McChrystal's ouster: The view from Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan — Here in Kabul the U.S. command is changing. The worries are not.

A day after the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the profound challenges the United States and its allies face on the ground here remain and some are brought more sharply into relief by the surprising turn of events this week, particularly the deep divisions within the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Gen. David Petraus will have his work cut out for him.

Petraeus, who is likely to face swift confirmation hearings next week to become top commander of troops here, will land in the middle of a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban that many analysts here believe is faltering as badly, if not worse, than was the war in Iraq when Petraeus took up the top command post there in early 2007.

Petraeus, who currently is the head of Central Command, has been widely praised for his leadership on the ground in Iraq and the execution of the Baghdad surge which, at least according to the first draft of military history, is seen as a turning point toward stabilizing Iraq's new government.  

The reaction in Kabul to the appointment of Petraeus to replace McChrystal has been greeted with muted approval; but while Petraeus is widely respected in Afghanistan, there is some fear among analysts and observers here that Petraeus will not be able to forge the kind of relationship his predecessor had with the government of President Hamid Karzai, leading to wider rifts between Kabul and Washington.

“McChrystal was very close to Karzai,” said Ahmad Saeedi, a political analyst in Kabul and administration insider. “He traveled with him, sat in on meetings and consulted on almost every decision Karzai made."

This contrasted sharply with Karzai’s lack of rapport with many other members of Obama’s Afghanistan team, including U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, both of whom have had testy, at times explosive contacts with the Afghan president.

Meantime, the author of the Rolling Stone magazine article that quoted McChrystal disparaging the Obama administration has suggested that the general may have even orchestrated his own firing and thus an early exit from what many see as a losing battle in Afghanistan. Afghan leaders and NATO insiders are left wondering if by signing off on the story, McChrystal may have been intentionally aiming to expose deep divisions between the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon over the execution of the military campaign.

Whether there was any intention to his remarks or they were simply reckless mistakes, his comments in Rolling Stone touched off a firestorm and cost him his job. McChrystal was forced out after he and his aides made a series of highly divisive and disrespectful remarks about Obama and his team to a freelance reporter doing a story for Rolling Stone magazine. The resulting article, “The Runaway General,” will hit the newsstands on Friday but is already posted online.

The Karzai administration has been at some pains to express confidence in Petraeus and the Obama strategy, even as it tried desperately to pressure the U.S. president to keep McChrystal on.

According to a statement issued by Karzai’s office, the Afghan president had a teleconference with Obama on Wednesday, and expressed great trust in and affection for McChrystal as a partner in the war against terrorism. And Karzai’s controversial younger brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, the powerful head of the provincial council in the crucial Kandahar district, told the media there that McChrystal should be sent back to Afghanistan.

“He is my friend,” the younger Karzai said emphatically.

This may not have done McChrystal any favors with a White House already on pins and needles over Ahmad Wali, AWK, as he is known, who is widely accused of corruption, allegations that he vehemently denies.

“One of the reasons that McChrystal was removed is that he was too close to the Karzais,” Saeedi said. “He was known here as ‘Karzai’s lieutenant.’”

The Afghan president feels the loss keenly, according to government insiders. As the drama over McChrystal unfolded, Karzai became more and more agitated, said one source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“He could not make decisions,” said the source. “He was supposed to send the Parliament a list of Cabinet ministers, and he could not even do that.”

Karzai has been engaged in a months-long dispute with his Parliament over Cabinet nominees; Parliament rejected 10 out of 25 candidates in January, but the Afghan president has left his picks in place as acting ministers for months, in violation of the constitution. The Presidential Palace had promised the list by Wednesday; it did not arrive. The list is now scheduled to reach Parliament on Saturday.

Obama was categorical in his assurances that the Afghanistan strategy would remain on course.
“This is a change in personnel, not in policy,” he said in his Rose Garden press conference.

Petraeus is generally on board with the strategy, and indeed had a hand in crafting it. But the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is seen here as a bit more hard-line than McChrystal when it comes to questions such as the possibility of a military solution to the conflict and the desirability of negotiations with the Taliban.

