The general's aides come in first, carrying six wooden easels as if they're setting up an art display. Next come the charts, four feet tall, displaying an array of information as densely woven as a spider's web. And then into the room sweeps Petraeus, greeting his audience in a manner at once genial and pugnacious.
I've seen Petraeus give many briefings over the years, and it's a bit like watching a magician at work. Even though you've seen the trick before, and you know the patter, you still get mesmerized. He has the ability to make people believe the impossible might be doable, after all. He pulled it off in Iraq, and it's just possible he's on his way again in Afghanistan. But this time it will be a stretch.
The Afghanistan campaign plan, in classic Petraeus fashion, comes at the problem from every direction: It's top-down, in building the Afghan army, and bottom-up, in training tribal militias known as Afghan Local Police. It's about military power, especially the deadly night raids by U.S. Special Operations Forces, and it's also about making governance work in this corrupt and feeble country.
The most interesting chart in Petraeus's recent briefing was one called "Village Stability Operations," which showed how Special Forces teams are securing the remote mountain valleys north of Helmand province. This year, the United States has found local pockets where the village elders resented the Taliban - and sent in the Green Berets to organize local resistance.
The campaign plan is so dispersed that it's easy to miss what's happening. There's no big "battle of Kandahar," for example. Instead, U.S. soldiers are clearing the Taliban-infested belts around the city and establishing scores of little combat outposts with Afghan forces. The idea is to keep expanding these "security bubbles" until the Taliban is driven from the population centers.
Like any war, this one is ultimately about willpower, and America has an advantage in Petraeus, one of the strongest-willed people you could hope to meet. But this winner's psyche is not sufficient. History shows that three variables are crucial in countering an insurgency: a real process of reconciliation, no safe havens for the enemy and a competent host government. None are present in Afghanistan.
So here are a few questions for Petraeus to ponder at year-end. I've collected them from strategists inside and outside the government who hope for success but worry that time is short:
l How can the United States create more incentives for the Afghan government to take control? Is there some way to create a "ratchet effect" so that every time the Afghans muster another 10,000 troops - and we take out a like number - there's a benefit that Afghans can feel?
l How can the United States make "reconciliation and reintegration" move faster? Who can drive the process with the manipulative passion of a Henry Kissinger? (Petraeus could fit that bill.) Should the preconditions for Taliban participation be altered?
l How can the Pakistan angle be squared? Can we involve the Pakistanis more directly in reconciliation efforts? Should we take their advice and negotiate with their friends in the Haqqani network? Can we divert some of the nearly $100 billion annual budget for Afghanistan to buy peace in the tribal areas?
l How can the CIA be used better? The Afghan war began as a CIA paramilitary action. Maybe it should end that way, too. Pakistani officials say they have allowed the CIA to open a new base in Quetta. Can more joint U.S.-Pakistani covert operations be launched in Baluchistan and the tribal areas?
Petraeus's campaign plan, to use a simple analogy, is the equivalent of mending a broken, old chair - gluing it back together and holding it in place with a series of clamps. But nobody can say how long the U.S. "clamps" will remain in place, how long it will take the "glue" of transition to dry or how rotten is the Afghan "wood." Those are the uncertain variables that Petraeus must hedge against, even as he keeps pushing for success