Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Military success is often rewarded by the opportunity and honor of succeeding -- or failing -- on an even larger stage.

By some accounts, Gen. David Petraeus -- savior of Baghdad, deliverer of Anbar -- preferred a quieter European command as his next step toward becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead, he was put in charge of Central Command, covering the Wild West of the world, from pirates off the Horn of Africa to Uzbek thugs in South Waziristan. It is the site of two American wars and the home base of the global jihadist revolt. It is also the region from which the next 9/11-style attack on America, if it arrives, is likely to come.

When interviewed, Petraeus does not seem like a man under burdens that would make Atlas sweat. His manner is precise and practiced. He hands out charts and graphs on counterinsurgency tactics like Halloween candy, assuming that you are eager to receive them. "If it is important," he jokes, "we have a PowerPoint slide that depicts it." Such presentations can be a substitute for actual thought. In this case, the charts express a vivid and developed worldview: There is no magic formula for fighting insurgencies drawn from Iraq. It is adaptation that leads to success. Method can overcome chaos -- but the method is improvisation.

This theory may be most severely tested in Pakistan's tribal regions, by a kind of irrational violence that defies PowerPoint summary. Pakistan's remote, impoverished North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas are administered effectively by no one. And into this vacuum of civilization has gathered a ghastly collection of killers, cutthroats and Islamist ideologues. Al-Qaeda leaders mix and marry into Afghan Taliban families. The Haqqani network launches attacks on U.S. troops within Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban issues threats against the White House and New York.

The war in Iraq proved it is possible -- with adequate will and resources -- to fight an insurgency by securing the population, gaining trust and intelligence, and turning local leaders against the radicals. But in Pakistan, America must encourage a counterinsurgency campaign at arm's length, through an unreliable partner who considers us unreliable as well.

Petraeus recognizes that getting the Pakistani military invested in this approach will not be swift or easy. After all, he says, "It took us years, with the best-resourced, most capable military institutions in the world."

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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