General Petraeus hearing to put Afghanistan war, not him, in hot seat

At General Petraeus’s confirmation hearing Tuesday, legislators are expected to endorse the respected commander but scrutinize the patchy progress of the nine-year Afghanistan war.

By , Staff writer

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    Gen. David Petraeus’s confirmation as the new commander for the Afghanistan war is virtually assured at the Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday, but not before he takes tough questions from skeptical legislators about the wisdom of a nine-year war. In this June 25 photo, Keynote speaker Gen. Petraeus arrives to speak at a tribute to the National Order of the Purple Heart in New Windsor, N.Y.
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Gen. David Petraeus’s confirmation as the new commander for the Afghanistan war is virtually assured at the Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday, but not before he takes tough questions from skeptical legislators about the wisdom of a nine-year war that is seeing its deadliest month for foreign troops.

An audit of efforts to train Afghan military and police released by the United States government on Monday found that the effort has been plagued by trainer shortages, illiteracy, and drug abuse by recruits, and that NATO has used a rating system for Afghan security forces that “overstated the operational capabilities” of even top-rated units.

On top of that, recent polls show that a majority of Americans don’t think the Afghanistan war is winnable and that President Barack Obama is losing support over his handling of the conflict.

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So far in June, according to the independent website icasualties.org, 101 members of the NATO military coalition here have been killed, 55 of them American soldiers. Last June the coalition saw 38 casualties. The previous deadliest month of the war for foreign troops was August 2009, with 77 casualties.

Unease over corruption

In a sign of the growing unease among politicians, US Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York vowed Monday to block all but humanitarian aid for Afghanistan in the next budget until she’s convinced that the Afghan government is dealing with the rampant corruption that is hurting the war effort.

"I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that US taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords and terrorists," said Ms. Lowey, who chairs the House subcommittee on foreign aid.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that more than $3 billion in cash has been flown out of Kabul since 2007, quoting an unnamed US official investigating corruption as saying that "a lot of this looks like our tax dollars being stolen."

Selling counterinsurgency

Since building a better, cleaner government is part of America’s counterinsurgency strategy, Petraeus has his work cut out for him in convincing Congress, and the American public, that the situation can be turned around. Malalai Ishaq Zai, an Afghan lawmaker from Kandahar, told the Monitor last week that the US must do more to crack down on corrupt local officials close to Karzai's government.

“We all know this is going to take more time,” says a Western diplomat working on governance issues here. “The tribal structure isn’t as strong as it used to be after 31 years of conflict and narcomafias [drug gangs] and strongmen have come to establish their own rules. And let’s not forget the Taliban. These forces have degraded security, but it can be restored.”

After the Soviet Union was driven out of Afghanistan in 1989, lawlessness and corruption touched off a civil war that gave rise to the Taliban. As the hard-line Islamic group marched across the country to seize control of Kabul, it convinced many ordinary Afghans that it could provide better law and order.

“In those days people felt compelled to support the Taliban,” says Mohammed Akram, who leads a Karzai government effort to reach out to Taliban fighters. “There was tribal fighting, robbery everywhere, abuse of women by gunmen. The government needs to careful about corruption.”

Plea for patience

Petraeus is expected to appeal today for patience with the counterinsurgency strategy now under way. Offensive operations are meant to put pressure on the Taliban, and ambitious plans are being drawn to curtail the power of warlords in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city and the spiritual home of the Taliban.

President Obama has said he’d like to start withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan by June 2011. How much time beyond that a weary Congress and American public will give its next war commander remains unclear.

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