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General Petraeus takes command of the Afghanistan war

General Petraeus arrived in Kabul today to take over the Afghanistan war effort. Afghans say he faces a limited window to rein in corruption, make the Karzai government more accountable, and create momentum toward peace.

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Walid Jan Sabir, an MP from Marjah district in Helmand, says the area is at best marginally safer since the US-led offensive in February.

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“I was optimistic about all this at first, but I’m disillusioned, and so are a lot of the people I’ve been talking to,” he says. “There are increasing numbers of [bombs], the government they installed isn’t trusted by the people, people have been beheaded, and US forces are barging into homes and arresting innocents.”

The US operation in Marjah, run under strict rules to minimize civilian casualties, was intended to build momentum for a larger offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

Kandahar MP Malalai Ishaq Zai says that the Kandahar offensive, which has been delayed, needs to improve governance in a city notorious for corrupt politicians and warlords. “If they don’t focus on the corrupt and powerful, they won’t win,” she says.

President Karzai, who can appoint local leaders, has prevented citizens from having a real voice in government, says Mr. Oghli. That has stymied the emergence of the sort of democracy that could make Afghans loyal to the state and defuse tribal and clan rivalries. It also contributes to a lack of accountability that feeds corruption.

Corruption concerns

Congress withheld $4 billion in aid after reports in late June that up to $3 billion in cash had left Afghanistan over the past few years.

“It’s clear that a lot of money is being stolen by people close to the government,” says a Western diplomat here. “But how high it goes is difficult to prove.”

Qaseem Ludin, deputy director of Afghanistan’s corruption oversight agency, admits problems. “Yes, judges take bribes; there are kickbacks. I admit we’re in a tough fight,” he concedes, adding that Karzai has asked the agency to look at all high-level officials. “But we’re starting to
take action.”

Thomas Ruttig, a scholar in Kabul, says both sides have a point. Afghan officials are stealing money, but foreign contractors almost certainly are as well, he says, blaming a lack of oversight on the flood of aid money.

War effort is improving in crucial areas

The war effort is improving in crucial areas, however, says Waliullah Rahmani, who runs the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. The problem is that the NATO coalition is fraying when “we’re really, in a way, just getting started,” he says. The Dutch are starting to withdraw in August, the Canadians next year, and President Obama says US troops will begin to leave in June 2011.

“Great work has been done in building the Afghan National Army in the past year, the defense and interior ministries are working on a plan to take over territorial control from international forces. But all this is going to take time,” he says.

How much time is available will depend upon the mood of the US public, as well as that of the Afghans.

“There’s been fighting off and on for years, but it’s gone from a few times a month to almost every day,” says Mohammed, the farmer from Helmand. “When you ask me what’s worse, that or the Taliban, I say fighting is worse. We can live with the Taliban if we have to.”