General David Petraeus is taking command in Afghanistan to stage-manage a war that the US has decided it cannot win militarily, but from which it cannot withdraw without damaging loss of face.
General Petraeus has so far said surprisingly little about Afghanistan, aside from noting how different it is from Iraq. The similarity between the two conflicts is that in both cases the US needed to compromise with its enemies and take a back seat in conflicts that have raged for 30 years.
The US never had vital interests at stake in Baghdad or Kabul. It tumbled into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of 9/11 to restore its status as the world’s sole superpower, and because it thought victory would come easily in both countries. To its horror, the US political elite found that it was fighting draining wars that demonstrated American weakness rather than strength. The immense US military machine proved unable to overcome local guerrillas numbering in each case fewer than 30,000.
General Petraeus’s greatest skills are as a politician who can adapt himself to local circumstances. His reputation for innovative military tactics is largely a smokescreen to hide political manoeuvres. In Afghanistan, the Taliban draw their support exclusively from a portion of the Pashtun community to which only 42 per cent of Afghans belong.
In Afghanistan, it is not that the Taliban is so strong but that the Afghan government is so weak. One Pakistani officer commanding Pashtun tribal levies on the other side of the Afghan border said: “For 3,000 years xenophobia has been at the heart of Pashtun culture.” By the same token, the Taliban cannot expand into areas populated by the 58 per cent of Afghans who are Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara or other minorities.