Commentary Magazine


How Petraeus Is Conducting Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

Quietly, without a lot of hype or fanfare, General David Petraeus is putting his stamp on operations in Afghanistan. A few indications of his approach have emerged in the past week.

First, there was the Counterinsurgency Guidance he issued to the troops. In many ways it echoes the guidance from McChrystal and the guidance Petraeus himself had issued in Iraq. For instance, it begins with an injunction to “secure and serve the population” and to “live among the people,” both classic precepts of “population-centric counterinsurgency.”

But the new COIN Guidance also emphasizes the need to “help confront the culture of impunity” — which is to say the rampant corruption which alienates the people of Afghanistan from their government and drives them into the arms of the Taliban. In a similar vein, Petraeus tells the troops to “help Afghans build accountable governance” and to “identify corrupt officials.” One of the biggest problems in Afghanistan has been that too often Western money is inadvertently fueling corruption — so Petraeus instructs his command: “Money is ammunition; don’t put it in the wrong hands.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that, to help ensure that the coalition does a better job of fighting corruption, Petraeus is assigning Brigadier General H.R. McMaster — one of the brightest and most famous officers in the entire army — to spearhead a new task force dealing with this problem. That’s very good news, because, while corruption has long been on NATO’s radar screen as an important issue, it has not gotten the resources or attention that it deserves. With McMaster on the case, it’s safe to say that the visibility of this issue will be elevated — as it should be.

Petraeus has also issued a new “tactical directive” governing the use of force. This has been a hot-button issue with some troops and their families (and a few commentators in the States), who have claimed that McChrystal had issued overly restrictive rules of engagement, which made it impossible for troops in combat to call in badly needed air support. Those who hoped that Petraeus would lift the restrictions will be disappointed; but those who realize that the heart of successful counterinsurgency is to win over the people will be cheered by Petraeus’s directive, which slightly adjusts, but does not repudiate, McChrystal’s approach. The directive instructs the troops: “[W]e must remember that it is a moral imperative both to protect Afghan civilians and to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform and the Afghan security forces with whom we are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder when they are in a tough spot.” That’s exactly the right balance that any smart commander in a counterinsurgency must strike.

These are not massive changes from the McChrystal approach. But then again, massive changes aren’t needed because McChrystal was basically on the right path — and Petraeus, as Central Command chief, had been guiding McChrystal along. These are the kinds of course adjustments that any prudent commander will make when faced with a thinking, adaptive foe. We should not make too much of these initial moves by Petraeus but they do indicate the kind of counterinsurgency effort he is conducting — one that tries to protect the population not only from the Taliban but also from corrupt and predatory government officials.