A coin toss in Afghanistan

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The World

Four-star General David H.  Petraeus, the chief of U.S. Central Command, performed the coin toss before kickoff at the Super Bowl.

And there couldn’t have been a more perfect vignette for the theme of football as the metaphor for America. The game was an American classic with Bruce Springsteen pounding out “Glory Days” and a dramatic and hard-fought contest that went down to the wire, with the Steelers beating the Cardinals 27-23.

But the gridiron — with all of its military logic — doesn’t work as the organizing principle that captures who we are. We are just too complex a country to be defined by any one sport, as our Sports columnist Mark Starr argued in an excellent essay. And after all, the new President of the United States may have hosted a Super Bowl party but he is truly all about basketball.

Standing on the 50-yard line with the slim physique of the  marathon runner that he is, Petraeus looked slight compared to the huge pro-football players crowded around him as he shouted "heads or tails" and the coin spun through the air.

And in that moment it occurred to me that Petraeus embodies the stealth and stamina the country will need to confront the challenges posed in Iraq and Afghanistan and in a long struggle against terrorism. There is no more knowledgeable military officer on counter-insurgency than Petraeus. And as I watched him, I chuckled about the fact that the military jargon for "counter-intersurgency" happens to be "COIN."

The coin landed at midfield at the start of the game and  I couldn’t help but think General Petraeus is about to toss a much more costly coin — or "COIN" — in Afghanistan.

The planned troop surge in the intensely hostile terrain and opaque culture that makes up that country is a mission of chance. Petraeus is hoping a surge might bring stability to “The Forgotten War,” where the Taliban has steadily reasserted itself in the mountains of the east along the Pakistan border and to the south where poppy fields fund their shadow government.

For the last six years, George W. Bush’s administration neglected the situation in Afghanistan, leaving the intelligence gathering and special operations to what was at best the B-team. Military analysts warned that as spy planes and other intelligence assets were all shifted to Iraq,  the mission in Afghanistan was imperilled and ultimately compromised.

President Obama has vowed to change focus of the U.S. military by steadily drawing down forces in Iraq and rapidly increasing them in Afghanistan.  It is one of the more dramatic, and some analysts would say perilous, shifts in foreign policy by the new administration.   

General Petraeus, as the head of Central Command, is completely supportive of the move and indeed had been pushing for it unsuccessfully behind the scenes in the Bush presidency for some time. And even as President Obama was being inaugurated, Petraeus was on the ground meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about troop increases of an estimated 30,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan to directly confront the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements. On the same trip last month, Petraeus also secured pivotal supply routes through Central Asia for the “surge” strategy in Afghanistan.

In the last six years, I have had a chance to observe General Petraeus up close. I was covering his 101st Airborne Division in Mosul in the first phase of the Iraq war; I met with him again in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where he and his team re-wrote the military counter-insurgency manual; I was embedded with some of his troops during the surge in Baghdad in March 2008; and I interviewed him in Washington where he unflinchingly stood before Congress and told a bitterly divided country that there was no military victory in Iraq to be achieved, only a "political solution." The surge, he said, would be the only way for the U.S. to help Iraq find that political solution.

And Iraqi voters who safely made their way to the polls this time walked in a path cleared by the successes of Petraeus’ surge. It was Petraeus’ military leadership that made Saturday’s election possible, and that should be recognized in all the analysis that will be going on about the results. The voting in Iraq came on the last day of a month in which Iraq recorded its lowest levels of violence and killing since the U.S.-led invasion began in 2003.

According to the Agence France-Presse, January’s death toll was down 42 percent from December, which was at the time the lowest figure for three years. Iraq is still a very dangerous place with a total of 191 civilians, soldiers and police killed during the last 30 days. Eight candidates were killed in the run-up to the vote. And some analysts have argued that the relative calm on election day may also be simply because those insurgents and other groups still fighting had decided not to strike. Voter turnout was low at about 55 percent. Still, who could deny that Iraq is on the road to stability even if it is not yet there?

The country has undeniably seen a turnaround since the execution of the surge strategy which was conceived by Petraeus. Petraeus more than any other military leader in America has the intellectual capacity and sheer stamina to confront the extraordinary challenges that lie ahead for the U.S. and its diminishing role in Iraq and its new level of engagement in Afghanistan. But the Afghanistan “surge” is an extraordinarily difficult task given the brutal terrain and the complex tribal loyalties in Afghanistan which have conspired throughout history to eat empires from Genghis Kahn to the British to the Soviets.

Petraeus hates to hear reference to America as an empire, but that does not protect American forces from the fate of history of foreign troops in that land. Whether Petraeus’ still-forming strategy to increase troop levels can succeed in Afghanistan the way his surge appears to be succeeding Iraq is, well, a coin toss.

It was Napoleon who, when asked what kind of generals he wants, answered, "Lucky ones."

Let’s hope for all involved — Afghanis, Americans, NATO and all others who want to see the Taliban and Al Qaeda thwarted — that Petraeus calls it right in Afghanistan.

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