The General and I
Watching your mentor fall from grace is never easy. This month, many have questioned and saluted David H. Petraeus, who resigned from his post as director of the CIA because of an extramarital affair. Critics chide his judgment, and friends remind us of his brilliance and victories in Iraq. Most acknowledge his indelible mark on how America must fight wars amongst the peoples: creating local partners through peaceful interaction, rather than enemies through the sole use of lethal force. But Petraeus left another mark on a war to prevent future 9/11s, by fighting without troops but with trainers, spies and drones in Pakistan.
The war in Iraq was self-inflicted, the war in Afghanistan was necessary, but the war in Pakistan always carried the nightmare scenario: religious fanatics capturing nuclear weapons and setting them off in American cities. As the commander of U.S. Central Command and then as the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Petraeus pushed the Pakistani military to go after the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, enticing them with weapons and trainers, and reprimanding with unilateral action. Despite Pakistani military’s duplicity – interdicting some insurgents while continuing to harbor the virulent Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis -with a mix of diplomatic and military acumen Petraeus was able to help stabilize a nuclear-armed country that seemed bent on imploding in the spring of 2009.
The question then was not how Pakistan can help us in Afghanistan, but how can nuclear-armed Pakistan stop
It was during that period that I met Petraeus, and after he read my Foreign Affairs article on ways to stem the tide of instability in Pakistan, he asked me to advise him. That year was the most difficult time in U.S.-Pakistan relations since 9/11. The Pakistani Taliban had routed the Pakistani military out of one third of the country. Taliban flags flew high in the tribal areas abutting Afghanistan’s northeast, and the Swat valley, just sixty miles from the country’s capital, was stained with the blood of many women and children. A year prior, India and Pakistan had come close to nuclear war after the Pakistani intelligence-backed militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorized Mumbai, and Osama bin Laden was still on the run.
Yet there was a glimmer of hope. Since 2007, U.S. Special Forces trainers and weapons had slowly improved Pakistan’s Special Services Group, Frontier Corps and 11th Corps troops. They began fighting harder and gaining public support against the Pakistani Taliban’s nationwide suicide bombing campaign.
In late 2008, Operation Lionheart in the Bajaur tribal agency was led by junior officers that pushed their general to experiment with Petraeus’ counterinsurgency principles: clear, hold and build. For years, clearing was easy for Pakistani troops, while holding was ignored and building was nonexistent. In 2009, they began to hold after clearing. Petraeus and former Admiral Mike Mullen – then Joint Chiefs of Staff – encouraged this slow improvement as the Pakistani troops pushed the insurgents out of the Swat Valley and South Waziristan by the winter of 2009. Not only did this stem the tide of suicide attacks, but also temporarily decreased cross- border attacks into Afghanistan. Pakistan did not self-implode in 2009.
During these years I frequently visited South Asia exploring questions about transnational insurgencies, India-Pakistan rivalry, and Afghanistan’s future. I briefed Petraeus after every trip and authored a report and several memos for him. He was always encouraging, endorsing contrarian thinking, debating history and never judging my analysis on the basis of my age or religion.
Like many generals and diplomats, Petraeus understood the delicate dance of getting things done in Pakistan: feed the military beast but protect the nascent democracy. But he went one step further: he understood the negotiations culture and the contradiction between what Pakistani military and civilian leaders were willing to promise publicly and deliver privately. When I argued for the creation of institutional mechanisms to exchange lessons learned, he agreed but correctly pointed to challenges: the radioactive nature of American military instructors in Pakistan, and depleting patience of U.S. legislators with Pakistan’s reluctance to target the Haqqani Network and Taliban leaders in exile.
When Pakistanis showed progress, Petraeus was willing to acknowledge their contributions. After the success in Swat and South Waziristan he cheered General Ashfaq Kayani, highlighting the sacrifices of the Pakistani military in his congressional testimonies, and he chided him in private when Kayani equivocated on expanding operations against the Haqqanis.
Petraeus understood the importance of personal relationships and changing the insurgents’ master narrative: Pakistani soldiers were America’s mercenaries. When the Indus River swelled up in July 2010, causing the worst floods in Pakistan’s history, and leaving 20 million homeless and one-fifth of the country under water, Petraeus immediately sent help. Scores of U.S. troops and helicopters rescued thousands of Pakistanis and provided food and medicine.
But the U.S.-Pakistan goodwill didn’t stick after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May 2011, and Pakistan closed NATO’s supply lines for seven months after a NATO airstrike killed 24 of its soldiers, prompting the White House and Congress to cut aid.
Still, Petraeus showed guarded optimism about Pakistan as he made his transition to the CIA. He had helped stop Pakistan from becoming a failed states, but he couldn’t change its policy of fomenting insurgency in Afghanistan. In my book that’s pretty darn good.
Haider Ali Hussein Mullick is an ISPU Fellow and Provost Fellow at Tufts University, and the author of “Pakistan’s Security Paradox: Countering and Fomenting Insurgencies.” (www.haidermullick.com @haidermullick)
This article was published by Foreign Policy on December 4, 2012. Read it here.