29 Jun 2010

Bullet-proof Petraeus: will he fight the Taliban or talk to them?

Petraeus is a bullet-proof general and there should be a relatively seamless handover between McChrystal and Petraeus, but will the US public back a new approach to the Taliban, asks Sarah Smith.

The last time General Petraeus appeared in front of the US congress he passed out. It was put down to jet lag and dehydration at the time. The incident inspired quite a few jokes around Washington but it doesn’t seem to have done the four-star general’s reputation any real harm.

Since then President Obama has asked him to take over command of US forces in Afghanistan – to replace the loose-lipped General Stanley McChrystal – and today he finds himself back in front of congress once again for confirmation hearings before he can ship out to Kabul.

Petraeus probably doesn’t need to worry about whether or not his appointment will be approved. Even Senator John McCain – who will oppose any decision Obama makes on a point of principle – has said this ought to be the swiftest confirmation in history. 

Petraeus is a bullet-proof general. And there should be a relatively seamless handover between McChrystal and Petraeus because there isn’t much difference in strategy between the two men. They are both true believers of the counter-insurgency strategy – or COIN as it’s known.

The White House also fully signed up to COIN when they announced a surge in troop numbers to Afghanistan last year. The only problem is that COIN really isn’t working.  

And what will make lots of people nervous is the fact that these Petraeus confirmation hearings will shine a bright light on America’s policy in Afghanistan – and its failures.

Now we have British commanders like General Sir David Richards coming out and saying that they don’t think a complete military defeat can ever be inflicted on the Taliban. And suggesting that we need to start talking to the Taliban as well as shooting at them.

That idea is being pushed heavily by the Afghan and Pakistani governments and has been gathering some currency in the US as well, even if the top brass aren’t yet convinced it’s a strategy they could ever sell to the American people.

General Petraeus is bound to be asked whether he thinks his job in Afghanistan will be to defeat the Taliban or to start negotiating with them.

And as no one is quite sure in what direction official American policy is about to go on this question, the safe answer is probably to recommend doing both.