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Patrick Cockburn: Petraeus cannot win if he sticks with current tactics

A political and military dead end faces US and British forces

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.

The International Security Assistance Force report for April seeks to maintain an upbeat tone but reveals, perhaps unwittingly, the political and military dead end facing US and British forces. It cites the Counterinsurgency Field Manual written by General Petraeus which says: "The success or failure of the effort depends, first, on effectively and continuously securing the population, and, second, on effectively establishing a host nation government presence on the local level."

But this is what cannot happen in Afghanistan. In Iraq, it could be done, as the local Sunni population was desperate for protection against Shia militias and al-Qa'ida. In Afghanistan, government officials are often seen as racketeers. The heavily publicised US, British and Afghan offensive to take the town of Marja saw the officials turn up for a few days, then take flight.

An astonishing feature of US strategy in Afghanistan is that US and British troops have been sent to fight in the Taliban heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar while failing to protect those areas where the Taliban are weak. Government control ends at a police station in south Kabul, after which the main road to Kandahar is preyed on by gangs of Taliban or bandits. Herat can be reached safely only by plane because the Herat-Kandahar road is partly held by the Taliban.

The best policy for General Petraeus would be to protect Afghans who want to be protected – who will mostly, but not exclusively, be non-Pashtun. This is about 70 per cent of the country. It is a measure of the dysfunctional strategy of the US, Britain and the Afghan government that this has not yet been done.