September 29, 2008


What Petraeus Understands (Linda Robinson, September 2008, Foreign Policy)

The Mesopotamian lessons that will be most useful in the South Asian conflict derive from Petraeus‘s famous counterinsurgency manual, which emphasizes a “population-centric” approach. In Iraq, his command placed top priority on securing the population, meeting its needs, and shoring up the legitimacy of the government versus the insurgency. Engineers built walls and soldiers erected checkpoints to protect the population and keep out car bombers.

Much has been made of the coalition’s recent successes against al Qaeda in Iraq. But only in a very focused way did Petraeus take an “enemy-centric” approach to the terrorist organization. Killing the bad guys worked because the killing was more discriminate and the hardcore elements were separated from the rest of the insurgency and the population support base. Thanks to new human intelligence gained from the population and former insurgents, these operations were more precisely aimed at small numbers of “irreconcilables.” Biometric devices helped create a computerized, shareable registry of possible insurgents, which led to more accurate targeting. Other technical means then allowed rapid targeting of entire cells, but it was human intelligence that ensured the targets were the right ones. Then, U.S. and Iraqi troops held the areas after counterterrorist operations, unlike in the past.

Toward the mass of the Sunni insurgency, Petraeus adopted a new strategy. “We can’t kill our way to victory,” he was fond of saying. He sought instead to convert those who were fighting—bringing the “reconcilable” insurgents in from the cold.

The obvious parallel in his new role is to the Pashtun nation that straddles the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pashtuns form the support base for the Taliban insurgency, which in turn gives sanctuary and support to the much smaller al Qaeda network. The United States and NATO need an approach that wins over the Pashtuns, looks for Taliban converts, and uses the resulting intelligence in a very focused counterterrorist campaign against al Qaeda. Unfortunately, this is contrary to the dominant thinking in the policy debate. Many in Washington are pressuring the administration and Pakistan to “get tough” in the tribal areas when in fact they need to “get smart.”

The problem with this theory is that Iraq's Sunni didn't start co-operating with the U.S. and the elected government until Sadrists and other Shi'ite militias had engaged in enough reprisals to convince them that not only were they the minority that elections had revealed them to be but that the Shi'a weren't the sheep Saddam had led them to believe they were. This, combined with many of the al Qaedists not being Iraqis, created an incentive for the Sunni to put down the violence within their own territory that was directed at the Shi'a and the government and to try for as much peaceable self-government as they could get. Who is going to scare the Pashtun enough that they too decide to reckon with the problem in their midst?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 29, 2008 8:48 PM
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