As Army Gen. David Petraeus takes over as chief of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, American military and civilian casualties in Iraq are falling. Life, for the moment at least, is returning to a sense of normalcy in many parts of the country. Now it will be up to Petraeus to shift attention to Afghanistan, where the situation has deteriorated on the primary front lines of the war on terror.
Petraeus is credited for much of the progress in Iraq, but he faces an equally difficult challenge ahead. The Taliban has regrouped and killed 43 coalition soldiers in August, the highest monthly total in Afghanistan since 2001. President Bush's decision to allow special forces to cross the Pakistan border in pursuit of Taliban operatives and other militants underscores the chaos spreading through the region. The deadly bombing at Islamabad's Marriott hotel on Saturday is a grim reminder of the urgent need for a better strategy to improve the situation on both sides of the border.
Petraeus offers some hope. The Bush administration put him in charge of the military surge at a similarly desperate point in Iraq. Incorporating lessons from experience, as outlined in the revised counterinsurgency field manual he co-authored with Marine Lt. Gen. James Amos, Petraeus refocused the use of military force and implemented what is often referred to as "armed social work."
Petraeus has said he will approach Afghanistan similarly. "You don't kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency," he told the Associated Press earlier this month. "We've got a situation in Afghanistan where clearly there have been trends headed in the wrong direction. Military action is absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient. Political, economic and diplomatic activity is critical to capitalize on gains in the security arena."
That will be essential, and it won't be easy. American bombings that killed Afghan civilians have triggered more outrage, and the Bush administration has agreed to create a joint commission to investigate such instances, apologize for civilian casualties and offer compensation. More coalition troops will be needed, and the situation in Pakistan has to be more skillfully managed. Petraeus will need to show the same sensitivity to domestic, social and economic concerns on the ground there as he does in Afghanistan. The fate of both countries hangs in the balance, and only the right balance of force and diplomacy will restore some measure of stability.