General David Petraeus will step down as the chief of CENTCOM, where he oversees all military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to replace General Stanley McChrystal in leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. It's unclear if this will bring many changes to the Afghan strategy, which Petraeus was already overseeing from CENTCOM. Petraeus previously led the "surge" in Iraq, after which much of McChrystal's Afghan strategy was modeled. However, there is one very important tool at Petraeus' disposal that McChrystal lacked: his relationship with the political and military leaders of Pakistan.
Since President Obama entered office, his administration has increasingly emphasized Pakistan's importance in the Afghan conflict. The military and CIA have stepped up drone strikes in the Pakistan border regions where Taliban and al-Qaeda officials hide. Top U.S. officials, especially Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, have aggressively courted Pakistani counterparts like army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, who has the power to pressure the Taliban elements hiding in Pakistan. The Pakistani intelligence (ISI) and military have obliged, turning against many of the militants they long tolerated and launching military offensives against the anarchic border regions. The U.S. has even pushed India to ease tensions with Pakistan over Kashmir, allowing Pakistan breathing room to focus on Afghanistan. Pakistan has made important contributions on behalf of the international effort in Afghanistan, and Petraeus has been privy to them all. Pakistan is within his authority as CENTCOM chief, making him central in the Obama administration's military, intelligence, and diplomatic efforts there.
As ISAF commander, Petraeus will need his friends in Pakistan. The ISI can pass him key intelligence on the movement and disposition of militant groups and leaders. The Pakistani military can close off the border region safe havens that were so important for Taliban successes against ISAF efforts in Afghanistan's east. Perhaps most importantly, the Pakistani government can help reverse the complex social and economic trends that drive so much of militant recruitment. In Pakistan, things like energy crises, low-level political corruption, or anti-Western political rhetoric all foment the rage at the heart of the Taliban movement and make the Afghanistan war harder. With European support for the Afghanistan adventure wavering, the U.S. will need all the support it can get. Pakistan, for reasons that go much deeper than mere proximity, could be our most important ally in the war. As ISAF commander, Petraeus will be in a unique position to make that happen.
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