August 15, 2010

X-raying Petraeus’s Media Blitz

There’s no real need to rehash US General David Petraeus’s media web. His message has spread across the world: July 2011 is a transfer date, not a withdrawal date, and remains conditions based rather than absolute. Redeployments will be few, if any. As Petraeus began his campaign in June, giving numerous Congressional panels the same “conditions based” pitch - even prompting White House officials to deny Petraeus’s statements - this doesn’t qualify as news.

But three overriding actions, all involving mixed messages, demand a closer look.

For starters: who’s actually in charge of Afghanistan, the White House or Pentagon? Because the horses are running away from the carriage. More specifically is Petraeus’s claim that President Barack Obama has been clear about July 2011, when in fact no one is sure what July 2011 means, possibly not even the White House. Whether Democrat or Republican, in the US media or between American people, everyone is seeking clarification.

A big reason why is not because Obama intentionally left the deadline vague, so as to more easily delay it, but because he rarely speaks on Afghanistan and Pakistan at all.

Obama’s campaign policy was never developed to begin with. His first “White Paper” and 17,000 troop deployment passed in the glow of his ascendancy and the fury of Wall Street and health care. A televised address in December 2009 followed months of blackout only for Obama to go silent again, as if he intended to last between reviews without comment. Obama meets once a month on Afghanistan, reinforcing the “set it and forget it” mentality that both creates and robs him of flexibility. Now, instead of answering the US public’s concerns and salvaging support, Petraeus has been deployed to explain Obama’s war.

This could put even more distance between the US people and Washington.

A proactive strategy would lead with Obama to maintain support. That Petraeus and Secretary Robert Gates are out doing his dirty work suggests the White House’s information will continue in limited quantity, and that Obama isn’t comfortable speaking on Afghanistan or counterinsurgency in general. It’s hard selling a war without a president, but just as hard selling a war without the proper expertise. Obama may also wish to disassociate himself with Afghanistan until the war visibly improves, another display of insecurity.

Ultimately Petraeus’s media blitz shows an ironic disregard for counterinsurgency - specifically the political aspect. All things considered, the White House still stands a better chance of marketing its war without the generals leading the war-cry. But it appears to believe the surer course is deploying generals to provide political cover before watering down July 2011. If Petraeus says so then it must be so, even though he told Obama in late November that 18 months would be enough time.

The Pentagon will buy time in the short term, but will US opinion compromise its long-term ambition?

Petraeus and the Pentagon may also be committing a second mistake based on mixed messages. In an interview with The New York Times, Petraeus testifies, “Clearly the enemy is fighting back, sees this as a very pivotal moment, believes that all he has to do is outlast us through this fighting season. That is just not the case.”

Hopefully Petraeus is up to his usual propaganda, because misreading the Taliban’s intentions would be a strategic error.

The Taliban does use July 2011 for their own propaganda towards Afghans that America isn’t staying in the long run, but this isn’t their plan or message for America. They realized that July 2011 was a gimmick to justify escalation, to be postponed as US officials see fit. They welcomed the surge for bringing more targets and used it as motivation for their own surge, gaining recruits through 2010. And they’ve been listening to Petraeus backtrack from July 2011 since the transcripts hit the Internet. Now they know for sure.

The Taliban would be fools to believe America will quit after this year, and the reverse is every bit as true. The Taliban always expected America’s timeline to surpass Russia’s and stand ready for a long war to outlast America - forever if they have to.


  1. I have a feeling that Patreus will get more ink than Obama when it comes to Afghanistan. He will be the "official'non-official' spokes person. He will be twisting the message pretzel.

  2. He's the best person for the job. Even those who have grasped counterinsurgency are liable to contradict themselves, so much more for those who don't understand COIN or Afghanistan in particular.