By David Ignatius
IF BRIEFINGS could win wars, General David Petraeus would already be finished in Afghanistan. Here's what his masterful presentation looked like in Kabul this month - and then some hard questions for him to answer.
The American general's aides come in first, carrying six wooden easels as if they're setting up an art display. Next come the charts, displaying an array of information as densely woven as a spider's web. And then into the room sweeps Gen Petraeus, greeting his audience in a manner at once genial and pugnacious.
I've seen Gen Petraeus give many briefings over the years, and it's a bit like watching a magician at work. Even though you've seen the trick before, and you know the patter, you still get mesmerised. He has the ability to make people believe the impossible might be doable, after all. He pulled it off in Iraq, and it's just possible he's on his way again in Afghanistan. But this time it will be a stretch.
The Afghanistan campaign plan, in classic Petraeus fashion, comes at the problem from every direction: It's top-down, in building the Afghan army, and bottom-up in training tribal militias known as Afghan Local Police. It's about military power, especially the deadly night raids by United States Special Operations Forces, and it's also about making governance work in this corrupt and feeble country.
The most interesting chart in Gen Petraeus' recent briefing was one called 'Village Stability Operations', which showed how Special Forces teams are securing the remote mountain valleys north of Helmand province. Over the course of this year, the US found local pockets where the village elders resented the Taleban - and sent in the Green Berets to organise local resistance.
The campaign plan is so dispersed that it's easy to miss what's happening. There's no big 'battle of Kandahar', for example. Instead, US soldiers are clearing the Taleban-infested belts around the city and establishing scores of little combat outposts with Afghan forces. The idea is to keep expanding these 'security bubbles' until the Taleban is driven from the population centres.
Like any war, this one is ultimately about willpower, and America has an advantage in Gen Petraeus, one of the strongest-willed people you could hope to meet. But this winner's psyche is not sufficient. History shows three variables are crucial in countering an insurgency - a real process of reconciliation; no safe havens for the enemy; and a competent host government. None is present in Afghanistan.
So here are a few questions for Gen Petraeus to ponder at the year end. I've collected them from strategists inside and outside the US government who hope for success, but worry that time is short:
# How can the US create more incentives for the Afghan government to take control? Is there some way to create a 'ratchet effect' so that every time the Afghans muster another 10,000 troops - and the US takes out a like number - there's a palpable benefit that Afghans can feel?
# How can the US make 'reconciliation and reintegration' move faster? Who can drive the process with the manipulative passion of a Henry Kissinger? (Gen Petraeus could fit that bill, actually.) Should the preconditions for Taleban participation be altered?
# How can the Pakistan angle be squared? Can the US involve the Pakistanis more directly in reconciliation efforts? Should it take their advice and negotiate with their friends in the Haqqani network? Can Washington divert some of the nearly US$100 billion (S$130 billion) annual budget for Afghanistan to buy peace in the tribal areas?
# How can the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) be used better? The Afghan war began as a CIA paramilitary action. Maybe it should end that way, too. Pakistani officials say they have allowed the CIA to open a new base in Quetta. Can more joint US-Pakistani covert operations be launched in Baluchistan and the tribal areas?
# How can the US deal better, behind the scenes, with the puzzle of Afghan President Hamid Karzai? Should it squeeze him? Ignore him? Dump him?
Gen Petraeus' campaign plan, to use a simple analogy, is the equivalent of mending a broken old chair - gluing it back together and holding it in place with a series of clamps. But nobody can say how long the US 'clamps' will remain in place, how long it will take the 'glue' of transition to dry, or how rotten the Afghan 'wood' is. Those are the uncertain variables that Gen Petraeus must hedge against, even as he keeps pushing for success.
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP