War buddies: Petraeus and Natyncyzk face Afghanistan

Both hit their strides as soldiers in Iraq after the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003

It’s no surprise that Gen. Walt Natynczyk, the Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, is praising his old friend Gen. David Petraeus as a grand choice to replace Gen. Stanley “Runaway” McChrystal as the new American commander in Afghanistan.

Both Natynczyk and Petraeus hit their strides as soldiers  in Iraq after the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Petraeus commanded the 101st Airborne Division out of Baghdad in those days, while Natynczyk, on loan to the U.S. military, served in Baghdad as deputy commanding general of the multi-national corps—even though Canada, as you might recall, officially stayed out of that war.

How much the two generals’ shared understanding of Iraq can be applied directly to the situation in Afghanistan, though, is wide open to debate. Petraeus is the famous strategist who oversaw the U.S. reversal of fortune in Iraq, orchestrating the troop surge and fostering the so-called “Sunni Awakening” partly by paying local Sunni leaders to ally themselves with the Americans and fight Al-Qaeda.

But Petraeus has rightly voiced skepticism about drawing comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan. History teaches that Kabul has only occasionally exerted much control over the country, whereas strong regimes have traditionally ruled from Baghdad. Restoring a central government tradition is surely easier than inventing one.

Petraeus’s counter-insurgency doctrine, which McChrystal had been struggling to implement, calls for winning over the locals, rather than just winning battles. It demands lots of troops and plenty of patience. Yet U.S. President Obama has promised to begin drawing down American forces from Afghanistan next summer, when a complete Canadian withdrawal is also slated to start.

Experts are guessing that Petraeus, at least, will want to maintain U.S. strength on the ground as long as is politically possible. The Finance Times reports that “military analysts say that Gen Petraeus will be in a much stronger condition to negotiate with Mr Obama over the pace and speed of the US military drawdown” than McChrystal had been.

As for Natynczyk, he hasn’t breathed a public word I’ve heard that sounds like he’s pushing back against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s exit timetable.  Still, in the past, Natynczyk has expressed a preference for giving Afghans assurance that they won’t be abandoned. “Where you can have that enduring footprint and provide Afghans with security,” he once said, “you actually hear from them who are the bad guys, who are the Taliban in the region.”

Just now, it’s easy to imagine ordinary Afghans feeling not particularly secure about Western forces and those bad guys thinking that all they have to do is wait.

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