Daniel Korski

Petraeus’ lonely fight

Petraeus' lonely fight
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At last night’s Policy Exchange lecture, General David Petraeus said he had known the former CDS, Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, since “he was simply Sir Charles.” I met Petraeus for the first time when he was simply a colonel, serving with NATO forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even then he was thought of as a rising star. His leadership in Iraq, first in Mosul and then in Baghdad has only cemented his reputation.

Now, however, the scholar-warrior faces his probably greatest task – helping to defeat Taliban insurgents on both sides of the Durand Line. An effort, he said upon assuming command of CENTCOM in 2008, which might turn out to be “the longest campaign of the long war.”

Unfortunately, it may also be a campaign that the US ends up having to fight by itself. First of all, the mood inside NATO is becoming more and more defeatist by the day. If the Canadians and Dutch manage to pull out of ISAF in the next couple of years, as they have threatened to do, it is hard to see many other NATO allies staying beyond 2015, whatever the conditions on the ground. The Clegg-Ashdown article, with its suggestion of "a modern version of the old policy of Lord Curzon" to use air power and special forces to prevent the Taliban ever again marching on Kabul, has equivalents in the French, German and Dutch debates.

Second, even if other NATO allies stay for longer, it is hard to see how their militaries will adapt to the kind of close-quarter mentoring of local security forces that General Petraeus’ point man in Kabul, Stanley A. McChrystal, thinks is necessary. Co-locating with local forecs at company-level and below is just not something European militaries have experience of doing, nor are willing to risk doing, nor the assets to do so easily.

Either way, as Richard Gowan argues, “even if 2001 to 2011 will go down in European military histories as the Afghan decade (as the 1990s were defined by the Balkans) it is time to look ahead to the next chapter.” Sadly, it will probably be a return to military bilateralism, as the US forsakes real business inside formal alliances. It may see an informal withdrawal of US security guarantees to Europe, starting with Eastern Europe. Why, after all, should the US promise to fight for Euroepan freedom when Europeans are not willing to advance the self-same cause elsewhere? Finally, as Gowan argues, three schools of strategic thought may emerge – the New Cold Warriors, Small War Specialists and Power Projectors. But only the US will be able to attend all three.  

General Petraeus says the West needs to be “realistic in recognising that the campaign will require a sustained, substantial commitment.” But it is hard to see who else besides the US would have the stamina for that kind of comitment, even though the consequences for the Western security order are frightening.