Petraeus did not expect to command American troops in Afghanistan. Gen.Stanley McChrystal was to run that campaign, but he was abruptly sacked in June 2010 after making published statements that the White House deemed insubordinate. President Obama then turned to Petraeus, who immediately decamped for Kabul after his appointment was confirmed. Petraeus made it clear that he had not come to lose, and his confidence quickly permeated the entire command staff. His arrival also reassured the Afghans. Certainly the Americans would not have sent their best general if they intended to desert the country.
Petraeus stepped up the pace of operations throughout Afghanistan. He loosened restrictions on the battlefield use of force, including airstrikes. He expanded the number and frequency of Special Forces night raids against the Taliban command structure, a constant source of contention between him and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In the east, he withdrew stationary outposts from remote valleys and redeployed their troops to interdict insurgent supply lines and better protect population centers such as Kabul. Surge forces expanded into the southern Taliban heartland around Kandahar at a rapid rate. These changes put the Taliban on the defensive in the south by the summer of 2011.
The Taliban retuned its own strategy in response. It resorted to more roadside bombs, high-profile assassinations and attacks on symbolic civilian targets in Kabul that attracted international news coverage. Like Petraeus, the Taliban believed that public perception drove political decision-making in Afghanistan. But unlike Petraeus, who served only a year in Afghanistan, the group did not have a timeline. The question this account cannot answer is whether the Afghan National Army can maintain the gains Petraeus made as the transition date of 2014 approaches.
Petraeus emphasized the importance of the civilian side of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, declaring, “Cooperation is not optional. . . . We are part of one team with one mission.” This is not how it looked on the ground. In opposing the surge, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry concluded that Karzai “is not an adequate strategic partner.” Karzai regularly excoriated his American allies to cater to a domestic audience. Getting his cooperation was like dancing in a minefield — something was always blowing up unexpectedly.
Endemic corruption had evolved from benign, state-building patronage into a malignant, state-destroying free-for-all. The best rule-of-law institutions were useless when the powerful acted with impunity and never feared prosecution. (Broadwell’s description of international advisers in Kandahar earnestly recommending better criminal investigative techniques to Afghan prosecutors is one of her more unintentionally surreal vignettes.) Nor was delivering a “government in a box” from Kabul workable in rural communities, which historically resisted state intrusion into their affairs.
Petraeus approached this dilemma indirectly, focusing on results rather than process. Since foreign funds fueled Afghan corruption, he forced more accountability at the source. Instead of giving unqualified support to Kabul-appointed authorities, he put more trust in more popular local leaders, who worked with his troops on the ground. But he put his greatest effort into creating local police units staffed by villagers themselves, under the nominal control of the ministry of the interior. Petraeus saw this network as a better bet than the Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police for keeping the Taliban out of regions the U.S. military had cleared. Security in Afghanistan, he appears to have concluded, depended on cooperation from the bottom up, not imposition from the top down.
Petraeus’s tour in Afghanistan ended as abruptly as it began when he left to head the CIA. He had just lost a political battle with the White House to keep the surge troops in place through the autumn of 2012. While he may have been “all in,” the Obama administration was all in, up to a point. According to Broadwell, Petraeus considered resigning but dismissed that option as a “selfish, grandstanding move with huge political ramifications.” Still, the pace of withdrawal may have been less important than the war’s trajectory. Petraeus admitted that “he was more of a surge guy than a drawdown guy anyway.” What that means for the CIA, perhaps the next book on his life will reveal.
Thomas J. Barfield
is a professor of anthropology at Boston University and the author of “Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.”