Is the US now ready to pursue peace in Afghanistan?

KABUL, Afghanistan — With the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs, the war in Afghanistan is coming under closer scrutiny both here and back in Washington.

While Afghan President Hamid Karzai somewhat hastily called for an end to the conflict, many of his countrymen are worried that the United States will abruptly pack up and leave, with the promised reconstruction nowhere near finished.

But over the next few months Washington is planning a major overhaul of its military and political team in Kabul. Many officials have predicted that the United States is now ready to put politics before force and seek a negotiated settlement to the 10-year war.

The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, speaking in Islamabad Tuesday, sought to reassure Afghanistan that Washington was prepared to “put more diplomacy” into the core mission of “promoting long-term prosperity and political success” in the region.

The normally phlegmatic Afghans have so far evinced little excitement, either at the death of bin Laden or at the announced shuffle of the U.S. lineup.

“The problems of Afghanistan are not so small they can be solved with these changes,” said Ahmad Saeedi, former diplomat and now a political analyst. “We have a governance problem, a problem of national trust. We have a lack of capacity and lack of patriotism. And finally we have this problem of conflict and terrorism.”

This is a grim list to present to Washington’s new team in Kabul.

Last week administration officials announced that Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, would be leaving this fall to take up a new challenge: head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Lt. Gen. John Allen, a veteran of the Iraq War, and the first Marine to take up the top job in Afghanistan, will replace him.

Petraeus’ new post at the CIA may well be sending a few tremors through the political establishment in Islamabad, now under fire for what many see as Pakistan’s involvement in sheltering bin Laden over the past 10 years. While everyone from former President Pervez Musharraf to current intelligence chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha has denied any knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts, the discovery of the world’s most wanted man mere meters from one of Pakistan’s most prominent military centers has raised a lot of eyebrows and prompted a host of questions.

Petraeus has been unstinting in his criticism of Pakistan for harboring terrorists and supporting the insurgents that are killing Afghan and international troops across the border. As CIA chief, Petraeus will have control over the agency’s nominally covert drone program, which sends unmanned aircraft into Pakistan to strike at insurgent leaders and hideouts.

Pakistan has complained bitterly about the drones, saying they infringe on national sovereignty and harm civilians, and the thought of the tough new CIA head with his hand on the button cannot be overly pleasant to Pakistan’s leaders.

In Afghanistan, Petraeus will leave formidable shoes to fill. He is credited as the architect the counterinsurgency strategy that is now guiding troops in Afghanistan, and is one of the highest-profile military figures in the United States.

The international war effort in Afghanistan, now in its 10th year, was widely acknowledged to be on the brink of failure when Petraeus took over from Gen. Stanley McChrystal last June.

Since then, the indefatigable Petraeus has worked hard to promote the impression that the war has turned around, that the Taliban are now on the back foot and the Afghan and international forces are making headway.

Afghans, mired in their internal problems, see little change on the horizon.

“Commanders come and commanders go, but everything stays the same,” said Noor-ul-Haq Ulumi, a retired general and former member of Parliament. “We have seen the same bombardments that kill innocent civilians, the same lack of coordination between the international troops and the Afghans. The tools that we need to reduce this crisis are simply not in place. Nothing will change when Petraeus leaves.”

Ulumi, like many Afghans, is doubtful that Petraeus’ replacement, Allen, will be able to transfer his Iraq experience to what he sees as Afghanistan’s infinitely more complex environment.

Allen was one of the principal designers of the “Anbar Awakening” that convinced tribal leaders to side with the central government and battle the insurgency.

“There are some major differences between Iraq and Afghanistan,” Ulumi said. “First, Iraq did not have this legacy of 30 years of war. And Afghanistan does not have just Sunni, Shia and Kurds. Just look at our Sunnis — they are divided into different political groups, different languages, different religious views. They even have different views on the jihad (the war against the Soviet Union).”

Ulumi, whose roots are in Kandahar, is also skeptical that the new American commander will be able to make headway in talks with the Taliban. Reconciliation with the insurgents is not universally welcomed in Afghanistan.

“Maybe this John Allen thinks he can do what he did in Iraq — sit with the tribal leaders and reconcile them to the government and boom, the job is done,” he said. “But if he comes here and sits down with the Taliban he will take us back to the Middle Ages.”

But for many Afghans, who deeply resent Pakistan’s meddling in their national affairs, anything that annoys their overbearing neighbor can’t be all bad. They feel a deep sense of justification that bin Laden was found in Pakistan, proving what they’ve been saying all along: the problem is not here, but on the other side of the border.

“Yay!!!” said one young journalist, waving his fist triumphantly when he heard of Petraeus’ appointment. “That will show them.”

A source in the Ministry of the Interior, speaking on condition of anonymity, was similarly pleased with the news.

“This will clip Pakistan’s wings a bit,” he said. He also noted, approvingly, that Allen was “ a really tough guy, a dangerous person,” and opined that the changes at the top would ultimately prove beneficial for Afghanistan.

At the same time, U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing a major shift on the diplomatic front. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who has served as Washington’s envoy to Kabul since April 2009, will cede his chair to another old Baghdad hand, Ryan Crocker. The appointment is not yet official, but has been confirmed by Washington insiders.

Eikenberry, a retired general who once held Petraeus’ position in Afghanistan, is perhaps best known here for a cable he wrote in January 2010 that was subsequently leaked to the New York Times. In it he sharply criticized the troop surge that Obama and his military team were then proposing, and bluntly stated that Karzai was “not an adequate strategic partner,” a fact that was likely to torpedo any possible gains made by the international troops.

Eikenberry’s relationship with the Afghan president has been strained ever since.

Crocker is a diplomatic heavyweight who will fit in well with Washington’s new emphasis on diplomacy. He has impeccable credentials, and many are hoping his arrival will smooth the rather bumpy relationship between Washington and Kabul.

“There is a lot of hope tied to Crocker,” Saeedi said. “This could be a way of trying to improve the sensitive relations between Karzai and Washington.”

But he is not overly confident that things will work out, due to Afghanistan’s own chaotic system.

“Afghanistan is a country with little strategic vision,” he explained. “Politics are fast-changing and unpredictable. Every moment we can expect another change, another shift.”