WASHINGTON -- It was the speediest nomination, Senate confirmation hearing and vote to affirm a presidential appointment since Barack Obama moved into the White House. Shortly after noon on June 30 -- just seven days after Gen. David Petraeus was named to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- the U.S. Senate voted 99-0 to appoint Petraeus as the next commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. He faces extraordinary challenges. Unfortunately, the O-Team isn't likely to make a tough job any easier.
Petraeus takes command in the midst of an increasingly difficult and bloody campaign. U.S. and NATO casualties topped 100 in June, the most in one month since the war began in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 on U.S. soil. The 46-nation "grand coalition" he now heads under a United Nations mandate is rife with dozens of conflicting "national caveats" that limit how troops from various countries can be deployed and employed. Placating our "allies" in this fight is a full-time task in itself.
The "surge" of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, which Obama famously announced in a surreal speech at the U.S. Military Academy on Dec. 1, 2009, is not yet complete. Logistics support for deploying additional forces to a country suffering from "infrastructure-deficit disorder" continues to be hampered by the need to move personnel, equipment and supplies into Afghanistan by air or overland through lovely places such as Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. All of these routes depend on the good will of their governments -- and exorbitant fees for fuel, bases, security and "transit rights."
Meanwhile, factions in both Iran and Pakistan are doing their best to confound any possibility of "success" -- the word Obama uses instead of "victory" -- for what we're trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Recent intelligence reports do not bode well.
Taliban-inspired terror attacks have become nearly a daily occurrence in Pakistan's major cities. Despite hundreds of civilian casualties and the inherent risks to Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenal, Islamabad's infamous Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence continues to provide safe harbor, training and materiel support to Afghan Taliban-affiliated networks at war with the government in Kabul. Though Hellfire missiles delivered by U.S. remotely piloted aircraft have proved effective in eliminating high-value Taliban and al-Qaida targets in the mountainous Af-Pak border region, nearly all the targeting data for these attacks have to be acquired at great risk by small teams of human intelligence collectors.
Along Afghanistan's western border, the ayatollahs running Iran are playing a dangerous game of their own. On June 24, Congress passed a new set of sanctions designed to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The next day, I was shown new information about how the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is delivering new long-range rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, machine-made explosively formed penetrators and batteries for surface-to-air missiles to Afghan insurgents.
The IRGC is known to have provided weapons, training and safe harbor to Shiite militias in Iraq since 2004. Opium from Afghanistan has been running through IRGC-protected "ratlines" for at least as many years. But until now, there had been scant evidence that Tehran's agents were supplying advanced munitions and support to the Afghan insurgency. This support threatens to make the difficult fight in Afghanistan even more perilous in the months ahead.
As if these challenges for the new International Security Assistance Force commander were not enough, the Karzai government in Kabul is creating even more. Charges of rampant corruption, opium dealing and outright theft of U.S. and European aid were heightened this week when The Wall Street Journal revealed that billions of dollars in cash has been flown out of the country over the past three years -- a practice that continues to this day.
Though significant, these problems are not insurmountable if Gen. Petraeus is given sufficient time and resources and essential political support from Washington. And that may prove to be his greatest challenge. The foolhardy July 2011 "deadline" Obama has imposed for commencing U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has emboldened our adversaries and disheartened our allies. Coupled with overly restrictive rules of engagement for combat operations, the pullout (troops in theater call it the "bug-out date") threatens to jeopardize any prospect for a positive outcome in Afghanistan. In his confirmation hearings this week, the new ISAF commander distanced himself from the O-Team on both issues.
Sen. John McCain, inquiring about the withdrawal date, asked, "Was there a recommendation from you or anyone in the military that we set a date of July 2011?" Petraeus responded, "There was not."
The general also told the solons he already had talked to President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan government officials about the rules of engagement and stated, "I want to assure the mothers and fathers of those fighting in Afghanistan that I see it as a moral imperative to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform."
Abandoning a withdrawal date and revising the rules of engagement to "bring all assets to bear" are absolutely essential. Convincing Obama of these necessities may be the hardest task of all.
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