As the United States celebrated its Independence Day, its favourite soldier General David Petraeus took over as the new head of US forces in Afghanistan. Just who is he and what is to be expected from him?
One hundred push-ups in one minute. A mile in six-and-a-half minutes, and a daily 5.6-mile run in the searing 38- degree Celsius desert heat.
It's impressive for anyone, let alone a 57-year-old.
But this isn’t your typical middle-aged man. He is General David Howell Petraeus, who recently assumed command of US forces in Afghanistan.
He got the job when his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, was sacked by President Barack Obama for allowing a magazine to publish his subordinates’ thoughtless criticism of the White House’s handling of the war in Afghanistan.
Much has been written about General Petraeus, whose previous role in the Middle East was Commander of the Multinational Forces in Iraq from January 2007 to September 2008. Before Barack Obama became the transatlantic darling during his presidential campaign, the general had already won hearts and minds in Europe..
Britain's The Daily Telegraph named him 2007's Man of the Year, and he was German Der Speigel's "America's Most Respected Soldier".
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it this way: "When General Petraeus took charge 19 months ago, darkness had descended on this land... Merchants of chaos were gaining strength. Death was commonplace. Around the world, questions mounted about whether a new strategy – or any strategy, for that matter – could make a real difference.
"Slowly, but inexorably, the tide began to turn... Our enemies took a fearsome beating they will not soon forget. Reinforced and fortified by our own people, the soldiers of Iraq found new courage and confidence. And the people of Iraq, resilient and emboldened, rose up to take back their country."
U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, talks with an Afghan man who welcomed him to the Baraki Barak bazaar Oct 29, 2009, in the town of Baraki Barak in Logar province, Afghanistan.
Photo credit: DoD, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Bradley A. Lail
Can General Petraeus work the same magic in Afghanistan?
He certainly knows the area. After his stint in Iraq, he headed the Central Command unit of the US military that looked after the vast area stretching from Egypt to Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, till two weeks ago.
Afghanistan is a bigger challenge than Iraq. The troubled territory includes neighbouring Pakistan. As General James Conway, head of the Marine Corp, noted, it is “the closest place where you have the nexus of terrorism and nuclear weapons”.
Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province harbours extremist elements wanting not only to destabilise the Karzai government in Kabul, but also hinder co-operation between Islamabad and its Western allies.
When he ran the Central Command Unit, Petraeus said Afghanistan needed a "significant and sustained effort" and “regional support that requires considerable support for Pakistan, which faces substantial difficulties of its own."
He repeatedly said a military “surge” alone would not save Afghanistan. The solution was to build up the Afghan forces so that the eventual US withdrawal would not make its long presence there seem like a waste of time.
Gates in November 2008 said: “There is a huge disproportion between what it costs to train and equip an Afghan soldier and what it costs to put an American soldier in Afghanistan, trained and equipped and sustained. It is an order of many orders of magnitude, (and that’s) true of other countries as well.
Former US Ambassador to the UN Nancy Sodenberg noted at the start of the Obama presidency:
“Our generals know that the secret of the ‘surge’ wasn't simply putting more US troops on the ground as our coalition partners withdrew. The secret was implementing a new set of tactics, largely drawn from the counter-insurgency manual developed by Petraeus, that focused on the Iraqi people's basic needs.”
Just what was it that made Petraeus's counter-insurgency plan succeed in Iraq?
Sodenberg wrote, “Petraeus kept asking, 'Is life better than it was under Saddam Hussein?' He made great strides in improving the security situation by bettering Iraqis' lives with quick, high-impact construction projects, by employing Iraqis rather than foreign contractors to help build their own country and even jump-starting trade between northern Iraq and Syria.”
Can this approach work in Afghanistan?
That’s exactly what’s needed, according to Lakhdar Brahimi, one of the Afghan leaders involved in the initial transition of power after the fall of the Taliban.
"This nonsense about fighting terrorism in Afghanistan doesn't make any sense. If you help the people of Afghanistan rebuild their state, international terrorism will disappear from Afghanistan overnight."
General Petraeus, hopefully, will be the man to do this.
For more on the general, here is a selection from theasiamag.com's "100 days – An Imaginary but Factual Journal of General David Petraeus"