Petraeus’ Oily Spin about Progress in Afghanistan

Posted: August 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

With General Petraeus’ stop on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric now halfway over, it’s worth taking a moment to unpack the unchallenged, false assertions and implications he’s piled up thus far on his media tour. We decided to look into the claims he made about “oil spots” of “progress” during his interview with NBC’s David Gregory. Both claims were absolute fantasies, and the remaining journalists on Petraeus’ tour owe their viewers more rigorous skepticism than what we saw on Meet the Press.

Despite Petraeus’ use of the term more than a dozen times in his MTP interview, virtually no data that shows strategically significant security “progress” in Afghanistan since the start of the latest escalation. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), emphasis mine:

…[T]he number of provinces having more than three attacks per day has grown from 1 to 4 while the number of provinces seeing the lowest rate (<1 per 2 days) has dropped from 22 to 19. Overall ANSO assess that, in terms of daily attack rates, 23 provinces have remained stable, 1 has improved and nine provinces have deteriorated being Nangahar, Paktya, Kandahar, Paktika, Uruzgan, Helmand, Ghazni, Farah, Kunduz.

AOG are presenting a formidable geographic presence and are escalating attacks, in areas well outside of IMF main focus, at their own direction and tempo.

Needless to say, if insurgents are initiating many more attacks “at their own direction and tempo,” International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has not “regained the initiative.”

But let’s talk specifically about General Petraeus’ “oil spots.”

GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, the oil, the oil spot, if you will, is a, is a term in counterinsurgency literature that connotes a peaceful area, secure area. So what you’re trying to do is to always extend that, to push that out. …[D]own in Helmand Province what we sought to do was to build an oil spot that would encompass the six central districts of Helmand Province, including Marjah and then others, and then to just keep pushing that out, ultimately to connect it over with the oil spot that is being developed around Kandahar City…

The general’s visit to Wardak Province today was in part to underline the …importance of that security bubble being extended from outside Kabul to the southwest here to Wardak Province.

The general, quite frankly, is out of his mind if he wants us to apply a term that means “a peaceful area, secure area” to Helmand (which includes Marjah), Kandahar, or Wardak. None of those provinces are secure. None. In fact, compared to this time last year, they are less peaceful and less secure.

Helmand/Kandahar Region

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), southern Afghanistan is in the grip of an ever-escalating insurgent assassination campaign. UNAMA’s latest report conveys the local Afghans’ perception that the insurgents can strike anywhere, anytime, and that U.S. and allied forces can’t protect them. From the report:

The Taliban’s use of assassinations increased from an average 3.6 per week and 15.6 per month in the first part of 2009 to on average 7.0 per week and 30.5 per month in the first four months 2010. In May and June, the number of assassinations skyrocketed to on average 18.0 per week according to the UN Department of Safety and Security- Afghanistan.

Helmand (including Marjah)

According to ANSO, the number of insurgent attacks in Helmand province during the second quarter of 2010 spiked to 820, compared to 257 attacks during the same period last year. According to UNAMA, the has effectively prevented provincial authorities from delivering the promised “government in a box” in Marjah, while Operation Moshtarak “has not resulted in increased protection for the civilian population.”

UNAMA also slapped ISAF for decreasing civilian security by locating their bases in or near residential areas. ISAF justifies this placement by appealing to counterinsurgency admonitions to “live in and among the population,” but UNAMA’s report retorts that, because of the locations of the bases,

Afghan civilians face not only the risk of often disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks by AGEs, but also death and injury from mortar and rocket attacks fired by IM Forces that mistakenly fall short of their target and hit residential compounds.

The failure of ISAF to establish security for the residents of Helmand and the ever-growing insurgent assasination campaign combine to make Helmand “the most violent province in the country,” according to ANSO.


When Karzai, McChrystal and other representatives of ISAF and the Afghan government held their shuras in Kandahar to win local support, they were told in no uncertain terms that the locals didn’t want a military operation brought to their home because they feared it would just drag violence into their neighborhoods. They complained bitterly about ISAF’s dismissal of their concerns to UNAMA:

Elders also reported that…these meetings were “photo opportunities” at which the elders’ concerns and suggestions were not taken seriously. As one elder from Panjwayi district told UNAMA HR, “.. there are far too many ‘meetings in name.’ ISAF and the Government ignore what we say, because we are from the districts..[T]his is not true, and it is insulting…[t]here are too often photographers and television cameras at these meetings. In Pakistan, of course, the Taliban can watch television, see me sitting with the governor and decide to kill me. So, when there is a ‘meeting in name,’ first I risk my life, and then I am insulted.”

As ISAF’s so-called “rising tide of security” began to materialize, the elders’ contended to UNAMA that “ISAF‘s publication of its plans to launch the military operation caused the Taliban to plant more IEDs and intensify their campaign of intimidation against pro- Government figures.” ANSO and UNAMA figures bear out their assertion: Armed opposition groups initiated 559 attacks in the second quarter of 2010, up from 399 during the same period last year, with “more civilians were killed in the region in the first six months of 2010 than in any other region.”


As for Wardak, ANSO’s figures show that, again, attacks were up in the second quarter of 2010 (183 attacks) compared to the same period in 2009 (139). The province is a hotbed for abductions, particularly along Highway 1. In fact, according to UNAMA, “On 15 June, the acting District Governor of Sayadabad district in Wardak province was abducted reportedly by AGEs and later beheaded.” Also according to UNAMA:

“[E]lders in Logar and Wardak provinces…said their priority was to end the culture of impunity for civilian deaths and injury from military operations and for those who committed abuses to be held accountable.”

And, for the bonus round, rocket fire interrupted Petraeus’ shura while Gregory accompanied him for his puff-piece interview. Sounds like a place safe enough for a middle-school field trip, doesn’t it?

You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me

All this brings us back to Petreaus’ definition of an “oil spot.”

“Well, the oil, the oil spot, if you will, is a, is a term in counterinsurgency literature that connotes a peaceful area, secure area.”

Nobody in their right mind or wearing pants that aren’t on fire can honestly look at the information above and derive from that anything remotely approaching an “oil spot,” as Petraeus defines it. Helmand, Kandahar, and Wardak aren’t examples of peace or security. I honestly have no idea why Petraeus would hold any of these places up as his “progress” examples. Wardak is certainly not stabilized, and Helmand and Kandahar are glaring examples of the failure of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

So here’s a takeaway for all you reporters out there rounding out Petraeus’ media tour: General Petraeus’ job is not to tell you the truth. Petraeus’ job is to win the war handed him by President Obama. He sees public opposition crystallizing, while at the same time coming to the realization that his mission will not be accomplished by the deadline to start withdrawals. Rather than questioning the basic assumption that COIN was the right strategy to pursue in Afghanistan (it wasn’t), he wants what generals always want: more troops, more time. Thus, he sees it as his job to sell the messages that need to be sold to get the things he think will help him accomplish his mission.

His job isn’t to tell you the truth. It’s to sell you his war. Buyer beware.


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