Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO supremo in Afghanistan, is as well-versed in the history of major post-world-war insurgencies as anyone alive today. From Lawrence of Arabia to Mao's and Tito's guerrilla triumphs to France's 16 years of defeats in Indochina and Algeria, Gen. Petraeus knows it all — and then some.
Australia's world-famous guerrilla warfare expert, Col. David Kilcullen ("The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One" and "Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency") has been by Gen. Petraeus' side or on direct dial for almost 10 years.
As the senior COIN (Counter-Insurgency) adviser to Gen. Petraeus, Col. Kilcullen made clear in many think-tank talks that he was against the invasion of Iraq from the get-go but stayed by the general's side throughout his successful prosecution of the insurgencies that followed. Gen. Petraeus was promoted to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander in October 2008.
Eighteen months later, he stepped down from CENTCOM to take over the Afghan war command, replacing the cashiered Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. There, too, Col. Kilcullen thought the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake. It was, he said at the time, "tailor-made" for Special Forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida camps, separating them from the Taliban.
He also remembered that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, in his first and only interview with this reporter and United Press International's South Asia consultant Ammar Turabi, three months before Sept. 11, 2001, was already highly critical of Osama bin Laden.
Turabi has received a message from Mullah Omar that he now favors direct negotiations with the United States.
Col. Kilcullen said at the time, "You don't invade countries in pursuit of a few Islamic terrorists and turn the whole population against you."
Afghans know only one thing about their history: Sooner or later, the bloodied and dispirited foreigner leaves; even the mighty Soviet empire left on Feb. 15, 1989, and the Berlin Wall fell nine months later. Afghan "freedom fighters," armed and funded by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, brought half a century of Cold War to an end.
This time, Gen. Petraeus thinks the 100,000 U.S. troops and 9,000 Brits — the only ones out of 44 nations doing any fighting — are "drawing strength from the enemy's weaknesses."
The Taliban has limited mobility; the allies, unlimited. But in Afghanistan, asymmetrical warfare is action the enemy launches and that NATO cannot or will not take. Punishing a village by firing squad for collaboration with the enemy is an effective Taliban weapon, much as it was for the Viet Cong in Vietnam 40 years ago.
While Gen. Petraeus' officers in the field and his military and civilian chiefs in Washington understand that it is Afghanistan's war to be fought by Afghan soldiers, the sad truth is that their army is still years away from being able to conduct its own operations.
The head of the Afghan army says the army will require U.S. and NATO budgetary and supply support for another "nine to 10" years before they can hack it on their own. The Afghan army is slated to grow from 93,000 to 134,000 by 2011. The next troop target is 325,000, which would entail a budget of almost $1 billion.
The Afghan war effort as a whole is running at $150 billion a year. Cost estimates through 2014 range up to half a trillion dollars. How long will Congress be willing to sustain an increasingly unpopular war?
When the last U.S. troops pulled out of Vietnam on March 29, 1973, the South Vietnamese army, far more sophisticated and battle-hardened than the Afghans, fought on alone with U.S. military aid, with distinction. Then, in late 1974, the U.S. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, severed all further military assistance to South Vietnam.
There is no guarantee this won't happen again. Clever diplomacy at this stage would bring Pakistan and China, both with common Afghan borders, and Saudi Arabia, to sweeten the pot, into secret talks — protected this time from WikiLeaks — to explore a negotiated settlement with the Taliban's Mullah Omar.
Last weekend, prominent academics, writers, and members of nongovernmental organizations signed a joint letter addressed to President Obama that called for a major change in U.S. strategy.
Among the 23 signatories, all Afghan experts, are Scott Atran, anthropologist at the University of Michigan and author of "Talking to the Enemy"; Rupert Talbot Chetwynd, author of "Yesterday's Enemy: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?"; Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and author of "Revolution Unending"; and David B. Edwards, Williams College anthropologist, author of "Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad."
The joint letter to Mr. Obama made these key points:
- The cost of the war is now more than $120 billion per year for the United States alone. This is unsustainable in the long run. The situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country.
- With Pakistan's active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution. The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but it fails to offer a cure.
- It is time to implement an alternative strategy that would enable the United States to exit Afghanistan while safeguarding its legitimate security interests. The Taliban's leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them.
- We ask you to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan.
Lawrence of Arabia's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," studied by Gen. Petraeus, doesn't appear to add much to his quiver. Clearly, his confidence is not shared by experts with long experience in Afghanistan.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor-at-large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.
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