MacDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The ticking clock does not disturb the preternatural serenity that Gen. David Petraeus maintains regarding Afghanistan. Officially, the U.S. Central Command is located here; actually, it is wherever he is, which is never in one place for very long. He is away about 300 days a year, flying to and around his vast area of responsibility, which extends from Egypt to where his towering reputation is hostage to a timetable -- Afghanistan.
He earned his own chapter in American military history by advocating and presiding over the surge that broke the back of the Iraq insurgency. This was an instance of a military intellectual given full opportunity for the unity of theory and practice.
Today, however, only about half of the surge of 30,000 troops for Afghanistan, announced by the president in his speech at West Point five months ago, have arrived. The rest will be there by the end of August. Eleven months after that, the withdrawal the president promised -- in the sentence following the one that announced the increase -- is supposed to begin.
But Petraeus cautions that the president's words, properly parsed, allow ample time to achieve U.S. objectives. The president said on Dec. 1 that the "transition of our forces out of Afghanistan" must be "responsible," which means "taking into account conditions on the ground" and allowing for improved "Afghan capacity."
Petraeus, who likes fine distinctions, speaks of "thinning out" rather than "handing off" U.S. involvement, which is "what we're still doing in Iraq." This will take time because counterinsurgency in an underdeveloped society is, inescapably, nation-building. Which brings us back to the ticktock of the clock.
Petraeus believes that, "valley by valley and village by village," skillful policy "can break up the Taliban," much as Sunnis were peeled off the Iraq insurgency. But the recent withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korengal Valley was evidence of a changing mission: Rather than contest every valley and village, Petraeus wants to concentrate on protecting population centers where more than 70 percent of Afghans live.
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