America at War: The Failures of Petraeus and McChrystal


Gen Petraeus and Gen McChrystal Were Weak Generals


by Asif Haroon Raja


Looking back into the events of first decade of new millennium, one is bewildered to see that despite being the most powerful nation on earth and having military apparatus on a scale greater than the sum of every other country, the US has patently failed to impose its solution on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A huge force laced with most sophisticated munitions and technology couldn’t subdue Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The invaders vastly superior in men and material won the conventional battle against ill-equipped and impoverished resistance forces in quick time and prematurely sounded drumbeats of victory in December 2001, but then got stuck in low intensity guerrilla war in which it started losing.

Ten years have lapsed and still the battle is raging with no side winning but the dice is loaded in favor of Taliban. The US led coalition had viewed the Taliban as scum of the earth that would be trampled under their boots. However, despite applying massive force unabatedly and resorting to brutal torture, the US couldn’t defeat its much inferior opponents. A stage has come when its back is against the wall and it has ordered troop drawdown but it is clueless how to extricate itself out of the black hole.

The attention of Centcom under Gen David Petraeus remained divided between two theatres of war from March 2003 onwards and both Petraeus and Gen McChrystal accorded higher priority to Iraq over Afghanistan till as late as 2008. While the Taliban were busy regaining ground in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the US-NATO high command in Kabul remained smug in the belief that Taliban had become a spent force. It remained more focused on Pakistan than on Afghanistan.

Petraeus and McChrystal were undeservingly glorified and rated as heroes of Iraq. Iraqi Sunnis helped curtailing violence in Iraq in 2007 by fighting al-Qaeda, but the crown was put on Petraeus head. Priorities reversed when Obama took over in January 2009 and he moved McChrystal to Afghanistan hoping that he will be able to repeat his so-called success story there as well. He happily accepted 21000 additional troops whereas he should have at that time insisted on 50,000 troops to be able to simultaneously launch two major operations in Helmand and Kandahar to gain a decisive edge over the two strongholds of Taliban. The made-available force was too small to make any impact and as a consequence the much hyped Helmand offensive turned into a fiasco. Moreover, he did not take into consideration that demography, topography and obtaining operational environment in Afghanistan were quite different. Dissimilarities were not evaluated realistically.

Petraeus and McChrystal demonstrated low-grade generalship since both kept reinforcing failure with larger force blindly rather than applying skill and superior strategy to outsmart their opponents. The years 2009 and 2010 in which two troop surges took place proved to be costliest years in terms of ISAF casualties. A superior general is the one who snatches victory out of he jaws of defeat using lesser force and more skill, while a weak general is the one who uses a sledgehammer instead of a swatter to kill a fly and even then overturns victory into defeat.

Call for second troop surge of 32000 troops in September 2009 was not based on real threat perception but was the outcome of nervous tension. Extra force was not sought by McChrystal to overrun Taliban strongholds in eastern and southern Afghanistan but merely to steady the jangled nerves of his troops as a result of temporary reverses in Helmand, Kunar and Nuristan and to psychologically overawe Taliban which were on the rampage.

Second reinforcement which got completed by March 2010 was sought too late and at a wrong time when the Taliban had already gained a decisive edge and were exerting influence over nearly 80% territory in all provinces of Afghanistan. This change in tide didn’t happen abruptly or by stroke of luck. The Taliban endowed with superior cause to win back freedom worked for it strenuously and consistently and for them it was question of life and death. It took them six years to bounce back in strength.

His nervousness could be gauged from the fact that instead of stemming the resurgence of Taliban by regaining the lost spaces, he got the border posts vacated in haste and ordered adoption of rearward posture to avoid fatalities. He was so unhinged that posts facing Angoor Adda in South Waziristan were also abandoned right at the time when Pak Army’s major offensive had unfolded in that region. Instead of providing the anvil, he facilitated flight of runaway Taliban after the main base of TTP was dismantled in November 2009.

By confining troops to fortified urban centers, he made his troops cautious, casualty phobic and bunker minded. He decided to make maximum use of air power and to avoid boots on ground as far as possible. By adopting defeatist strategy, he not only shrunk the perimeter of security but also emboldened the Taliban to wrest the initiative and to strike at will at targets in depth. From 2010 onwards all attacks were made by drones, jets, helicopters and by long range ground weapons; ground troops were seldom used to fight battles face to face. Troops devoid of cause and feeling homesick had little heart to get involved in serious combat since they wanted to return home safe and sound. Without boots on ground and that too without total commitment, no decisive results can ever be achieved with airpower alone. The airpower can assist but cannot win wars. Same is the case with armor. Ultimately it is the thin skinned infantry under dynamic junior leaders which assaults with bayonet fitted rifles, captures ground and hold it. This is exactly what Pak Army has been doing under most adverse conditions and winning.

Uninspiring McChrystal’s efforts to drive a wedge between al-Qaeda and Taliban and to divide Taliban made no headway. Likewise, his efforts to win hearts and minds of Pashtun Afghans and to limit civilian casualties didn’t reverse the rising trend of anti-Americanism. In frustration he considered it prudent to call it a day by antagonizing Obama and provoking him to order his removal.

