David Petraeus is a pretty good general until, that is, he doesn't take his own advice.
Petraeus headed the team of military and civilian scholars who produced the US military's new counterinsurgency field manual FM3-24. The beauty of that work is that it had very little that could called new. Instead it was a distillation of the lessons learned in centuries of fighting insurgencies.
Unfortunately, FM3-24 was never taken to heart in Afghanistan which is one reason that war has gone so poorly for the West. In fact, we've made pretty much "every mistake in the book" - far too few troops occupying the country for far too long while dependent on heavy firepower to compensate for inadequate numbers all the while unable to secure the civilian population from the insurgent/rebels. That's a lot of mistakes, enough to all but guarantee failure.
Now Petraeus, apparently forgetting the other side's playbook, wants to add another mistake. He wants to publicize civilian deaths caused by the Taliban. Bad move. The reason insurgents use terror against civilian populations is to undermine the public's confidence in the ability of their government and counterinsurgency forces to protect them. It's kind of quirky but the locals tend to blame our side for letting them down even as they accept the inevitability of having to accommodate the insurgents. When we can't stop the bad guys from getting at them, we lose. When we launch a publicity campaign to tell the citizenry just how successful the bad guys are at getting at them well - it's just plain dumb.
The fundamental goal of any insurgency is to drive a wedge between the civilian population and their government. As that wedge is driven deeper, public support bleeds from the government and passes to the rebels. Eventually a critical mass is reached when the government side has lost the hearts and minds of its people and then it's game over save for the inevitable period in which the government side keeps shelling and bombing pointlessly, further angering and alienating the civilian population.
The insurgents drive that wedge deeper when they become able to occupy territory and establish their own rival authority with judicial, administrative and security functions. Especially when, as in the case of Afghanistan, the central government does all of those things so poorly, it's relatively easy for the insurgent/rebels to be accepted as legitimate.
And we just keep on helping the Taliban hammer their wedge home when we whack Afghan civilians by the dozen with our heavy firepower - air strikes and artillery barrages. Last week we took out 40+ in one strike. Today it's reported we bagged another dozen civilians in a night time operation in Nangahar province.
We don't exterminate Afghan civilians for the sake of killing civilians. We do it because we think we're killing Talibs. But it's the very nature of insurgents to insinuate themselves among their civilian population, to goad us into raining down heavy weapon strikes on the locals. It shows the locals that (a) we can't protect them from the Taliban who come into their midst and (b) that we're as great a threat as the insurgents. Then there's (c) - that unique Afghan thing about revenge and our ability to transform neutral civilians into our mortal enemies by killing off their kinfolk.
It's disturbing to hear Petraeus wanting to publicize Taliban atrocities. It's as though he's run out of ideas of how to challenge the rebels. I don't think he'd try this ploy if he didn't consider this war all but lost. It's a high-risk gambit, the sort that only appeals to those who believe they have nothing left to lose. Well at least he no longer has to worry about a presidential bid in 2012.