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Afghans offer muted support for Petraeus amid concerns US relationship with Karzai may worsen.
“[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.