Uncharismatic Petraeus in whom greater hopes were pinned also disappointed the Americans. He reversed policy of winning hearts and minds and tried to put fear in the hearts of Taliban by stepping up aerial and artillery bombardments and by inducting MI tanks in southern Afghanistan and allowed ‘kill teams’ to conduct night raids in villages and farms, which resulted in increased civilian casualties and heightened violence and anti-Americanism. He didn’t make productive use of 152000 ISAF troops and ANA under his command and kept delaying Kandahar operation on the flimsy excuse of linking it with an operation in North Waziristan (NW) by Pak Army.

He argued that onus of success of his ill-conceived counter terrorism strategy rested on elimination of safe havens of terrorists in FATA. He tried to build an impression that but for Pakistan’s half-hearted fight against the militants, the US could have won the war. He maintained that unless safe havens of al-Qaeda and Haqqani network in NW were dismantled, no progress could be made in Eastern Afghanistan. Success in Southern Afghanistan was made contingent to dismantlement of Mullah Omar led Afghan Shura allegedly in Quetta region.

In concert with unimposing Admiral Mike Mullen he exerted extreme pressure on Pakistan to launch a major offensive in NW and made it into a prestige point. It was during his tenure that record breaking drone strikes came on NW since he wanted to destroy safe havens and also wanted to instigate the militants and peaceful people of NW to rise against Pak Army. Conversely, drone war triggered anti-Americanism and recruitment of militants. Helicopter assault to get OBL was launched from Baghram base under his command which has strained Pak-US relations and has forced Pakistan to take preventive measures against CIA’s intrusions and made things more difficult for USA.

Seeing that his tenure was coming to an end and had no good news to offer to his successor Gen John Allen except bagful of failures, Petraeus initiated a psychological war by repeatedly asserting that lot of progress had been made and victory was very much possible if drawdown was delayed. Increase in civilian casualties in Afghanistan and NW was projected as successes against Taliban and al-Qaeda. Petraeus spun a story that al-Qaeda had almost been crushed and that not more than 50 operatives were present in Afghanistan.

His claims proved false when daring jail break in Kandahar took place followed by series of raids and bomb attacks by Taliban. These included murders of Hamid Karzai’s half-brother Ahmed Wali on July12, and his key aide Jan Muhammad on 18th. Both were very important for Karzai and USA since they were instrumental in opening doors for negotiations with Taliban. Petraeus myopically put unreasonable conditions on Taliban as pre-requisites for peace talks and doubled his efforts to divide Taliban so as to isolate Mullah Omar led irreconcilable Taliban. Instead of trying to win over hard line Taliban, he relied upon drug barons, warlords, militias, and private security contractors. He also had a hand in heating up western border in June-July to put added pressure on Pakistan.

All his moves backfired. While the US-NATO forces are not making any headway in Afghanistan and have yet to score a victory against the Taliban and Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy has utterly failed, Pak Army under Gen Kayani has achieved several impressive victories, which adds to their discomfiture. To lessen their embarrassment, the US has been continually blaming Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan. It draws some comfort by discomfiting Pakistan through its intimidating tactics.

The US forgets that the 152000 strong ISAF aided by ANA is fighting the main battle against Taliban-alQaeda in Afghanistan while Pakistan Army is fighting the auxiliary battle. Success or failure of the battle will hinge upon the outcome of main effort and not the auxiliary effort. Moreover, why the US wants the whole operational environments to be entirely in its favor? In other words, it desires one-sided exercise with not even a single bullet coming from its opponents and with 100% assured results. Pakistan helped USA in emasculating al-Qaeda and in keeping Pakistani Taliban engaged at a heavy cost; but now it wants Pakistan to enfeeble Afghan Taliban as well.

Gen Allen took over the command of US-NATO forces in Afghanistan on July 18 and Petraeus instead of calling it a day has been given the slot of Director ISI. Panetta has taken over as Secretary Defence. Allen has inherited a huge mess and has assumed charge under insalubrious conditions when the war has been lost and drawdown has begun on July 15. He will remain handicapped because of the over bearing authority of hardnosed Panetta and Petraeus, but it is hoped that he will also not start reinforcing failures and repeating the mistakes of his two predecessors and will take sensible steps to retrieve the situation as much as possible. If he can somehow remain free of perverse Indo-Israeli influence and win over Mullah Omar led Taliban and make them agree to hold negotiations for a peaceful settlement and win back the trust and confidence of Pakistan rather than making it a scapegoat, and focus towards orderly withdrawal of troops by due date, he will be remembered as a successful General. Otherwise his fate will be worse than his predecessors.

About the Writer: Asif Haroon is a retired Brig and a defence analyst. Email: [email protected]


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Brig Asif Haroon Raja an Member Board of Advisors Opinion Maker is Staff College and Armed Forces WarCoursequalified, holds MSc war studies degree; a second generation officer, he fought epic battle of Hilli in northwest East Bengal during 1971 war, in which Maj M. Akram received Nishan-e-Haider posthumously. He served as Directing Staff Command & Staff College, Defence Attaché Egypt and Sudan and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He commanded the heaviest brigade in Kashmir. He is lingual and speaks English, Pashto and Punjabi fluently. He is author of books titled ‘Battle of Hilli’, ‘1948, 1965 & 1971 Kashmir Battles and Freedom Struggle’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’, Roots of 1971 Tragedy’; has written number of motivational pamphlets. Draft of his next book ‘Tangled Knot of Kashmir’ is ready. He is a defence analyst and columnist and writes articles on security, defence and political matters for numerous international/national publications.