When Gen. David Petraeus accepted his nation's request that he step down in responsibility and take personal leadership of the fight in Afghanistan, many analysts hoped for an Iraq redux.
America's most dynamic and creative commander in many years would take the hard lessons he learned in Iraq, do his school work in Afghanistan and come up with another impressive showing. We daren't call it victory, but we could reach for the less inflammatory success. That may happen.
Petraeus is once again surrounding himself with many of the people who helped him make Iraq a success. Surge advocates Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and his wife Kim of the Institute for the Study of War are in Afghanistan. Army Brig. Gen H.R. McMaster has flown back under Petraeus wings from his perch at TRADOC.
But there won't be, according to the head of Marine operations, anything like the Iraqi "Awakening" that brought the Sunnis onto the side of what we think of as the righteous and fundamentally reordered the country's security situation and politics.
"That's not going to happen here," Brig. Gen. David Berger told me several days ago. There would not be a similar shift in Afghanistan because the country's tribal politics are much more complex. It would be very, very difficult to get substantial numbers of Afghan elders to join NATO and the Afghan national government because Afghans don't trust the concept of national government, Berger said. Say all you will about the evils of Saddam Hussein, but the fact remains that Iraq had a central government that was the' preeminent power structure. And that made it easier to rebuild the state once the Sunnis pledged their loyalty to it once again.
Because of the small chance of a wholesale shift as happened in Iraq, the need for long-term commitment -- probably well beyond the July 2011 withdrawal date -- is becoming increasingly clear and the senior military leadership has stepped up its efforts to educate people and Washington of the likelihood. Petraeus made it pretty clear when he recently spoke of 2011 being the time when "the process begins" and is not the beginning of an American exodus.
Berger's boss, Commandant James Conway, made his own pitch for flexibility during his Monday press briefing. Conway said "we know the president was talking to several audiences when he talked about 2011," a clear nod to the left wing of the Democratic Party who have been clamoring for a smaller commitment in Afghanistan.
But Conway went further, saying that the U.S. has intercepted communications from the Taliban,"saying we only have to hold on for so long," Conway said. He added that the 2011 pullout date is "probably giving this enemy sustenance."
But he also said NATO forces have "momentum" and offered a different interpretation of the same information.
"Okay, if you accept what I offered earlier as true, that Marines will be there after 2011, okay, after the middle of 2011, what's the enemy going to say then, you know?"
"What is he going to say to his foot troops, where you've got the leadership outside the country trying to direct operations within -- because it's too dangerous for them to be there -- and the foot troops have been believing what he's saying, that they're all going to leave in the summer of next year, and come the fall, we're still there hammering them like we have been? I think it could be very good for us in that context, in terms of the enemy's psyche and what he has been, you know, posturing now for, really, the better part of a year."
He said he'd spoken in Afghanistan with Adm. Bob Harward, who runs detention in Afghanistan for ISAF and heard that the enemy "is getting tired, too. They're getting hammered, to a much greater degree than we are. And they're asking themselves, 'Hey is this all worth it?'
That may well be the question Americans, our NATO allies, the Taliban and their allies are asking come the summer of 2011. And someone will have their own awakening then.