General David Petreaus, after the success of the 2007-2008 "surge" strategy in Iraq, would seem to be an excellent candidate for the greatest military commander for our era. He must operate in a situation where he lacks full authority over all his troops; where he must cooperate with a difficult local government, to say the least; and with local forces that are very different from him in culture, skill levels, literacy and religion. To complicate matters further, the international coalition he leads includes nations whose commitment to the task and whose strategic goals vary widely.. If he can defeat the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies in Afghanistan, he will go down as one of those rare leaders who, in the face of long odds, took the initiative to win the battle.
Today in Washington, support for Petreaus in Congress depends on a fragile coalition between the vast majority of the GOP, who want to win in Afghanistan, and a large fraction of the Democrats, who fear the results if America loses what is now seen as "Obama's War."
The Pakistanis see Afghanistan as giving them vital strategic depth in their struggle against India. Naturally India does not look kindly on this. In spite of all the obstacles, the Allies are slowly defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda, who have been killing large numbers of Muslim civilians; over the years this has become intolerable
In 2010, according to the Afghan Anis national newspaper, citing UN figures, the Taliban, over a six month period killed 2412 civilians. Now, in spite of the poverty and the corruption, the beginnings of a civil society are evident in Kabul and many other parts of the country.
Although the Taliban are said to believe that ".. their forefathers succeeded in wearing out every invading army no matter how long it took," after more than 40 years of savage war, more and more Afghans could well be getting sick of this fight.Their experience with the hypocrisy of the Islamic fighters who when they ran the country forbade all sorts of "infidel" activities in public while practicing them in private has hurt the Taliban's and Al Qaeda's credibility. They have been able to keep going by paying unemployed young men to carry guns, by allying themselves with drug gangs and by their alliance with Al Qaeda, and its ideology of Islamist conquest -- which guarantees that under the Taliban, Afghanistan would once again become a base for operations against the West and thereby subject to continuing retaliation, sanctions and other forms of attack.
In 2010, the increase in US troop strength -- and the fact that commanders now have a more sophisticated body of knowledge about Afghan society than they did in 2001-- has stopped the adversaries' momentum. Better intelligence has allowed the US and its allies to go after enemy leaders and bomb-making experts on a countrywide scale. One sign of wear on their part is the offer by previously pro-Taliban tribal elders in the Sangin district of the northern Helmand province to negotiate a deal with the coalition and the Afghan government.
The drone campaign in parts of Pakistan also seems to be paying off: the Taliban and Al Qaeda are losing at least some of their old sanctuaries. The best sign of all is that the local Afghan economy is growing: by 22.50% in 2009 and 8% in 2010.
in a nation as impoverished as Afghanistan, any improvements shouldhave an effect: more and better jobs, better health care,and access to the goods and services that flow from beingconnected to the global economy. Afghan men who might take pride in giving the wives and children a higher standard of living may not easily go back to the primitive life they remember from before 2001.
The Afghan educated middle class definitely is pleased with the progress their nation has made. In the countryside where the tribes. clans drug gangs and warlords remain influential, but even there people are tired of the unending war. Drugs gangs are not only losing some of their economic clout as coalition forces go after heroin production by interdicting the precursor chemicals needed to process opium into heroin, but the social damage done to Afghan families by drug addiction is spreading. When Afghan men see their bothers and cousins willing to humiliate themselves for another dose, their disgust with the drug industry only grows.
Afghans are becoming aware of their nation's large mineral potential. Beginning in 2004 the US Geological Service (USGS) has been running a extensive survey of Afghanistan's natural resources. In 2010 some results of the USGS survey were released showing that the country contained more than a trillion dollars worth of resources Many of them know that if the war stops there will be jobs provided by the coal, natural gas, rare earths, copper and other mining and extraction industries.
An addiitonal sign of progress is the news that after withdrawing all of its forces from Afghanistan last year, the Dutch government is planning to send more than 500 men and women back there as part of a "training team." The Netherlands seems to have decided that the situation is not as hopeless as they might have once thought it was.
One retired senior general has called Petraeus, "The best junior officer I ever saw." His intellectual and physical strength, typified by a Doctorate in international affairs from Princeton, as well as one-handed push-ups, indicate a man of exceptional ability, which even many of his critics have come to admire. A highly trained and exceptionally well educated military professional, he has been mentioned as a potential candidate for President (and has made it clear that he is not interested -- at least so far).
