Conflict & Justice

Petraeus, Allen scandal adds to sense of unraveling in Afghanistan


Gen. David Petraeus in Kabul, Afghanistan.


Paul J. Richards

KABUL, Afghanistan — Not long after election night, when US President Barack Obama told the American public that "a decade of war is ending," Milad Kashifi sat smoking a cigarette by a road in Kabul.

Behind him was a neighborhood quietly coming under the Taliban's influence. In front of him was an old factory still bearing the bullet scars from the chaos that followed the Soviet's departure from Afghanistan.

Stuck in the middle and contemplating the future, Kashifi hadn't made any money that morning from his small business selling plants. He complained that security was deteriorating and the rich and powerful were above the law.

More from GlobalPost: The Petraeus Affair: Full Coverage

Asked how the situation has changed since Obama first took office in 2009, he replied: "Each day is worse than the last. First these people give you something sweet, then they give you something bitter."

The reality in this particular conflict is that peace remains elusive. Very few Afghans believe they will witness it during Obama’s second term. The unfolding sex scandals — engulfing former CIA Director David Petraeus and the commander of American and NATO forces here, Gen. John Allen — simply add to the sense of a strategy unraveling.

Although conventional foreign combat troops are due to leave in 2014, the fighting seems certain to escalate before and after the last foreign soldier has returned home.

"Life is good for those people who have two different passports, who have a house here and a house in Dubai," Kashifi said. "But the poor people like you, me and others are living in bad conditions. The civil war will start again for us, not for them."

The anxiety now prevalent across Afghanistan comes on the back of four deeply violent and fractious years that have passed here under the leadership of Obama. While he ended the occupation of Iraq, the US president soon took ownership of this war — expanding it in just about every possible way even as he set a timetable for withdrawal.

When he first entered the White House there were roughly 32,000 American troops in the country. That later rose to a peak of more than 100,000. The level now stands at around 68,000. Drone attacks here and in neighboring Pakistan have also increased over the rate during the Bush administration.

At the same time, controversial US-sponsored militias were established at the behest of Petraeus who was then serving in the role now held by Allen. Attempts to start serious negotiations with the Taliban also failed.

Many people are increasingly worried that the end result of American efforts will be a gradual descent into anarchy as warlords and insurgents vie for power. However, some still believe the situation can be saved.

Mohammed Khan is a senior member of Hizb-e-Islami, a prominent political party that has a break away faction fighting NATO troops. He welcomed Obama's re-election because, he said, the president should have gained an understanding of what needs to be done here.

Khan told GlobalPost key issues that must be addressed include, "the two faced politics of Pakistan" and the "corrupt team" running the government in Kabul. Perhaps inevitably, he also called on the United States to offer its hand to him and his colleagues.

“We hope that instead of having a relationship with a few political businessmen, you should have a relationship with the Afghan nation through the real party that represents it," he said.

Back in 2009 Obama did appear to realize how grave conditions on the ground had become. In a keynote speech outlining his strategy, he acknowledged "the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated" but dismissed comparisons with the American war in Vietnam.

Since then, the number of US military personnel killed has passed the 2,000 mark. The Taliban have also suffered heavy losses and Obama insists their momentum has been broken. For a while now, speculation has suggested the departure of foreign troops could even be brought forward.

Due to leave his position soon anyway, Allen has been at the center of plotting the next phase of the withdrawal and any residual presence of advisers and Special Forces that may remain after 2014. It’s not clear how that plan might be affected by the recent scandal.

Amin Farhang, a former member of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, told GlobalPost that Washington must not rush for the exits.

Speaking as news of Petraeus' resignation was breaking in Kabul, Farhang said, “Despite all these casualties of men and the money spent on Afghanistan, it’s not possible for them to leave and say goodbye. No. If they leave the threat from here will again turn to America.”