With the US-led Afghanistan war in its most precarious position since it began nearly nine years ago, Gen. David Petraeus arrived in Kabul today to implement a strategy similar to the one he successfully pioneered in Iraq.
It includes not only removing the Taliban from the villages they have occupied for years, but also overseeing reconstruction, helping create a more accountable government, and building up the Afghan military and police.
The capital of Kabul is an oasis of relative security. But the situation in the south of the country – the Pashtun heartland that gave birth to the Taliban in the early 1990s – is deteriorating, say average Afghans, aid workers, and some diplomats. June was the deadliest month ever for foreign troops here.
“Compared to eight years back, or even three years back, we are really much, much worse off than at any point,” says Danish Karokhel, who runs Pajhwok Afghan News, which has reporters in every city. “The Taliban are on most of the important roads leading to Kabul. The government just looks so weak to people.”
Poppy farmer Dal Mohammed is not a Taliban supporter – far from it, he says. After all, it was partly the Taliban’s fault that he recently had to flee his village in southern Afghanistan with his two wives and seven children for this refugee camp on Kabul’s outskirts.
But it was the joint US-Afghan military response to a Taliban attack that destroyed his home in Helmand Province and drove him here.
Standing amid the temporary brick-and-mud homes, he says the situation in Helmand is the worst it’s been since the war began. As fellow refugees nod, he says peace should be made quickly with the Taliban.
The Afghan government? “We have no trust in them at all.”
Challenges: Corruption, instability, and government accountability
As Gen. David Petraeus takes command of the Afghanistan war, the call is coming in loud and clear: Do something different and do it fast. The common refrain centers on several challenges: Rein in corruption, make the Karzai government more accountable, and create enough momentum toward peace that Afghans will put their weight behind the US-led fight.
To do this, Petraeus will need to resolve tensions between the US military and civilian leaders and President Hamid Karzai. While the US has poured more than $280 billion into Afghanistan to rout Islamist militants, Karzai’s government has been reaching out to the Taliban – a move some say is based on the calculation that the US lacks the ability or political will to stay until the insurgency has been vanquished.
“How can we fight the Taliban when Karzai is making overtures of peace and is thinking about asking them to join the government?” asks Rahman Oghli, a member of parliament (MP) who worries that citizens may be led to believe that turning against the Islamist movement is more trouble than it’s worth. “Our Army would be thinking to themselves, ‘Why should I fight when it’s going to end that way?’ ”
Petraeus is revered by many for having created that crucial momentum in Iraq, successfully recruiting Sunni insurgents to help turn the tide against Al Qaeda.
What Afghan lawmakers want Petraeus to do
Politicians from Marjah and Kandahar, both targeted for key US offensives, charge that two pillars of the counterinsurgency strategy – to protect civilians and establish the rule of law – have largely failed.
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.
“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.
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
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.”