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Petraeus Is a Failure -- Why Do We Pretend He's Been a Success?

Petraeus's tragic blunders in Afghanistan and Pakistan leave only one option: he must be replaced.

Gen. David Petraeus’ aura of success resulting from reduced violence in Iraq has blinded normally sensible observers to his far greater failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His ill-conceived effort to deny al-Qaida and the Taliban “safe havens” in Pakistan -- through drone aircraft bombing, special-forces assassination and perhaps torture (by way of association with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his new Afghanistan military commander) -- has backfired, driving the Taliban east into Pakistan, where they have joined local allies to weaken the Pakistani government. It has also strengthened, not weakened, al-Qaida and alienated growing numbers of Pakistanis. The Petraeus strategy has thus dramatically strengthened America’s enemies and helped destabilize a nuclear-armed nation of 170 million whose importance dwarfs Iraq and Afghanistan combined. More alarmingly, he now intends to escalate his failed strategy, which could cause unimaginable catastrophes in coming months and years.

President Obama -- who may well regret his call as a candidate for attacking Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, given the debacle those attacks have produced -- should replace Petraeus, and McChrystal’s nomination should be blocked. However, Obama is unlikely to take such an action absent significant public pressure. Petraeus has enormous leverage over the president. The general is extremely popular because of the perceived success of the Iraqi surge. The Obama administration could be capsized by a combination of likely losses in the “Af-Pak”¬ theater and the popular Petraeus resigning and blaming Obama, one imagines, for “not listening to his military commanders.” Obama could even be defeated in 2012 by Petraeus himself on those grounds, should persistent Washington rumors about a nascent “Petraeus for President” campaign prove true.

Obama’s best political defense if his Middle East policy fails, as appears likely, would be to claim he was following the military’s lead. This may explain why he has reversed himself and adopted such Bush policies as military tribunals and preventive detention.

It is critical now for Congress, the media, opinion makers and the public to undertake an objective analysis of the basic question: Has the Petraeus strategy worked in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater?

The general’s “Iraqi surge” strategy is irrelevant to this question. Past military victories do not guarantee future success. Petraeus has been no more successful in “Af-Pak” than the creators of the Maginot Line were in World War II, generals who had succeeded in World War I.

When Petraeus became head of CENTCOM (the U.S. Central Command) in October 2008, he became America’s chief military strategist for the theater, overseeing Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Petraeus clearly sees himself as the central player in the region. When a New York Post interviewer stated on May 19, “As the commander of the US Central Command, you’re the big-picture `strategy guy,’ ” Petraeus did not demur. Instead he referred to his “strong” team of generals -- McChrystal, David Rodriguez and Karl Eikenberry (the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan) -- and added that “I’m privileged to have Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as my `diplomatic wingman.’ ” The perceived success of the surge in Iraq had given Petraeus tremendous power, allowing him to extend the strategy to the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.

The most important mission of the general, as overall theater commander, has been to design a strategy to ensure that fighting in Afghanistan does not destabilize its nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan. He has failed in this mission.

David Kilcullen, Petraeus’ own counterinsurgency adviser in Iraq, has characterized U.S. policy as a fundamental “strategic error ... our insistence on personalizing this conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, devoting time and resources toward killing or capturing ‘high-value’ targets ... distracts us from larger problems.”

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