And Now, The Hard Part

Washington, DC – It was the speediest nomination, Senate confirmation hearing and vote to affirm a presidential appointment since Mr. Obama moved into the White House. Shortly after noon on June 30 – just seven days after he was named to replace General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. Senate voted 99-0 to appoint General David Petraeus as the next commander of the International Security Assistance Force (COM-ISAF) in Afghanistan.  He faces extraordinary challenges. Unfortunately, the O-Team isn’t likely to make a tough job any easier.

General Petraeus takes command in the midst of an increasingly difficult and bloody campaign. U.S. and NATO casualties topped 100 in June, the highest since the war began in the aftermath of the 9-11-01 terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 on U.S. soil. The 46-nation “Grand Coalition” he now heads under a United Nations mandate is rife with dozens of conflicting “National Caveats” that limit how troops from various countries can be deployed and employed. Placating our “allies” in this fight is a full-time task in itself.

 The “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, which Mr. Obama famously announced in a surreal speech at the U.S. Military Academy on December 1, 2009, is not yet complete. Logistics support for deploying additional forces to a country suffering from “Infrastructure Deficit Disorder” continues to be hampered by the need to move personnel, equipment and supplies into Afghanistan by air or overland through lovely places like Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.  All of these routes depend on the “good will” of their governments – and exorbitant fees for fuel, bases, security and “transit rights.”

Meanwhile, factions in both Iran and Pakistan are doing their best to confound any possibility of “success” – the word Mr. Obama uses instead of “victory” – for what we’re trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Recent intelligence reports do not bode well.

Taliban-inspired terror attacks have become a near daily occurrence in Pakistan’s major cities. Despite hundreds of civilian casualties, and the inherent risks to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal, Islamabad’s infamous Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) continues to provide safe-harbor, training and material support to Afghan Taliban-affiliated networks at war with the government in Kabul. While Hellfire missiles delivered by U.S. remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) have proven effective in eliminating high-value Taliban and Al Qaeda targets in the mountainous Af-Pak border region, nearly all the targeting data for these attacks has to be acquired at great risk by small teams of human intelligence (HUMINT) collectors.

Along Afghanistan’s western border, the Ayatollahs running Iran are playing a dangerous game of their own. On June 24th, Congress passed a new set of “sanctions” designed to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The next day, I was shown new information about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) delivering new long-range rockets, mortars, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), machine-made explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) and batteries for surface to air missiles to Afghan insurgents. 

The IRGC is known to have provided weapons, training and safe-harbor to Shiite militias in Iraq since 2004. Opium from Afghanistan has been running through IRGC-protected “ratlines” for at least as many years. But until now there has been scant evidence of Tehran’s agents supplying advanced munitions and support to the Afghan insurgency.  This support threatens to make the difficult fight in Afghanistan even more perilous in the months ahead.  

As if these challenges for the new ISAF commander were not enough, the Karzai government in Kabul is creating even more. Charges of rampant corruption, opium dealing and outright theft of U.S. and European aid were heightened this week when The Wall Street Journal revealed that billions of dollars in cash have been flown out of the country over the past three years – a practice that continues to this day.

Though significant, these problems are not insurmountable if General Petraeus is given sufficient time, resources and essential political support from Washington. And that may prove to be his greatest challenge. The foolhardy July 2011 “deadline” Mr. Obama has imposed for commencing U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has emboldened our adversaries and disheartened our allies. Coupled with overly restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) for combat operations, the “pull-out” (troops in theatre call it the “bug-out date”) threatens to jeopardize any prospect for a positive outcome in Afghanistan.  In his confirmation hearings this week, the new ISAF commander distanced himself from the O-Team on both issues.

Senator John McCain, inquiring about the withdrawal date, asked, “was there a recommendation from you or anyone in the military that we set a date of July 2011?” General Petraeus responded, “There was not.”

The general also told the solons he had already talked to President Karzai and other Afghan government officials about the ROE and stated, “I want to assure the mothers and fathers of those fighting in Afghanistan that I see it as a moral imperative to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform.”

Abandoning a “withdrawal date” and revising the ROE to “bring all assets to bear” are absolutely essential. Convincing Mr. Obama of these necessities may be the hardest task of all.