From the outside, the process appeared to lack the drama of the highly publicized 2009 review. But behind the scenes, say U.S. officials familiar with the debate, the infighting was just as fierce. Petraeus and his staff squared off against a handful of key players in the White House, most of them closely aligned with Vice President Joe Biden, who has pressed for a faster withdrawal. It was "the optimists versus the pessimists," as one U.S. official who worked on the review puts it. Although the metrics used to judge progress in Afghanistan are classified, U.S. officials familiar with the review say Petraeus focused on a few key statistics to make his case: the growing number of Taliban commanders being killed and captured, evidence that the local population is becoming more receptive to U.S. troops, and signs that more Taliban fighters are joining the government. Military commanders in Afghanistan also stressed what they see as security gains in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. As Petraeus and his allies in the Pentagon sought to reshape the review to their liking, they had "daily battles with the White House," says one U.S. official.
During the review process, Petraeus also clashed with America's intelligence community over what is really going on in Afghanistan. The CIA wasn't buying the military's spin about progress, and the new National Intelligence Estimate — a document that distills the insights of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies — threatened to repeat the "grim" assessment it had offered two years earlier. So the general set out to remake the NIE to his liking. "Petraeus and his staff completely rewrote it," says a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the assessment, which remains classified. Every time the CIA or the NSC cited something negative, Petraeus pushed to include something positive. "There was much more back-and-forth between the military and the intelligence community than usual," says another official who has read the NIE. "The draft I saw reflected this debate."
Thanks to such internal maneuvering, the strategic review did little to clarify the timetable for withdrawal. The final report, in fact, says almost nothing. We are making progress, but that progress is fragile and reversible. We have broken the momentum of the Taliban, but there will still be heavy fighting next year. The troops will start coming home soon, but they won't start coming home soon. We aren't "nation-building," the president says, though we'll stay in Afghanistan past 2014 to build its nation. It was, in the end, a nonreview review, which suited Petraeus just fine, giving him more time to shape the outcome not just in Kabul, but in Washington. As the general had spelled out in his doctoral dissertation, winning the hearts and minds of Congress is what matters most. Or as one U.S. military official puts it, "If anyone can spin their way out of this war, it's Petraeus."
During his time in Iraq, Petraeus earned the nickname King David, for the imperious manner in which he ruled over the ancient city of Mosul. In Afghanistan, a more apt honorific might be the Godfather. To get America out of the war, Petraeus has turned to the network of warlords, drug runners and thieves known as the Afghan government, which the general himself has denounced as a "criminal syndicate." Within weeks of assuming command, Petraeus pushed through an ambitious program to create hundreds of local militias — essentially a neighborhood watch armed with AK-47s. Under Petraeus, the faltering operation has been expanded from 18 districts to more than 60, with plans to ramp it up from 10,000 men to 30,000.
In Afghanistan, however, arming local militias means, by definition, placing guns in the hands of some of the country's most ruthless thugs, who rule their territory with impunity. In the north, Petraeus is relying on Atta Mohammed Noor, a notorious warlord-turned-governor considered to be one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan, to prepare militias for a long fight with the Taliban. Smaller militias in the region — which have been likened to an L.A. "gang" by their own American advisers — are also getting U.S. training. In the east, where violence has significantly increased, efforts to back local strongmen have already resulted in intertribal violence. And in the south, Petraeus has given near-unconditional support to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's brother and one of the country's most unsavory gangsters.
"The Americans have backed so many warlords in so many ways, it's very hard to see how you unscramble the egg now," says John Matisonn, a former top U.N. official who left Kabul last June. "There has never been a strategy to get rid of the warlords, who are the key problem. The average Afghan hates them, whether they're backed by the Taliban or the Americans. They see them as criminals. They know that the warlords are fundamentally undermining the rule of law."
The militia strategy that Petraeus is pursuing is essentially one of outsourcing — and no one better represents the plan's disdisturbing downside than Col. Abdul Razzik, who runs the border town of Spin Boldak in southern Afghanistan. Although Razzik's militia is not officially part of the new program being ramped up by Petraeus, the general has singled him out as a model ally in the region. Razzik played a key role during the recent U.S. offensive in Kandahar, and Petraeus himself paid a visit to the colonel last fall. According to Razzik — who, despite his lower rank, also refers to himself as a general — he and Petraeus hit it off, meeting for an hour and a half and exchanging ideas on how to win the war. "General Petraeus and I have very similar opinions," Razzik tells me during a recent interview in an office at his base a few miles from the Pakistani border. "I want to kill the Taliban, he wants to kill the Taliban."
At just under five feet nine, with a neatly trimmed beard and a sly smile, the 34-year-old Razzik is a bundle of charisma. A photo of President Karzai hangs above his desk, which is empty of papers, and his black desktop Dell computer is switched off. Razzik doesn't know how to read, so paper and the Internet would only get in the way of his work, which is basically kicking Taliban ass by any means necessary. By most accounts, he's been doing a pretty bang-up job of it, leading a series of operations in the country's most dangerous province. "We don't take prisoners," Razzik boasts. "If they are trying to kill me, I will try to kill them. That's how I order my men." He pauses, as if recalling the recent PR training he received from U.S. officials. "If they submit and say they made a mistake," he adds, "then, yes, we will take them prisoner."
Exactly how Razzik became the most powerful figure in his province is a bit blurry. By his account, he began fighting the Taliban in 1995, when the religious fundamentalists killed his uncle and took his 11-year-old brother prisoner. Hiding in the sandy mountains south of town, Razzik was taken in by shepherds of his own tribe. He then snuck north to Kabul and Herat, where he fought the Taliban for a few months before returning to Spin Boldak. In 2002, thanks in part to his tribal connections, he was named chief of the border police. With Hamid Karzai as his patron — along with the president's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, the provincial chief of Kandahar and a suspected drug runner — Razzik consolidated his power, creating one of the most stable districts in Afghanistan. It was a vital district as well, and its proximity to Pakistan offered ample opportunities for self-enrichment for an ambitious young warlord. U.S. military and diplomatic officials soon came to believe that Razzik had become a central figure in a large-scale drug ring, shipping opium over the border. More disturbing reports also started to filter up the chain of command concerning executions and "indiscriminate tactics against men, women and children," according to a human rights official who specializes in Afghanistan.
Razzik's reputation as a killer grew during a military offensive in 2006, when the young commander reportedly terrorized the population of a rival tribe. "People began to say he was here to kill every Noorzai he could find," according to a local elder, in a recent report from the New America Foundation. But the aggressive tactic backfired: "In our area," another elder reported, "the Taliban went from 40 to 400 in days." According to local reports, Razzik's men also stopped 16 civilians on their way to a New Year's celebration and summarily executed them. Razzik was briefly suspended while his men were investigated, but the results of the inquiry were never made public. As Razzik took a leading role in operations around Kandahar last year, more human rights abuses were reported, though eyewitness testimony was hard to come by. "We hear complaints about Razzik," another human rights official tells me, "but people are too afraid of retribution to come forward." A recent report by Human Rights Watch singled out Razzik, coming to the same conclusion. "In Afghanistan, an ordinary person can't do anything," one Afghan civilian told the human rights group. "But a government person can do what he wants — killing, stealing, anything."
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