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Pencil That Date Out

July 17, 2010

Tom Ricks parses the new local-security stratagem being pursued by Petraeus:

First is David Kilcullen‘s observation that the best security is provided locally by locals. If they can do that, all your worries about gathering good intelligence and such go out the window. They know where the bad actors are. They know how things work. They know the trails and hidey holes. If you feel able to arm the villagers, they often will be able to take care of business themselves. As Tip O’Neill famously said, all politics is local. And so is security.

Second is that one of the lessons of Iraq (and a bunch of other places) is that you can’t impose security from above. It has to grow locally. The job of the counterinsurgent commander is to try to nurture and then knit together those local areas — from neighborhoods and towns to districts, then into provinces, and finally, after a long time, nationally. From this also will emerge a new national politics, or so the theory goes. The upside is that if this works, it will provide sustainable security. The downside is that it takes years to develop.

Anybody see withdrawal in July 2011 happening?  You, in the back?  No?  Yeah, me neither.  As I said last month, replacing McChrystal with Petraeus is only a wise move “if he really is committed to victory in Afghanistan (whatever that means — presumably it’s the same as what we accomplished in Iraq).”  The President hasn’t yet abandoned next year’s withdrawal date, but if he’s interested in Petraeus’s version of winning in Afghanistan, he certainly better.  What Ricks is talking about isn’t going to happen in a year.  The question is whether the President has enough patience to see the thing through or whether he just put Petraeus at the helm because he thought the four-star general was a miracle-worker.

Either way, we’ll find out within a year.  The President probably wants Petraeus’s local security initiative to be the strategy, but is probably underestimating just how long it’s going to take to get done.  My bet is on his recognizing the situation sometime in the near future — if he hasn’t already recognized it privately — and declaring some kind of victory in Afghanistan even though Petraeus’s plan hasn’t been fully realized because he doesn’t want to be bogged down with this thing any longer than he had initially planned.  He’ll probably learn that withdrawal dates aren’t as useful as he thought they were when he was a Senator, and if he does decide to extend our military force beyond July 2011, there probably won’t be a new withdrawal date.  And he’ll probably realized that he missed the only out that he would get for a good while in June of 2010.

Bottom line: I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I don’t think anybody else does either.  But the smart money is on a “victory” in Afghanistan not looking like the victory any of us were looking for when we first committed to this engagement, ill advisedly or otherwise.

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