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Petraeus brings a new approach to the old strategy

Our policy in Afghanistan may remain the same under Gen. David Petraeus, but his confirmation hearing last week offered fascinating clues about the very different way he will carry it out.

The general is clearly determined to pull together the fractious team of U.S. diplomats and military officers who deal with Afghanistan, along with their NATO counterparts. (If he can succeed in this herculean task, he deserves the next Nobel Peace Prize.)

"Unity of effort" was Petraeus' mantra during the hearing. He stressed he was aiming for "unshakable teamwork," presumably of the kind he and Ambassador Ryan Crocker displayed in Baghdad.

Clearly, the general believes he must end the small wars between members of his own team, and within the alliance, before he can succeed in the bigger war effort. He recently held a conference call with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke — who have had a rocky relationship — along with deputy national security adviser Douglas Lute.

Petraeus also wants to achieve "unity of effort" with our NATO allies in Afghanistan and "our Afghan partners." In an effort to convey a new image of military-civilian amity, Petraeus and Eikenberry met with NATO representatives in Brussels last week and arrived in Kabul together.

Of course, it will take more than photo ops and phone calls to meld these disparate players. U.S. diplomats and military officials have cool relations in Kabul. Holbrooke's special-envoy post has created turf wars with the U.S. embassies in Islamabad and Kabul. However, Petraeus' determination — along with a sharp warning from President Obama — may force at least the American diplomats and military officers to work as a team.

Getting Hamid Karzai to cooperate will be a task of a different order. Petraeus said he'd already had three conversations with the Afghan president in recent days, and some of the details he mentioned were intriguing, especially on the hot-button topic of talks with the Taliban.

Rumors had been flying that Karzai was seeking to negotiate a power-sharing deal with hard-line Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, brokered by the Pakistanis. U.S. officials had been left out of the loop. Petraeus believes a political solution is essential, but says top Taliban won't compromise while they think they are winning. He said Taliban fighters must be convinced that they are going to get "hammered" before political talks can succeed.

The U.S. military long urged Karzai to activate a program to help low- and mid-level Taliban resume normal lives. But the Afghan leader kept stalling. Petraeus indicated that something changed suddenly last week.

The general said Karzai just signed a decree to set the reintegration program in motion. The Afghan leader also assured Petraeus that he had not met with any leader of the Haqqani network.

Might the shift to a more powerful U.S. commander, with firmer White House backing, galvanize more cooperation from Karzai, including on the issue of corruption? It's a long shot, but we'll see.

Petraeus' biggest challenge will be to achieve "unity of effort" with the White House. When pressed about Obama's pledge to begin troop withdrawals in July 2011, the general chose his words carefully. He stressed that any pullout would be "conditions-based," and that Obama had called the date the beginning "of a process" of transition.

Clearly, Petraeus' main concern is the impact such a deadline has on Taliban thinking. "This is a test of wills," he said. "The enemy has to know we have the will to prevail."

No doubt he will try to convince Democratic doubters that talking up the July 2011 deadline will stiffen the Taliban's will and make its leaders less willing to compromise. That, in turn, will make it harder to pull out U.S. troops.

The biggest Democratic doubter is Vice President Joe Biden. Petraeus said Biden pulled him aside in the Oval Office after a meeting with Obama and told him, "You should know I am 100 percent supportive of this policy." (Big question: How does Biden define "this policy"?) The general also had Biden join him for dinner at his Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., last week.

When I tried to imagine what Petraeus told Biden, I thought of my recent chance visit to the grave of Benjamin Franklin, in the Christ Church burial ground in Philadelphia. You'll recall the words attributed to Franklin: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." Something similar could be said about the effort in Afghanistan.

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