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Aide: If Petraeus wants "to turn it up to 11, he feels he has the moral authority to do it."
Posted by on November 19th, 2010

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By Steve Hynd

The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran has a piece today which is mostly about how wonderfully, swimmingly, well the occupation of Afghanistan is going now that General Petraeus is in charge – sourced almost entirely from Petraeus' own aides speaking anonymously and with no quotes from the many expert analysts of Afghan affairs that feel otherwise.

The report is headlined "U.S. deploying heavily armored battle tanks for first time in Afghan war". The Marines have been granted permission by Petraeus to use a handful of M-1 main battletanks in Helmand where the IED threat is greatest after seeing how Canada, Denmark and Germany used tanks in small numbers in their own operation - something COIN thinkers will no doubt debate the merits of. M-1 tanks were used in Iraq as mobile strongpoints, especially in urban settings, but had to be heavily modified to withstand the "EFP" class of improvised bombs used there. If they have a use in Afghanistan, the question has to be "why now, nine years in?" But can we at least stear clear of gushing "ooh, shiny toy!" talk like Chandrasekaran's ill-advised:

The 68-ton tanks are propelled by a jet engine and equipped with a 120mm main gun that can destroy a house more than a mile away.

It's not a jet engine, it's a turbine. And "destroy a house"? That'll be those places all those pesky Afghan civilians live in, right?

But overall I'm less worried about a single company of tanks than I am about this: a "civilian adviser to the NATO command in Kabul" explaining why Petraeus authorised a request to deploy tanks when none of his predecessors would.

"Because Petraeus is the author of the COIN [counterinsurgency] manual, he can do whatever he wants. He can manage the optics better than McChrystal could," the adviser said. "If he wants to turn it up to 11, he feels he has the moral authority to do it."

As former Army officer Jason Fritz says, "that's obnoxious". Petraeus wasn't the sole author of the COIN manual – he wrote the foreword but an entire team worked on the manual itself. He cannot do "whatever he wants" because he has a chain of command to answer to. And none of this confers any moral authority to turn it up to eleven, Spinal Tap style.

The level of arrogant hubris in that quote is on a par with the opinions expressed by General McChrystal's aides to the Rolling Stone's Micahel Hastings back in June. The opinions that got McChrystal shit-canned. We've no idea from the WaPo piece how senior this adviser is, nor if he is truly representing Petraeus' own opinion of his moral superiority. But we damn-sure should find out.

Petraeus must respond to this quotation, in no uncertain terms, and out the adviser concerned. If not, the quote and the arrogance it reveals will inevitably be hung around the Saintly General's own neck. After all, it's not as if this advisers words have dropped into a vaccuum – there's been plenty of talk about Petraeus being too arrogantly uncontrollable and about an ongoing civilian/military command crisis.

Update: Matt Ygglesias, reading the same WaPo report, has some smart thoughts:

It continually seems to me that the biggest problem with our strategy in Afganistan is that to much too great extent it’s really a problem about internal conflicts within the military whose real targets are in Washington DC. The counterinsurgency faction badly wants something called a “win” achieved through something called “counterinsurgency” and I think is losing sight of the real interests of the people in America and Afghanistan alike.


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