Michael Hastings On Afghanistan: Petraeus Is Pursuing A 'Failed Strategy'

Michael Hastings' latest dispatch from the War in Afghanistan pretty much picks up where his piece, "The Runaway General," leaves off. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been relieved of duty and President Barack Obama turns to Gen. David Petraeus -- last seen fainting at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- to take charge of the effort in Afghanistan.

The immediate and popular thing to say about Petraeus at the time was some variation on, "Great news! This is the guy who wrote the book on counter-insurgency strategy." My own take on that matter was that McChrystal had been, at the time Hastings' piece blew him out of his commission, applying COIN in a pretty faithful, by-the-book manner. Indeed, much of what Hastings had to say about McChrystal's tactics bore that out -- with the additional news that the rank and file were starting to chafe at following a strategy that demanded that they assume a higher degree of danger.

When Petraeus assumed command, the initial reports on what-was-to-happen-next suggested that Petraeus was going to re-up on COIN. In Stars And Stripes, John Vandiver reported that Petraeus had no plans to alter the rules of engagement -- rather, he would "clarify actions soldiers may take to clear up confusion and alleviate frustration in the field."

It sure looked to me as if Petraeus was going to follow the standard COINdinista line -- promising a continuity of command, while alleviating the discontent of the soldiers who were tasked with carrying out the strategy. But according to Hastings' latest, Petraeus actually seems to have taken the counterinsurgency field manual, and 'roided it up quite a bit:

Taking over from McChrystal, Petraeus moved quickly to institute his own, more aggressive version of COIN -- one that calls for lots of killing, lots of cash and lots of spin. He loosened the restrictions McChrystal had placed on the rules of engagement, giving U.S. soldiers the green light to use artillery, destroy property and defend themselves more vigorously. He drastically upped the number of airstrikes, launching more than 3,450 between July and November, the most since the invasion in 2001. He introduced U.S. tanks into the battle, unleashed Apache and Kiowa attack helicopters, and tripled the number of night raids by Special Forces. The fighting was calculated to force the Taliban to the bargaining table and reduce NATO casualties, which soared to 711 last year -- the highest of the war.

"On the political front," says Hastings, "Petraeus knew that his primary weapon was money." And where did that money go? As it turns out, a lot of went to "Afghan militias that effectively operate as local gangs, outside the control of the Afghan army and police."

That has a lot of interesting implications!

During his time in Iraq, Petraeus earned the nickname King David, for the imperious manner in which he ruled over the ancient city of Mosul. In Afghanistan, a more apt honorific might be the Godfather. To get America out of the war, Petraeus has turned to the network of warlords, drug runners and thieves known as the Afghan government, which the general himself has denounced as a "criminal syndicate." Within weeks of assuming command, Petraeus pushed through an ambitious program to create hundreds of local militias -- essentially a neighborhood watch armed with AK-47s. Under Petraeus, the faltering operation has been expanded from 18 districts to more than 60, with plans to ramp it up from 10,000 men to 30,000.

In Afghanistan, however, arming local militias means, by definition, placing guns in the hands of some of the country's most ruthless thugs, who rule their territory with impunity. In the north, Petraeus is relying on Atta Mohammed Noor, a notorious warlord-turned-governor considered to be one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan, to prepare militias for a long fight with the Taliban. Smaller militias in the region -- which have been likened to an L.A. "gang" by their own American advisers -- are also getting U.S. training. In the east, where violence has significantly increased, efforts to back local strongmen have already resulted in intertribal violence. And in the south, Petraeus has given near-unconditional support to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's brother and one of the country's most unsavory gangsters.

"The Americans have backed so many warlords in so many ways, it's very hard to see how you unscramble the egg now," says John Matisonn, a former top U.N. official who left Kabul last June. "There has never been a strategy to get rid of the warlords, who are the key problem. The average Afghan hates them, whether they're backed by the Taliban or the Americans. They see them as criminals. They know that the warlords are fundamentally undermining the rule of law."

I point this part out only because recent events compel me to note that this might best be called the "micro-Mubarak/micro-funding strategy."

Hastings has a lot more worthwhile information to unpack, most notably the internecine sparring that went down over the most recent strategy review between Petraeus and the intelligence community. It all ended up in a final product that's entirely bogged down in foggy contradictions -- "We are making progress, but that progress is fragile and reversible. We have broken the momentum of the Taliban, but there will still be heavy fighting next year. The troops will start coming home soon, but they won't start coming home soon. We aren't "nation-building," the president says, though we'll stay in Afghanistan past 2014 to build its nation" -- the upshot of which is that you had better not have been counting on that July 2011 drawdown.

King David's War [Michael Hastings @ Rolling Stone]

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