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Petraeus Spins the Afghan War Mess

By Barbara Koeppel
September 7, 2010

A few weeks ago, Gen. David Petraeus pulled off a flawless remake of Gen. William Westmoreland’s 1967 performance in which the Vietnam War commander detected “light at the end of the tunnel” – just months before the Viet Cong launched its Tet offensive, proving the resistance was very much alive and well.

This time, the geography is Afghanistan. But Gen. Petraeus’s upbeat claims on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and elsewhere — that U.S. and NATO troops have ousted some Taliban from conflicted areas, helped reform the corrupt Afghan government, and trained Afghan security forces to fight on their own — are equally phony, according to a former senior U.S. government official.

In an interview, Matthew Hoh, an ex-Marine commander in Iraq who took a high-ranking State Department job in Afghanistan before resigning a year ago because he “couldn’t stand the BS of it anymore,” disputed each Petraeus claim.

First, rather than the U.S. having ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan’s south and east, quite the opposite is true, Hoh said.

“Villagers still turn to their Afghan brothers to rid their towns of carpetbaggers,” Hoh said. “These include not only U.S. or NATO forces, but also the Afghan government that … is staggeringly corrupt and its troops are mainly from different ethnic groups or regions.”

These areas of Afghanistan are so anti-outsider that U.S. congressional and other delegations can’t venture there.

According to Hoh, nothing has improved, even though “the number of NATO troops soared from under 30,000 in 2005 to the current 150,000, and we’ve spent about $350 billion for the military and $50 billion for reconstruction programs, which include training and equipping Afghan forces.“

Also, recent press reports indicate that in the north, which was stable until recently, security is deteriorating.  

As further proof of a downward spiral, Hoh pointed to the Pentagon’s failure in its Marjah campaign this past winter to evict the Taliban and impose the authority of the central government. Thus, the generals had to postpone the next offensive planned for the same purpose in Kandahar Province in early spring. As of now, it’s still on hold.

Hoh said colleagues in Afghanistan tell him that fighting in parts of Marjah is still intense and about 2,000 Marines are stuck there. He said locals in the south and east, who are rural, traditional Pashtuns, still hate the central government, which consists mainly of the more urban Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks.

“Think of it like the feuds between the Hatfields and McCoys, only it’s a civil war that’s been going on since the 1970s, where we’ve propped up one side,” Hoh said.

Hoh also cited an International Council for Security and Development from July, which found that 76 percent of Helmand residents and 88 percent of Marjah villagers see the Taliban groups as having a legitimate role in their communities’ governance.  

As for Afghanistan’s legendary corruption, there’s little evidence it’s been curbed, Hoh said. Daily press reports tell of high-ranking Afghans soliciting bribes, carting off cash to Dubai, and the need to install “U.S.-developed currency counters” at Kabul airport to stanch the flow of millions diverted from drug proceeds and foreign aid.

On Aug. 22, a Washington Post article estimated the money being diverted at over $1 billion a year. The situation is so bad that a congressional panel is threatening to withhold $4 billion in aid — until the country cleans up its act.

While Afghan President Hamid Karzai promises to support anti-corruption teams, he actually does the exact opposite.

Recently, when two U.S.-backed law enforcement teams arrested a top security advisor, Mohammad Zia Salehi, on corruption charges, Karzai released him immediately, accusing the teams of “violating human rights” and being “un-Islamic” and “unconstitutional.”

Hoh said the continued inflow of billions of dollars only worsens the corruption and deepens rivalries between those with their hands in the till and those who are left out.

Finally, as for an improved Afghan army, despite Gen. Petraeus’s assurances, success stories are hard to find.

The U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction wrote in July that, despite the $27 billion-plus that the U.S. has spent to train and equip the Afghan army, it still can’t operate without U.S. forces planning and leading the fight. 

Possibly to deflect the growing skepticism, Gen. Petraeus claimed that the war plan was only recently fine-tuned and given the resources it needed.

However, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whom President Obama fired in late June, got the 40,000 extra troops he requested (30,000 from the U.S. and 10,000 from allies) and the extra billions to support them as far back as December, to launch his Afghan version of the Iraq “surge.”

Petraeus seems to be trying to re-start the clock to when he took over, even though he had been head of the U.S. Central Command and – as McChrystal’s boss – helped develop the counterinsurgency plan that McChrystal was implementing.

Meanwhile, the war’s price in blood and money continues to climb. This past year, 468 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan, with 66 in July alone, making it a grim record-setting month.

Perhaps Petraeus has come to believe all the power-point-presentations that paint glowing pictures of progress in Afghanistan. To Hoh, however, they’re “dog and pony shows, just like the Potemkin villages the Soviets used to show success, while one kilometer away the war rages and the scene is devastated.”

Barbara Koeppel is a free-lance investigative reporter based in Washington DC.

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