When I stepped off a C-130 turboprop at Kabul airport in October 2003 to begin 19 months in command of coalition forces, Afghanistan was already famed as the graveyard of empires. Here was a nation hostile to invaders, with a population widely regarded as xenophobic fundamentalist Muslims. I was prepared to find suspicion and hostility. But what I heard instead was one question: “You Americans are not going to abandon us again, are you?”

This still unanswered query in many ways reflects the huge complexity of today’s Afghanistan. Nine years on, the allies now face the toughest fighting and the most daunting challenges of their campaign. As General David Petraeus takes command, he faces four wide-ranging challenges. Solve these, and he wins the war. Fail at any one, and success is unlikely.

First, he must defeat the Taliban strategy. In its simplest terms this is: “Run out the clock.” In their view it is late in the game, they are ahead on the scoreboard and they intend to be the last team on the field when the clock runs out. This is a sound strategy. To undercut it, we must convince both friends and enemies that we are not rushing for the exits. Gen Petraeus sent the right message in his first speech: “We are in this to win.”

Second, Gen Petraeus must create unity among the fragmented players on our side – first and foremost the American team. He is now the de facto leader of this endeavour, and he must rally the civilian side as well as the military around his leadership – not through commands, but most often by persuading and cajoling.

Third, he must convince President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan people to take greater ownership of the war. Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan presidential candidate, recently insisted that 30,000 Taliban will not dictate the future for 30m Afghans. Yes, they will – unless the Afghan people and their leaders stop acting as victims and bystanders. Today 30,000 Taliban are fighting 140,000 Nato troops and an uneven mix of 200,000-plus Afghan military and police, while much of the government sits on the sidelines. This must change. Mr Karzai, in particular, must take ownership of battles that will inevitably cause civilian losses.

Finally, Gen Petraeus must help persuade a Pakistani government and military that is now hedging its bets. Uncertainty about US staying power encourages Pakistan to maintain relationships with the Taliban. Today, Pakistan too often bases its security calculus on this test: “What will this policy look like the day after the Americans leave?” Regularly reminding Pakistan’s leadership of America’s long-term investment in their security can undercut this narrative.

The current counterinsurgency strategy has achieved some advances in all four of these areas. But the execution is falling short. The tactical focus on driving insurgents from the towns of Marjah and Kandahar has obscured broader strategic goals. Gen Petraeus must use his strong support from Washington to think more comprehensively about the problem.

Most importantly, he must see his mission in a regional context. Afghanistan is not an island, but part of a wider strategic puzzle. The conflict will play out on a regional stage, so Gen Petraeus must travel widely, reminding neighbouring nations that America has long-term security interests in keeping their region stable.

Gen Petraeus must also keep one eye on the clock. The Afghan conflict is now moving into its tenth year, making it the longest war in American history. Growing fatigue at home in the US and Europe can only be tempered if progress can be shown and confidence restored.

In the region, clocks are set to July 2011, a date widely believed to be the start of a rapid US withdrawal, and the subsequent resumption of a new internecine Afghan war – one in which all the important actors are already manoeuvring for advantage. Gen Petraeus must find ways to both put time back on the clock through battlefield success, improved governance and more effective civil-military integration. To do this, he must convince the wary protagonists that the US is staying, and that America’s interests trump any temptation to replay the precipitate American disengagement after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

This task list is formidable – a nearly overwhelming project for any one man. But as Gen Petraeus showed in Iraq, calm and forceful leadership can prevail in even the darkest situation. Afghanistan’s predicament is not nearly as bleak as Iraq’s in February 2007. Success in moving to an enduring (if limited) military presence is achievable.

Intelligence analysts sometimes argue that we have already won the war in Afghanistan twice: the first time in driving out al-Qaeda and the Taliban at the end of 2001, the second in enabling the first-ever successful Afghan presidential election in late 2004. Yet we now fight to win a third time – a reality that demands serious reflection on the costs of inattention. The price of failure – for Nato, for the region, for the Afghan people – remains unacceptable when so many of the greatest dangers to our security emanate from the rugged edges of the Hindu Kush. Today Gen Petraeus is at the epicentre of the most dangerous conflict we face – it will now be his task to lead us over the summit to achieve a success that has been paid for many times over.

Lieutenant General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a senior adviser and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security

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