The swirling allegations of graft and criminality did give NATO pause. Last February, a deputy to U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry met with a number of U.S. officials charged with combating corruption in Afghanistan, including Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, then serving as McChrystal's intelligence chief. According to a leaked State Department cable, the meeting was intended to figure out how to handle "prominent Afghan malign actors" or "corrupt/criminal Afghan officials." Three Afghan officials — including Razzik and Ahmed Wali Karzai — were specifically discussed based on information from "intel and law-enforcement files." By embracing Razzik, U.S. officials acknowledged, they were undercutting any chance for legitimate governance. "By ascribing unaccountable authority to Razzik," another cable noted, "the coalition unintentionally reinforces his position through its direct and near-exclusive dealings with him on all major issues in Spin Boldak."
U.S. officials briefly considered ways to sideline Razzik and Karzai. Capture them? Take them out? Charge them with corruption? At a minimum, according to a leaked cable, officials thought they should give them a slap on the wrist by limiting their public appearances and cutting off high-profile visits from congressional delegations. That, the cable concluded, would "help change perceptions held by parts of the Afghan public that the U.S. supports, explicitly or implicitly, known corrupt officials."
Once Petraeus assumed command, however, any pretense of even the most minimal punishment became a joke. Razzik received a high-profile visit not only from Petraeus but from Eikenberry as well — which included a photo op. He was also rewarded with more funding and military support, including a dedicated Special Forces team to personally advise him. "Sometimes I travel in the American helicopters," he says with pride. By supporting Razzik, Petraeus is pushing the limits of American law: A condition in the supplemental spending bill passed last year to fund the war explicitly states that no taxpayer money can go to units where there is "credible" evidence of human rights violations. Yet instead of holding Razzik accountable for his crimes, U.S. officials have gone into overdrive to refurbish his image. In October, an American commander in Spin Boldak told The Washington Post that Razzik is a modern-day "Robin Hood." The following month, another U.S. commander gushed to The Wall Street Journal that the young warlord is a "folk hero." In perhaps the most honest assessment, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter endorsed Razzik as "Afghan good enough" — a play on a phrase imported from the Iraq War, "Iraq good enough," which basically suggests a high-grade level of shittiness.
When it comes to American strategy, Razzik represents a trade-off. "On one side," a U.S. official in Kabul tells me, "you have State, DEA, FBI saying, 'Hey, this guy is a smuggler, a criminal, he's letting drugs in over the border.' On the other side, there's the CIA and the military, who are saying, 'This guy is giving us good intel in Panjwaii or Zabul, or wherever else.' " At best, arming known gangsters like Razzik is a short-term fix, designed to give Petraeus a way to gradually lower U.S. casualties and convince the media to go along with the narrative of success. "It's a shortcut to get out," says Thomas Ruttig, a former U.N. official who now runs the Afghan Analyst Network. "Behind us, the flood. Most of what's happening now is driven by an American policy to get out of Afghanistan."
The problem is that the militia program undercuts what is supposed to be a central tenet of counterinsurgency — which, according to a memo issued by Petraeus in August, requires drawing the local population away from the enemy by providing them with "accountable governance." Razzik and his ilk, by contrast, are essentially warlords-in-training, a specter that terrifies Afghans, conjuring up memories of the bad old days when the warlords raped, ruled and pillaged at will. "It reminds me of Soviet times," says Gardesh Saheb, a prominent Afghan journalist. "The militias are a very bad experience for the Afghans. All of the people, all the analysts, all the political groups are against this process. It looks like the end of the communist regime. It's a big mistake."
Arming local warlords also fuels existing rivalries and sets the stage for another Afghan civil war: One of the most high-profile cases from last year ended in disaster when a militia outside Jalalabad, emboldened by an influx of U.S. aid, killed 13 members of another tribe. In dozens of interviews, the only Afghans I met who fully support the militia program are members of the militias. "Americans are always choosing stupid friends here," says Izzatullah Wasifi, a former governor and anti-corruption chief. "Razzik has killed hundreds of people, and Karzai and the rest are all crooked. They're seeking a weak and fragmented state for their own self-interest. We are heading to another civil war. To get stuck in this shit? That's a shame."
There is no question that Petraeus has succeeded, at least for now, in calming the chaos in southern Afghanistan. Over the past few weeks, the fighting in and around Kandahar has subsided somewhat. Afghan officials credit the lull to NATO's ongoing operations around the city, the help of Abdul Razzik and the arrival of winter. Even the Taliban admit that the U.S. crackdown has forced them to flee to Pakistan, although sources close to the insurgents tell me that many are simply hiding in Kandahar, waiting for their next opportunity to strike.
