The Limits of the Surge: Petraeus' Legacy in Afghanistan

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Massoud Hossaini / AP

U.S. Army General David Petraeus offers his condolences to Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a funeral ceremony for his brother Ahmad Wali Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul on July 15, 2011

Cars are backed up for a quarter mile on the road leading to the bridge over the Arghandab River in Kandahar province as people head home after a Friday spent picnicking on the riverbanks. But just last year, this area was the scene of some of the war's heaviest fighting as troops moved in to take territory during the surge.

The influx of troops, requested by General Stanley McChrystal, approved by President Barack Obama and overseen by General David Petraeus, brought stability to some areas in the south. And that is part of the narrative Petraeus, who has given up command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan to become head of the CIA, wants as his legacy. But the surge — and other initiatives of the general — have not been the unalloyed successes they have been made out to be. Indeed, the downing of a U.S. CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Wardak province on Saturday, resulting in the single deadliest day for American troops in Afghanistan, shows how fragile the situation is. The chopper may have been brought down by a lucky hit, a well-aimed blast from a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade — David's slingshot felling Goliath, with the U.S. on the wrong side of the story.

"The surge has not worked, despite all the statistics doled out, which I think very often are selective," says Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. Others acknowledge some progress, but in general, the consensus is that the surge has failed as a general strategy. "There have been improvements in the military situation in the south. But what about the military situation in the east and the north and across the border in Pakistan? Those areas are unraveling. If you look from two years ago to now, the situation has deteriorated," says a foreign analyst working in Afghanistan who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely.

In part, the surge has failed because the U.S. civilian side, under U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, was never brought to the table. "Petraeus came at a time when the policy here was in crisis, in large part because the players were unclear on the boundaries of the chain of command, and he did nothing to change that element of the relationship with the White House," says another foreign analyst working in Afghanistan.

Because Petraeus' "inner circle pretty much disregarded the civilian side," says Mike Capstick, a retired colonel in the Canadian army and analyst with experience in Afghanistan, the interlocking mantra of counterinsurgency — "clear, hold, build" — could not be carried through to completion. "The surge cleared quite a few districts. They did 'clear and hold,' but they were not able to do the transfer, 'build' part," says the first analyst. "So, you'd give Petraeus good marks on managing the surge and, from a military point of view, 'clear, hold.' But 'transfer, build' has not been really successful. It is really a civilian-surge point and the civilian surge never really showed up."

Douglas Macgregor, a retired U.S. Army colonel who is a leading critic of counterinsurgency theory and who attended West Point with McChrystal, says, "These observations directly and obviously contradict the popular counterinsurgency mantra of 'protect the population and rally the people to their government.' In truth, Petraeus and his generals moved in the opposite direction."

Other issues have dogged Petraeus as well, chief among them the creation of viable Afghan army and police forces that would theoretically allow the Afghan government to take over security from foreign forces. Though numbers have increased, attrition rates remain extremely high and a lack of qualified noncommissioned officers means leadership remains absent. "Over the past one or two years, there has been a major effort to expand the army and police. But while there has been an increase in numbers, quality will take some time," says Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan Interior Minister and now a professor the National Defense University in the U.S.

Macgregor has more criticism. "Petraeus and his staff frequently complained about the shortage of NATO trainers by at least 900 men," he says. "This continued after the arrival of an additional 40,000 troops. However, the truth is this: Petraeus is responsible for the shortfall. He could have committed an additional 10,000 troops to the NATO training mission had he wanted to do so. In the view of many officers on the ground in Afghanistan, using the general-purpose troops in this way would have provided a greater return on investment than the way the 40,000 were employed. The International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] and the NATO mission were short 900 trainers because Petraeus chose not to utilize the troops at his disposal in support of that mission," says Macgregor.

Another issue has been continued night raids and air strikes — tactics that have enraged both Afghan civilians and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and that have left hundreds dead. "Despite his acumen of American politics, Petraeus has been, by and large, completely tone-deaf in how he's dealt with the Afghans, and that has created distance," Joshua Foust, a prolific blogger on and fellow at the American Security Project, tells TIME.

At the same time, in a place as complex as Afghanistan, even success can breed failure. A number of analysts over the past months have warned that the elimination of "mid-level Taliban commanders" — part of ISAF's strategy — could have second- and third-order effects. Besides speculation that older, more moderate leaders would be replaced by younger, hard-line elements, Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network says, the surge has "closed off the opportunity for dialogue with the Taliban. In 2008-2009 there was a clear tendency within the Taliban, a readiness to explore talks. And that's just been destroyed by the surge."

Interestingly, some believe that the perception of Petraeus having had many successes during the war in Iraq — such as the surge there and the Sunni Awakening movement — has played a part in his continued problems in Afghanistan. "It may have taken Petraeus time to understand that Afghanistan is not Iraq and that it is, in fact, a hell of a lot more complicated," Capstick tells TIME. "For the first few months after he arrived, almost every member of his new team in ISAF headquarters would drop the phrase, 'in Iraq we ... ' into conversations — a recipe for disaster in Afghanistan."

In the end, although Petraeus' time was more positive than Ambassador Eikenberry's, the general may have been more successful at advancing his career than at bringing the war to a successful conclusion. Now, with President Obama talking about a shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism in Afghanistan and with Petraeus heading the CIA, the general may again be calling the shots there. But this could have benefits. "Petraeus' experience in Afghanistan may finally get the CIA out of their dependency on Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI]," says Capstick. "The CIA-ISI relationship has been a disaster since the Soviet occupation and has been a major obstacle to the rise of secular, modernist Afghan leaders to positions of power."