In the early 18th century, there was another soldier from an English-speaking nation, John Churchill, The Duke of Marlborough (1650 - 1722), who took on a seemingly impossible task and turned it around; in so doing, he was recognized as the greatest soldier of his time, and his example inspired his descendent Winston Churchill, when he was chosen to lead the struggle to save civilization from Nazism. Although Petreaus is not, in Afghanistan, up against the anything comparable to Louis XIV's well-led and well-supplied French armies;, what he faces is a complex war that cannot be reduced to a single military, political, cultural or economic aspect. He also must deal with the influential Western media, whose default pose is one of cynical, "pre-emptive defeatism" and negativity. The political and diplomatic problems he faces are in many ways similar to those faced by Marlborough.
Like Marlborough, Petraeus has had to deal with nasty home-front politics: Queen Anne favored the Tories, who were happy to support her, but were less than pleased to support the war against France. The opposition Whigs were not thrilled to lose the benefits of office, but were supportive of a war that would not only reduce the influence of a Catholic France, but also and help Britain rise to global preeminence.
Marlborough's true attitude towards both political parties was expressed in a letter he wrote to his beloved wife Sarah after Blenheim: "I will endeavour to leave a good name behind me in countries that have hardly any blessing but that of not knowing the detested names of whig and tory."
The British military historian and armored warfare pioneer J.F.C. Fuller once wrote of Marlborough,"Though his courage was of the highest, his imagination vivid, and his common sense profound, his master characteristic was his self control. Nothing unbalanced him, whether it was the stupidity of his allies, the duplicity of the politicians, or the ability o f his enemies. As a general he possessed the rare virtue of seeing a war as a whole, and of being able to relate sea power with land power and strategy with politics. Nothing escaped his observation, and no detail, tactical or administrative was too minute to be overlooked A master of stratagems, he constantly mystified his enemies; a master of detail his men were never left in want. In the planning of a campaign he took infinite pains, and in its execution infinite trouble. "
Few soldiers in history have overcome greater political odds to lead their forces to victory on the battlefield. The complexities of the alliance that Marlborough led against the forces of France's Louis XIV during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) still stun historians. The three major allies -- Britain, Holland and the Austrian Hapsburg Empire -- had major differences on commercial, religious and geopolitical issues. To make matters worse, there the Duke had to maintain relations with a kaleidoscopic mix of minor and not-so-minor German sovereigns. In spite of the obstacles, the Duke defeated the French in four great battles: at Blenheim (1704), Ramilles (1706), Oudenarde (1708) and Malplaquet (1709). These victories effectively prevented France from wining the war and dominating Europe.
Marlborough was not in any modern sense, a military professional. He never attended a military academy or a staff college or had anything other than the most primitive military instruction. His career, unlike Petraeus's, was based on his personal connections with the Royal family. His sister, Arabella, was the mistress of the King's brother, the Duke of York, later King James II (after whom New Amsterdam was renamed); he himself was having an affair with King Charles II's favorite female companion. It was thanks to these women that Marlborough got his first commission in the Guards regiment ,and it was partly thanks to their influence, and above all, his own merit, that he became a full Colonel at the age of 24. Apparently his close connection to the Royal Court taught him how to navigate the dangerous waters of 17th and 18th century diplomacy and politics -- a combination of military and political talents that made him such an impressive figure in his time.
Marlborough had to contend with a collection of skittish allies whose reluctance to take risks would have driven a lesser man around the bend; Petreaus has to maintain an alliance that not only includes European allies such as Britain, France and Germany, whose publics have long since soured on supporting "America's War," but also with regional actors such as Pakistan and India which, even under the best of circumstances, will never see their interests in Afghanistan as being truly compatible.
For Marlborough, the critical strategic goal was to defeat the French army; for Petreaus, it is to protect the Afghan population. The complex political environment is, of course, different, but the human attributes required for success are similar: patience, iron self-control, physical and mental energy, deep sympathy with all the political and military members of the alliance and a constant willingness to adjust tactical and operational concepts to new circumstances.
The nations that Marlborough and Petreaus represent, in the context of their eras, are not that different. In his biography of the Duke, his descendent, Winston Churchill, wrote that when he arrived back in London after his first great victory : "The foreign ambassadors, bred in countries where Court, nobles, and magnates counted for all, were struck by a national self-consciousness unique among the nations. Here was a society which did not end with the powerful and the rich, which descended through every class of citizen down to the poorest and most humble, all of whose hearts responded to the feeling that it was their victory...."
8th Century Britain, like 21st Century America, represent an exceptional political tradition that combines political and social equality with individual freedom. Today the relations between the two great English-speaking nations may be strained, but perhaps it is worth remembering Winston Churchill's assessment: "... two major groupings of the human family: the British Empire and the United States, who, fortunately for the progress of mankind, happen to speak the same language, and very largely think the same thoughts, or anyhow think a lot of the same thoughts."