But if the "clear" part of the U.S. operation is succeeding, the "hold and build" aspect of the plan still worries Afghan and American officials. The only way to prevent a return of the Taliban, according to counterinsurgency theory, is to establish a legitimate government. But during the summer, as the U.S. ramped up its offensive, the city was devastated by a Taliban campaign of assassinations that targeted anyone who worked for the government or its allies. At least one high-level killing was occurring every day, an astonishing and unprecedented leap in violence. In the time I was there in December — a slow week — there were two targeted assassinations and one major bombing.
The killings mean it will be harder for Petraeus to implement his counterinsurgency strategy, since there are fewer friendly Afghans left to counter the insurgency. I was shown a list of 515 tribal elders and religious figures who have been assassinated over the past nine years, gutting the ranks of the Afghans whom Petraeus hopes to rely on. A media adviser for the mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Hayder Hamidi, dismisses the notion that things are better now. "Better?" he scoffs. "I didn't say better. I said there have been only two targeted killings this week. This calm will not last forever. We have had military operations again and again, and this is not a solution to the problem."
The mayor's office is in a dark, dank building, one of those office complexes in conflict zones that seem to be permanently under construction. "This has been the worst year," Hamidi tells me. After two of his deputy mayors were gunned down last year, and he was almost killed in a bombing right outside his office, nearly a third of his staff of 76 quit. (He also had to fire 10 other staffers for corruption.) He hasn't had any luck filling the vacant slots — partly, he says, because he can only pay his employees 3,500 Afghanis a month, or about $80 — half of what they can earn in a local militia. The central government in Kabul, he says, has promised to give his staff raises, but it's been months and he hasn't received the extra funds. Kabul has also been slow to fund his police force, he adds. It's this reality that prompts a U.S. official to tell me, "There's talk of transition next year. But in Kandahar, there's not going to be anything to transition to in a year."
I ask the mayor, who is close to Ahmed Wali Karzai, what he thinks of the corruption accusations against the president's brother. He responds indignantly. Karzai is a victim of "propaganda," he says, and Razzik is a "hero." The real corruption, he insists, is elsewhere — among other Afghan officials and Western reconstruction agencies. "There are killers, enemies of society, sitting in our peace jirga," he says, referring to a government-organized conference that was held in Kandahar earlier that week. He also has few kind words for the $250 million in reconstruction funds being poured into the city: He accuses a Canadian firm of blowing $1.9 million on a solar-power system that doesn't work, and a large development firm, IRD, of wasting millions on a program to harvest grapes.
The mayor is of two minds regarding the prospects of success in Afghanistan. The Taliban, he concedes, still have deep roots in the police force and plenty of funding from Pakistan and Iran. On the other hand, his public spiritedness prompts him to insist that this coming summer will be more peaceful than the last. He has even come up with a new slogan he wants to promote for Kandahar: "Tourism, not terrorism."
Petraeus has never been a man to lack con- fidence. He once sent an autographed picture of himself to a reporter he went jogging with, and signed copies of his photos go for up to $825 on eBay. After his speedy approval by Congress last summer, Petraeus returned to CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to pack his bags and thank his staff. He sounded "psyched" and looked like "a man on a mission, not dreading Afghanistan at all," according to a source close to Petraeus. Those who know him say privately that he would never have run for president in 2012, but that hasn't stopped speculation that he'll be in the mix in 2016. He joked at a right-wing think tank about running for president, and "Petraeus for President" T-shirts are already available online.
Petraeus is fond of citing his experience during the Bush administration; in meetings, the general "mentions Iraq every five minutes," as one Afghan official puts it. But it didn't take long after Petraeus arrived in Kabul for him to get something of a shock: This war, it quickly became clear, is nothing like the last one he fought. "It's taken him a few months," says one U.S. official involved in the Afghan strategy, "but I think he's finally realized that Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is much, much harder."
In Iraq, Petraeus had a tough-minded and brave leader in Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, and a reliable diplomatic partner in Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador. But in Afghanistan, both President Karzai and Ambassador Eikenberry have been standing in the way of the narrative the general is trying to sell. Petraeus has responded by pressuring Karzai to beef up local militias and negotiate with the Taliban, straining the relationship almost to the breaking point. At a meeting in October attended by Petraeus and other senior U.S. officials, Karzai stormed out of the room after an intense back-and-forth over whether Western security companies should be banned from Afghanistan, which would effectively shut down all development projects. According to an Afghan official with knowledge of the meeting, Karzai told him that "he didn't care if Petraeus took his projects or his troops home." (The president also threatened, yet again, to join the Taliban.) A few weeks later, according to an Afghan official, Karzai refused to fly with Petraeus to the NATO summit in Lisbon.
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