By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Gen. David H. Petraeus has launched a major reassessment of U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the surrounding region, while warning that the lack of development and the spiraling violence in Afghanistan will probably make it "the longest campaign of the long war."
The 100-day assessment will result in a new campaign plan for the Middle East and Central Asia, a region in which Petraeus will oversee the operations of more than 200,000 American troops as the new head of U.S. Central Command, beginning Oct. 31.
The review will formally begin next month, but experts and military officials involved said Petraeus is already focused on at least two major themes: government-led reconciliation of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the leveraging of diplomatic and economic initiatives with nearby countries that are influential in the war.
The review comes as Petraeus, who led a counterinsurgency effort credited with drastically reducing attack levels in Iraq, faces widespread expectations that he will find a way to arrest escalating violence and U.S. troop casualties in Afghanistan, fueled by growing militant havens in Pakistan.
It also coincides with the Bush administration's own urgent reassessment of Afghanistan strategy amid pessimism that the situation there is rapidly deteriorating. Indeed, some senior administration officials have expressed concern that Petraeus is casting his net too widely with a regional review at a time when Afghanistan and western Pakistan desperately need rescuing.
In appearances this month in Washington, however, Petraeus has sought to manage expectations of any repeat of the Iraq performance in Afghanistan -- often suggested by Republican presidential candidate John McCain -- stressing that Afghanistan is not Iraq, and that while some concepts are "transplantable," Afghanistan has daunting challenges likely to require a far lengthier effort.
"The effort in Afghanistan is going to be the longest campaign of the long war," Petraeus said in a meeting yesterday with Washington Post reporters and editors.
Parts of Afghanistan have "actually been spiraling downward throughout the course of this year," Petraeus said last week at the Heritage Foundation. "The biggest lesson of counterinsurgency is that every situation is unique. You have to be very careful to have that nuanced understanding . . . of the circumstances on the ground," he said.
Petraeus is recruiting a brain trust of advisers, much as he did for Iraq, taking the studious approach that has become the hallmark of the four-star general who holds a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University.
Petraeus's Joint Strategic Assessment Team -- led by a longtime adviser, Col. H.R. McMaster, and with the Central Command deputy, Maj. Gen. John Allen, as executive director -- is reaching out to handpicked experts as well as State Department, Pentagon and other civilian and military officials with experience in the region.
The team will comprise about 100 people, organized initially into six subregional teams, tasked with investigating the root causes of insecurity in the region with the goal of finding solutions that integrate military action, diplomacy and development work.
Afghanistan and Pakistan experts consulted so far include Shuja Nawaz, author of "Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within," whom Petraeus consulted during a private lunch in Washington last week, and Ahmed Rashid, author of "Descent into Chaos," a sobering look at Afghanistan that officials say Petraeus has read.
Another expert slated to join the team is Clare Lockhart, co-founder of the New York-based Institute for State Effectiveness, who spent five years working in Afghanistan as an adviser to the United Nations, the Afghan government and the NATO-led military command. "This team will essentially provide a policy bridge from one administration to the next," Lockhart said.
Reconciliation of moderate Taliban insurgents who are willing to ally with the Afghan government is emerging as one main thrust of Petraeus's approach, according to officials and experts who have discussed it with him recently.
"In Afghanistan, or in any country where society is dominated by tribes, reconciliation really needs to be a focus," said a senior Central Command official.
Petraeus agreed but stressed that any outreach needs to be done in conjunction with the Afghan government. "I do think you have to talk to enemies," he said at the Heritage Foundation. "Clearly you want to try to reconcile with as many as possible. . . . The key there is making sure all of that is done in complete coordination and with the complete support of the Afghan government and President [Hamid] Karzai."
Another priority is to take a regional approach to the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including more robust diplomacy with neighbors and a regional economic development effort, experts said.
"All the regional countries are interfering in Afghanistan and backing proxies because they see the U.S. effort failing, and they are all hedging their bets," Rashid said. He added that Petraeus "does understand the regional approach" and was assertive in advancing that in Iraq.
"When you look at a lot of these problems, you see considerable regional connections," Petraeus said yesterday. The effort would embrace all of Afghanistan's neighbors and possibly extend to India, which has had a long-standing rivalry with Pakistan. "There may be opportunities with respect to India," he said.
An overview of the review team's mission obtained by The Post says that including other government agencies and other nations in the planning will "mitigate the risk of over-militarization of efforts and the development of short-term solutions to long-term problems."
Nevertheless, some experts questioned whether Petraeus will have the authority to carry out such a sweeping strategy.
"General Petraeus is not in charge of our diplomacy. He can't decide whether we try to form an international contacts group on Pakistan," said Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University.
Moreover, in dealing with Afghanistan at Central Command, Petraeus will face limitations that he did not encounter as the top commander in Iraq, such as the lack of a unified military command and serious resource shortages.
"We don't own it. It's been a NATO effort since 2006. He won't have the same sway with Karzai and the ambassadors and a bunch of other people that he had in Iraq," said a former senior military official with experience in Afghanistan.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.