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Don't let obstacles block Afghan peace

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
  • Amitai Etzioni says the counterinsurgency strategy is failing in Afghanistan
  • He says Gen. Petraeus is mistaken in trying to have more insurgents labeled as terrorists
  • Etzioni: al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan are down to very small number
  • Most insurgents want to have their own kind of government and U.S. shouldn't block that, he says

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including "Security First" and "New Common Ground." He was a senior adviser to the Carter administration and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

Washington (CNN) -- Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, has called for labeling the leaders of the insurgent Haqqani network as terrorists.

I've met Gen. Petraeus only briefly, and I am convinced that he is not trying to pull another McChrystal, to push the White House to become even more deeply mired in the war in Afghanistan. Hence the only way one can interpret the troubling news that he wants to brand the insurgent group with the terrorist label is that he has the support of his civilian superiors for such a move.

More than a change in name is involved. The U.S. is in Afghanistan to ensure that it will not harbor terrorists.

However, National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones reported in October 2009 that fewer than 100 members of al Qaeda are left in Afghanistan.

CIA Director Leon Panetta made a similar assessment last month. As for the insurgents, they mainly seek to get NATO forces to leave and to form their own kind of government, and they are negotiating with the Karzai government. Regrettably, the White House appears to be standing in the way of such a deal.

In a theoretical world, one might argue that the United States should continue to fight for a regime that observes human rights rather than the sharia law likely to be imposed if we leave. However, the coalition's counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy is failing miserably. It called for NATO forces to "Clear, Hold, and Build."

Despite the large number of American troops committed to the small province of Marja, the U.S. has had a hard time clearing it of insurgents. And the great expenditures on civilian projects and handouts did little to win over the population.

This, in turn, has forced the U.S. -- after boasting for months that Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold, was next to be COINed -- to announce that it will reverse the order: it will first "Build, then Clear and Hold." I've failed to find any place where such an approach to counterinsurgency has succeeded. In other words, the military engagement, even combined with a civilian one, is failing, and failing miserably.

The Obama administration should put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of changing its strategy in Afghanistan. According to reports during the president's Afghanistan strategy review last fall, Biden predicted that the combination of the military surge with a civilian one -- trying to win over the population with "reconstruction" projects and oodles of handouts -- would not work, and that casualties would continue to mount.

He called for the removal of U.S. troops from the area and the suppression of the remaining terrorists by use of drones, bombers, and Special Forces. It is not too late to follow this disengagement strategy, as long as we do not manufacture more terrorists by sticking this label on people who are merely seeking to form their own kind of government, in their own land.

Once we leave, we are of course free to continue to promote human rights with such nonlethal means as educational and cultural outreach including TV and radio broadcasts, and maybe with Fulbright grants and foreign aid. But the time has come to allow the guns to be silenced.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.