“I just met him a few months ago after he came back from the Marjah operation,” Saeedi said.
Petraeus visited the troops in March, to assess the progress being made in Marjah, a district of Helmand Province that had been heralded as the decisive battle in the war up to that point.

The Marjah operation is now widely regarded as, at best, a mixed result, but at the time it was hailed as a victory for the U.S. troops.

“[Petraeus] told us ‘you should fight the enemy until he realizes that he is not going to win militarily,’” Saeedi said. "'Only then is it OK to talk.’”

Petraeus is stepping in at a particularly difficult point in the war, when the U.S. public is beginning to lose faith in the mission, and even supporters of the administration spend most of their time debating the difference between “stalemate” and “defeat.” Few people talk about ”victory” anymore.

NATO casualties reached a new high Thursday; with 80 troops killed, June has surpassed the previous record of 75 last July.

The “hearts and minds” approach that is at the center of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy, seems to be losing, rather than gaining ground. The general had imposed severe restrictions on his troops in an effort to protect non-combatants, something that dismayed and even angered the rank and file. He was trying to avoid the civilian casualties that had driven a wedge between the population and the foreign forces, and between Karzai and Washington.

But the recent bombing of a wedding party in Kandahar demonstrates the difficulty of trying to change long-held and deeply entrenched perceptions.

The bomb, which killed more than 80 people, was clearly the work of a lone suicide bomber. But a great number of the survivors are convinced that they were attacked by foreign planes.

“Suicide bombs cannot kill that many people at once,” said Haji Nazar Mohammad, a guest at the wedding. “The attack was from the air. There were many reconnaissance planes in the sky that night.”

This is bad news for a military basing its chances for success on winning over the local population.
The Kandahar offensive, which was to follow the Marjah operation and reclaim the heartland of the insurgency, has been put on hold. The offensive was originally scheduled for June, but McChrystal had already announced that he would not begin before the fall.

But while Petraeus assembles his team and clears out the McChrystal aides implicated in the Rolling Stone scandal, the clock is ticking. It will be weeks, at least, before the new general is in place, and longer than that before his new unit is able to build the relationships necessary to function efficiently.

Meanwhile, Obama’s well-publicized deadline for the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal, July 2011, is approaching like a locomotive.

Petraeus himself expressed some discomfort with that date during his testimony to a Senate Armed Services Committee in mid-June.

“In a perfect world, Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful with timelines,” said Petraeus, shortly before collapsing from what he said was just dehydration.

There are some Afghans and even a few NATO insiders who are convinced that McChrystal orchestrated his own political demise, as a way of bringing the deep divisions within the Obama administration to the forefront and also, possibly, to gain an early exit from what many see as a losing battle.

“He signed off on that article,” said one source inside the Afghan government, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He knew what he was doing.”

This version of events is gaining ground.

The author of the Rolling Stone story, Michael Hastings, told NPR’s Michele Norris that he suspected that McChrystal had an ulterior motive in agreeing to the interview and in making his all-too-revealing comments.

McChrystal, according to Hastings, may have wanted “to throw a hand grenade into the pond and create some shockwaves.”

If so, he accomplished his goal.

“He knew he was not liked by the White House,” said a civilian member of the International Security Assistance Force, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There were constant rumors he was going to get canned. So perhaps he decided, ‘why not just go out on my own terms?'”

In so doing, the renegade general exposed the fault lines inside the Obama strategy, with the military arrayed on one side and the diplomatic community on the other. It is no accident that McChrystal’s greatest bitterness was reserved for Eikenberry, a former general, who, he felt, had betrayed him.

All of this is creating an appearance of turmoil in the U.S. war effort, which is not good news for either the international troops or for those Afghans who are depending on them.

“In general, the international forces seem a bit confused now in Afghanistan,” said political analyst Wahid Mojda. “This could be a victory for the armed opposition and a loss for America.”

Freelance journalist Abaceen Nasimi contributed to this report.