cripple the policy option of any significant military withdrawal a year from now.”

Solomon goes on to accuse Petraeus of manipulating the democratic process.

“Riding high in what is supposed to be a civilian-run military, Petraeus is engaging in strategic media operations to manipulate what should be a democratic process on matters of war and peace.”

Solomon concludes that the commander-in-chief will ultimately be held responsible for this “manipulative, anti-democratic behavior.”

What is most ironic about Petraeus’s independent-minded comments is that his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, was dismissed from his position for showing “disrespect for civilian control of the military.” Yet here we have his four-star replacement, General David Petraeus, pretty much telling the President of the United States how things will go in Afghanistan come next summer.

Of course Barack Obama, as the Commander-in-Chief, has the final word in any military decision. Yet allowing the honorable Petraeus to vocalize his concerns on the highly-contentious question of a troop withdrawal will blunt Republican criticism of the war effort, which is especially critical with the 2012 presidential elections right around the corner.

Incidentally, Barack Obama apparently has nothing to fear from General Petraeus betraying us with a presidential bid. The top-ranking US military officer, speaking out on rumors that he secretly covets a tour of duty in the Oval Office, says he is not a politician and never will be one.

Petraeus told "Meet the Press" that he could dismiss “with absolute conviction” the idea that he wants to be a politician. And as a stint as the commander-in-chief, he replied “no way, no how.”

Broken promises

Obama’s promise to get US troops out of Afghanistan by next summer was originally seen as a way of appeasing both the pro-war lobby, as well as the vocal anti-war faction inside of the Democratic Party: the military would get their Afghan surge, while the opponents of the war would get a firm date for ditching Dodge. Obama’s great compromise, which has proven to be more of a slick smokescreen, also provided a built-in defense against Republican accusations that the US president is going soft on terrorism.

Today, with the luxury of hindsight, Obama’s pull-out pledge appears to have been nothing more substantial than a large slab of decoy pie to sweeten the unsavory news that tens of thousands of new recruits would be sent to fight in an increasingly unpopular, and, as many are now arguing, unwinnable war.

It is as if the Commander-in-Speech was saying, “Don’t worry about all those young men and women heading into the jaws of war; we’ll be calling them back home next summer anyways.”

This is a change of strategy that we should have seen coming down the pike. From the very beginning, the idiotic idea of announcing a set-in-stone deadline on military operations in Afghanistan was immediately criticized as hardening the insurgency’s desire to hang on until the troops pulled out.

Certainly Obama understood that at the time, and now he is leaving it to the pushy Petraeus to break the unpleasant news to us before the next campaign season begins in earnest.

Lindsey Graham, Republican Senator of South Carolina said in interview with the CBS program "Face the Nation" last month that the enemy will simply wait if you announce when you are pulling out.

"If you send a signal to your enemy you're going to leave at a certain date, they'll wait you out," he said.

However, Graham was more optimistic that Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy may allow coalition forces to hand over security to Afghan forces in some areas by July 2011.

"I do believe next summer we can have transition in certain parts of Afghanistan," Graham said. "Other parts will still need fighting and a firm commitment."

At this critical juncture in the war, the United States risks failing to correctly answer the question that confounds occupier and liberator alike: when is it time to let go? When is it time for the United States to brush its hands against its pants and say, “Okay, we’ve done everything we can do here, it’s time to pack up the gear and head home.”?

Yet the myth of Osama bin Laden continues to haunt the minds of the military leaders to such a dangerous degree that we may well continue to hunt for his body long after Afghanistan has given up the ghost.

What’s killing coalition troops?

Many people are asking themselves how the ragtag Taliban forces could be putting up such stiff resistance against the technologically superior NATO forces. Increasingly, the answer seems to lie with the so-called improvised explosive device (IED), which, as the WikiLeaks release of thousands of pages of secret internal documents recently revealed, are plaguing Western forces every step of the way.

The IED is a roadside bomb that may be triggered in various ways, including by mobile phone or by the victim himself. IEDs have caused nearly 62 per cent of the coalition's combat fatalities in Afghanistan in 2009, up from nearly 58 per cent on 2008 and 42 per cent in 2007, according to figures compiled by iCasualties.org, a website that tracks casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

“The improvised explosive device (IED) is the Taliban's weapon of choice,” reported the Guardian website. “A deadly yet effective counter to the technological superiority of their Western adversaries in Afghanistan. It is the biggest single cause of deaths of British troops in Helmand and has proven impossible to completely counter.”

In the past, coalition troops painstakingly unearthed the explosive devices ahead of NATO transport convoys with the use of metal detectors. But the insurgents, much to the chagrin of the Western forces, adapted to the counter techniques and now employ all-plastic IEDs that are nearly impossible to detect.

Although the majority of coalition fatalities are the result of direct military action, IEDs also work on the psychological plane, creating an atmosphere of fear and dread in the coalition forces, who understand that these methods, however crude, are even capable of destroying the most advanced armored vehicles.

The United States, just like the Soviet Union, risks getting pulled into a whirlpool of violence, death and indebtedness that will suck it to the bottom of the historic depths. Yes, unlikely; but many argue that it was exactly the “graveyard of empires” that helped break apart the Soviet Union in its final days – and much more so than any finger-wagging from former US President Ronald “tear down this wall” Reagan.

As for modern-day Russia, its leaders, extra-sensitive to the hostility of a hostile land they know so well, can only offer the United States advice on how to deal with its enemy in a way that will make the world truly a safer place.

Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov recently warned that Afghan drug trafficking should be classified as a threat to international peace and security.

"A large part of the population of Afghanistan is involved in the cultivation and production of opium and opium products such as heroin," he said. "Narcotics have become the important source of financial support for insurgency groups including the Taliban and not only to them."

Afghanistan is responsible for producing 90 per cent of the world's heroin output, which is often smuggled into Central Asia, Russia and Europe where it generate billions of dollars in revenue.
Thus far, the United States has rejected Russia’s proposals for spraying the many acres of Afghan poppy fields that threaten the entire world.

Ivanov said that opium consumption is having “a destabilizing effect” in Russia, saying that 30,000 heroin addicts die each year in the country. The Russian Deputy Prime Minister called for heightened international efforts to halt the flow of Afghan heroin directly at the source.

"The whole international community and, first of all, those who took the responsibility for ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan, namely the International Security Assistance Force, should make a strong commitment to fight this drug threat," said Ivanov.

Perhaps that would be the best reason for continuing the war effort in Afghanistan beyond the promised deadline: weaning the Afghan people off of their opiate trade and foster responsible forms of agriculture besides one that kills far quicker than the Taliban.

Robert Bridge, RT

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