This Week at War: The Battle of the Beltway

Petraeus opens up a second front -- taking on his critics in Washington.

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Petraeus fights on a second front -- inside the Beltway

2) United States teaches Mexico counterinsurgency -- quietly

Petraeus fights on a second front -- inside the Beltway

The Taliban are not the only insurgents Gen. David Petraeus must battle. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan is fighting on a second front inside the Washington Beltway, battling anonymous policymakers who seem to be waging an insurgency against his preferred war strategy. The "key terrain" of this battle is the mind of President Barack Obama. The president's looming decisions on who will fill numerous key vacancies inside the Pentagon will play a major part in who wins the war over Afghanistan policy.

The latest exchange of fire occurred in late October when Petraeus declared that an operation to clear Taliban insurgents from key strongholds west of Kandahar was proceeding "more rapidly than was anticipated." A few days after his Kandahar briefing, anonymous Pentagon snipers fired back at Petraeus's rosy assessment, concluding that "[t]he insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience" and that inside the White House there is "uncertainty and skepticism" over the general's account of the operation. For Petraeus, it is apparently easier to chase the Taliban from Kandahar province than it is to suppress resistance in Washington.

But Petraeus has been gaining ground as well. While in Australia, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that come next autumn, the Taliban may be in for a rude surprise when they find "American forces are still there, and still coming after them." Even more importantly, a story this week from McClatchy revealed that the Obama administration has a new message about its timeline for Afghanistan. The administration's new spin is that U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan through 2014, downplaying the previous emphasis on the July 2011 start time for withdrawals.

Although Petraeus should take comfort from this change in the White House message, the upcoming NATO summit in Portugal also likely played a role in the new spin. By emphasizing its troop commitment to Afghanistan through 2014, the U.S. delegation to the summit hopes to bolster its case for other NATO countries to re-up their participation in that same tour of duty.

After his long deliberation in 2009 over what to do about Afghanistan, Obama largely granted the Afghan Surge Faction (Gates, Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen) what it wanted. But he also made clear his resistance to a long-term commitment: "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."

Is he now abandoning that resistance? We don't know. But we will know much more in the months ahead, when Obama announces who will replace Gates and Mullen, along with his picks for the next Joint Chiefs of Staff vice-chairman and Army chief of staff.

"Personnel is policy," goes the Washington dictum. Obama found himself unable to reject the Afghanistan policy advice he received from Gates and Mullen, holdovers from George W. Bush's administration. In 2011 he will have his own choices for those billets. Who he picks for the Pentagon's top jobs will say a lot about how Obama intends to deal with Afghanistan during the remainder of his term -- and whether Petraeus or his critics will win the Battle of the Beltway.

United States teaches Mexico counterinsurgency -- quietly

In September, after agreeing with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Mexico faces an insurgency from its drug cartels, I wondered whether the U.S. government would be able to apply what it has recently learned about insurgencies to prevent the one in Mexico from getting further out of control. According to the Washington Post, the United States now has a quiet but expanding relationship with Mexico's military. U.S. soldiers are sharing their counterinsurgency experience with their Mexican counterparts. The Pentagon's security force assistance mission to Mexico might be its most delicate, and the one with the greatest payoff for success and the greatest consequences for failure.

With its local police forces thoroughly corrupted by drug money and its federal police either similarly suborned or stretched too thin, Mexico has resorted to using its military forces to attack the cartels. Mexico's marines have been especially effective, having killed several top drug-cartel leaders this year. Their latest success was the Nov. 5 killing of Antonio Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cárdenas Guillén, a leader in the Gulf Cartel, along with three of his lieutenants. Two marines and a soldier died in the six-hour shootout in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. Analysts now expect violent clashes in several border towns between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas group (established by defectors from Mexican special forces) for control of drug-traffic routes into the United States.

According to the Post, intelligence collection and analysis is a significant part of the training U.S. instructors provide to their Mexican military counterparts. During the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military units, with the assistance of police advisors and network-mapping software, developed the ability to uncover insurgent cells and networks from data collected from patrols, radio intercepts, interrogations, informants, etc. The experience U.S. commanders and intelligence analysts obtained in these operations should transfer directly to the counter-cartel campaign waged by the Mexican military.

Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., commander of U.S. Northern Command, which includes Mexico in its area of operations, called the partnership against the cartels his "number one priority." But in response to historical Mexican sensitivities about U.S. interference, Winnefeld and his command have had very little to say about their military assistance relationship with Mexico. In September, U.S. Army Special Operations Command had assigned just 21 Special Forces soldiers (soldiers who specialize in foreign security force training) to Northern Command. Although U.S. and Mexican soldiers travel across the border for training, both sides are placing a high priority on low visibility.

Mexico's drug cartels have brought headless corpses, the signature of their internecine wars, to the United States. But the portion of the war inside Mexico is reserved for Mexico's Army and marines. The U.S. security force assistance mission to Mexico is small and quiet. With Mexico's cartels now operating across the United States, it may be the most consequential such mission in the Pentagon's portfolio. Both sides apparently believe that the quieter that mission remains the more effective it will be. But the growing brutality of the war may not cooperate with those plans.

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Is it the staffers waging an insurgency against Petraeus? Or are they waging a counterinsurgency against his insurgency against the President's stated policy of withdrawal from this mess? History will judge this action harshly, as military policy is being set in a world completely divorced from strategy and strategic interest, but dominated by service parochialism, institutional pride and gain, and personal advancement. The second bit above, Mexico, has a far greater impact on the economic and physical security of the U.S. than what goatherds in this Stone Age state are doing. As the CFR suggests, we need to draw down and focus on CT. The rest of the fight is just generals trying to protect their services and their ilk from the stink of failure, along with a heavy dose of partisan politics back home that has clouded strategic judgment with polarized ideology. As has been ably demonstrated with the latest plot, the threat is not TB in Afghanistan, it is terrorist cells that will go where the security isn't: Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, etc. The poorly handled efforts in Afghanistan have only inflamed the passions that contribute to these groups.