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

A political and military dead end faces US and British forces

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Conveyancing Case Handler

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Conveyancing Case Handler

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Conveyancing Case Hand...

Recruitment Genius: Office Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 12 months

£12675 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Assistant is required...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Case Handler / Probate Assistant

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler/Probate ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
 

The strangely parallel lives of Oliver Letwin and Ed Miliband

Matthew Norman
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral