x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Petraeus on charm offensive in Afghanistan

The US commander faces challenge to gain trust of ordinary people desperate to see positive results but says mission is achievable.

Gen David Petraeus with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, in Kabul yesterday.
Gen David Petraeus with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, in Kabul yesterday.

KABUL // The new US commander for Afghanistan has arrived in the country amidst growing public disquiet about the direction the war is heading. Gen David Petraeus starts the job on the back of the worst monthly death toll for foreign troops since the conflict began nearly nine years ago.

He will face a Taliban insurgency that has clearly taken root beyond its heartland in the south and east, as well as widespread anger among ordinary people who feel let down by his predecessor. "This is a tough mission, there is nothing easy about it," acknowledged Gen Petraeus from inside the heavily fortified US Embassy in Kabul yesterday. "But working together we can achieve progress and we can achieve our mutual objective."

Gen Petraeus was confirmed in his role as head of US and Nato forces here last week, following the sacking of Gen Stanley McChrystal, who had been dismissed for making disparaging remarks about his superiors in Washington to the Rolling Stone magazine. He will formally assume his position at a ceremony later today and is likely to face immediate pressure from Afghans desperate to see positive results on the ground.

Anger towards foreign soldiers is steadily rising, in large part because they have failed to bring security to much of the country. Instead, the opposite appears to have happened. Since the US president Barack Obama announced he was deploying 30,000 extra troops last December, the violence has grown alarmingly. High-profile attacks have taken place in Kabul and the Taliban's influence has spread to new areas that were once regarded as hostile to the rebels. Huge swathes of the south and east, meanwhile, continue to be in the grip of the insurgency.

Jan Ibrahimi, a medical student from Nangarhar province, complained that international forces needed to help with development, but were instead just concentrating on "war and fighting". "A new generation is coming up. They are illiterate, they are jobless and they will join the opposition," he said. Gen Petraeus will ultimately be in charge of 150,000 foreign troops and he has until next July to show that significant progress had been made so US forces can start withdrawing under a deadline already set by Mr Obama.

Arguably his biggest challenge will be to gain the trust of ordinary people who provide support and shelter to the Taliban. In an attempt to win hearts and minds, Gen McChrystal pledged to cut civilian casualties and reduce house raids carried out at night, yet his strategy went largely unnoticed among Afghans living in those areas where the conflict is fiercest. "Our culture is that no one should enter the house of a Pashtun [without permission] and we will kill ourselves or them if they do. The Americans especially are doing this," Mr Ibrahimi said.

"Most of our people think they are intentionally insulting Pashtuns." That anger appears to be borne out in statistics showing rising violence. In June 102 foreign troops were killed here, the worst monthly death toll since the start of the war. Recent UN figures also revealed that roadside bombings were up by 94 per cent in the first four months of the year, while assassinations rose 45 per cent.

The Taliban have sent a warning of what may be to come under Gen Petraeus' watch. On Friday, in the northern province of Kunduz, a co-ordinated attack was carried out against a US aid organisation. Five people were killed. Saleh Mohammed, 27, a from the province, called on the US and its allies to show a greater willingness to talk to the rebels if the bloodshed was to end. "All the problems are made by the foreigners," he said.

As if to further highlight the size of the task ahead, Nato forces announced yesterday that they killed two civilians, including a woman, in Kandahar. It is exactly the kind of incident that angers even those Afghans who accept having international forces in their country. Abdul Halim, 46, from Kabul, is one of them. He said previous changes to the way foreign troops work here had "all been negative".

"We want the new commander to prevent civilian casualties. Innocent Afghans should not be killed anymore," he added. "In those provinces where they have a good reconstruction team the people are very happy. But in those provinces where the foreigners are just fighting the people hate them."