Politicians from the southern Afghan areas, both targeted for key US offensives, charge that there are fundamental flaws in the way America has been carrying out its counterinsurgency strategy.
They say that two central aspects of the strategy – to protect civilians and bring the rule of law – have largely failed under Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was replaced by Petraeus this week after he and his team disparaged the Obama administration in Rolling Stone magazine.
Walid Jan Sabir, the member of Parliament (MP) from Marjah district, says the area is at best marginally safer since the US-led offensive in February, which was billed as a key test of the strategy to rout the Taliban and install a government loyal to Kabul and responsive to citizens' needs. But that security, Mr. Sabir says, is deteriorating once more and locals are growing increasingly frustrated at the US presence.
“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 [improvised explosive] devices, 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 people are caught between the US and the Afghan National Army by day, and the Taliban by night.”
The mix of violence, ineffective government, and controversial US military operations is eroding what little confidence Afghans have in the Karzai government, America's key partner in the counterinsurgency strategy that Petraeus has been called on to lead.
Doubt about Kandahar offensive
The US operation in Marjah was originally outlined as a decisive prelude to a larger offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. When the "government in a box" ushered in by US troops failed to take hold in Marjah amid fears of insurgent attacks, however, McChrystal postponed the Kandahar offensive planned for this summer.
US and Afghan forces have begun stepping up security efforts in and around Afghanistan’s second-largest city, but it's unclear when the joint civilian-military "surge" will begin. The aim is to decrease support for the Taliban, which many locals currently see as better able to maintain order than the Kandahar government, by bringing less-corrupt government and rule of law to the city.
Kandahar MP Malalai Ishaq Zai snorts derisively when asked if she thinks the Kandahar effort is likely to go better than in rural Marjah. The mother of eight lived in virtual captivity in her home during seven years of Taliban rule in the 1990s, which started in Kandahar. She then emerged, at the age of 38, to run a school and a women’s organization before becoming the only woman elected to parliament from the region in the 2005 elections.
Critics: US needs to root out corruption, pressure Pakistan
Ms. Zai, an outspoken Karzai critic, says the US has coddled corrupt local officials close to Karzai's government.
Zai says that the president, a Kandahar native, is more concerned with his own position and that of his family than in permanently ousting the Taliban. Many locals charge his half-brother, Kandahar power broker Ahmed Wali Karzai, is involved in smuggling and corruption.
“For him, it’s all about preserving his presidency and his position, not what the people of Kandahar need,” she says, echoing the concerns of many of his critics in Kabul. “The US presence in Kandahar can give is a little security, but if they don’t focus on the corrupt and powerful, they won’t win.”
She says it appears unlikely at the moment that the US will clip Wali Karzai’s wings, since he’s both deeply involved in US military contracts here and protected by his older brother, the man the US is counting on to lead Afghanistan to a more stable future.
Zai and others, from former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah to US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, have also been concerned that the US has not sufficiently curbed Pakistan's support for the Taliban, some of whose leaders are believed to be based in Pakistan – allegedly with cover from the Pakistani intelligence services.
With a US deadline of 2011 looming, some say Karzai has focused increasingly on working with his Pakistani neighbors rather than with Washington. Pakistan will be there long after US troops leave and has pushed Afghanistan to make a deal with Taliban leaders, whose power Pakistan wants to preserve.
Can Petraeus address Afghan concerns?
But neither Zai nor Sabir wants a change in strategy, per se. Instead, they argue that the US, by locking itself into its relationship with the increasingly autocratic Karzai, is losing the local support that is key to its counterinsurgency strategy.
Whether Petraeus, who is expected to keep McChrystal's strategy – albeit with a likely change in approach – can do much about any of this is uncertain. Despite concerns over fraud in last year’s presidential election, Karzai is the leader of the country and has broad powers to appoint local leaders. And going after local warlords who have become entrenched since the war started in 2001 could have dangerous repercussions for US forces – potentially adding to their enemies here.
But one thing is clear: he doesn’t have much time to get things working. While Kabul remains relatively safe, much of the country is aflame, with the Taliban conducting targeted assassinations and planting roadside bombs, and increasingly powerful local warlords vying with each other to extract cash from farmers and businessmen.
Record death toll in June
Marjah, in Helmand Province, isn’t the only area where violence is rising. In the province just north of Kandahar today, 11 bodies were found in a field. Local police say they were killed by the Taliban, who considered them informers.
Two NATO soldiers were also announced killed on Friday, taking the death toll of foreign forces to 81 for June – already a record in the nearly nine-year war. And attacks, particularly roadside bombs or IEDs, have continued to increase. There were 3,496 IED incidents in the first four months of the year, on pace to eclipse last year’s record total of 8,159.