King David's War

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"Karzai is crazy — or crazy like a fox," says Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the leading opposition figure. "He's too skillful at playing games and too retarded when it comes to the rationale. He can't play the role the people of Afghanistan and the international community expect him to play. He will get deeper and deeper into this problem and drag us down as well."

Petraeus has kept his distance from Eikenberry, who has been among the administration's strongest critics of the military's plan in Afghanistan. An embassy spokesman says the ambassador and the general are "very close," but U.S. officials familiar with their relationship describe it as "lukewarm" and "so-so." Eikenberry has been rendered increasingly ineffective in recent months, following the release of WikiLeaks cables in which he criticized Karzai, as well as comments he made to Bob Woodward in Obama's Wars saying Karzai was "off his meds." One State Department official in Kabul describes the atmosphere at the U.S. Embassy as "rudderless," with many of Eikenberry's top deputies operating in a " micromanaged culture of fear." Even Eikenberry's own people have been telling the White House he's useless: In October, a senior official from the embassy met in Washington with Gen. Doug Lute, a top player at the National Security Council, and told him that Eikenberry's relationship with Karzai is "completely destroyed."

Throughout the strategic review last year, all Eikenberry did "was whine," according to a senior U.S. official involved in the process. In recent weeks, military officials have started to do some whining of their own, complaining to the media that the ambassador isn't doing enough to back counterinsurgency. U.S. officials describe Eikenberry's tenure as one of the great tragedies of the war — that a man widely respected for his knowledge of Afghanistan was unable to stop a military strategy he foresaw was doomed to fail. In Kabul, rumors of his imminent departure abound; a former U.S. ambassador recently came just short of publicly calling for his resignation, a sentiment that Afghan officials express privately. Insiders speculate that only McChrystal's sudden firing, followed by Richard Holbrooke's untimely death in December, have kept Eikenberry in the job.

With the death of Holbrooke, the president's special envoy, the administration lost one of its best diplomatic weapons to put pressure on the Pakistanis — seen as key to shutting down Taliban safe havens and orchestrating peace talks in Afghanistan. More than any other top U.S. official, Holbrooke had been "chipping away" in Pakistan, as one State Department official puts it, making at least a dozen trips to the region in the past two years and slowly building the relationships needed to resolve the most daunting diplomatic challenge of the entire U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Petraeus called Holbrooke his "wingman" — a term of endearment that amused Holbrooke. But as a U.S. official told me a few weeks before the envoy's death, Holbrooke believed that diplomacy, not war, should take center stage in foreign policy. "Since when did the diplomat become the general's wingman?" Holbrooke was reported as saying. "It's supposed to be the other way around!"

At the start of the Iraq war, Petraeus famously offered a prescient observation about the impending military disaster. Speaking to a reporter during the early days of the invasion, the general noted that the Bush administration had no real exit strategy in place. "Tell me how this ends," he said.

So far, Petraeus has failed to answer that question in Afghanistan, even while he has tripled the scope of the fighting, essentially creating a new war of his own. Both the U.N. and the Red Cross say that violence is the worst it's been in nine years, and security across the country is deteriorating. In December, a group of highly respected Afghanistan experts published an open letter to President Obama, saying that negotiations, not an increase in military operations, are the only way out. "We are losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Pashtun countryside," they wrote. "What was supposed to be a population-centered strategy is now a full-scale military campaign causing civilian casualties and property damage." In the most shocking incident, a U.S. unit destroyed an entire Afghan village last fall, obliterating it with 42,900 pounds of bombs.

Political pressure to get out is building. Polls now show that two-thirds of Americans — a record level — don't think the war is worth fighting. In Congress, 102 Democrats voted against funding for the war last year, up from 32 in 2009. A host of think tanks are expressing serious doubts: The left-leaning Center for American Progress calls for an "accelerated withdrawal," and the bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations concludes that "at best, the margin for U.S. victory is likely to be slim."

Inside the White House, according to officials familiar with the debate, Obama is prepared to go head-to-head with the military to get his way. At the end of last year, he replaced his national security adviser, Gen. James Jones — who had failed to keep the president from being steamrollered by the Pentagon during the strategic review — with Tom Donilon, a trusted friend who is said to have serious doubts about the war. Donilon is closely tied to Joe Biden; his brother is a top aide to the vice president, and his wife is Jill Biden's chief of staff. His appointment was a clear signal to the Pentagon about Obama's determination to begin winding down the war — which is why Defense Secretary Gates reportedly said that Donilon's selection would be a "disaster."

In Washington, the internal debate now centers on how many troops are actually going to leave. Too low, and the number won't satisfy the Democratic base. Too high, and it will provide ammunition to Petraeus and his GOP allies. In the past few weeks, two high-profile Republican delegations have visited Afghanistan — including four Tea Party senators and GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney. Both delegations received the royal treatment — Petraeus' media operation distributed photos of Romney's visit, and ISAF announced his arrival on Twitter — and both returned insisting that Obama must keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan until Petraeus gives the OK to withdraw.

But despite its "stay the course" rhetoric, even the Pentagon is studying ways to get out. Last summer, Rolling Stone has learned, the Defense Department commissioned a report from U.S. military officials and diplomatic advisers looking at various "end states" in Afghanistan — in short, what the country will look like when we leave. A U.S. official who was asked for input on the document says that "it was an attempt to get the withdrawal strategies." A draft of one paper, obtained by Rolling Stone, describes a plan to split Afghanistan into seven regions, each centered around a major city, with both "insurgents" and "local strongmen" in the new governments. "This is not to sanction warlordism," the paper states, "but an acknowledgment that local strongmen have a part to play in the initial stage of rebalancing the state." A Pentagon spokesman insists that "no such scenario is being contemplated by senior leadership," but sources close to Gates say he reacted "positively" to the plan.

Warlordism certainly seems to be the way America is heading in Afghanistan. If, as Obama insists, we are not engaged in "nation-building," then it doesn't really matter what kind of government we leave behind in Kabul, as long as they let us use their country as a base for killing Al Qaeda. Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Islamabad, recently called for balancing a "small but capable Afghan army" with local militias "sometimes disparaged as warlords" — all to provide "a platform for U.S.-led counterterror operations." In the end, despite the counterinsurgency doctrine's emphasis on good governance, the conclusion of every occupation ultimately comes down to the conqueror's desire for stability, rather than the human rights of the conquered.

Which raises the question: Why risk the lives of 150,000 troops and waste another $120 billion to get there? "America promised us democracy and human rights," says Ahmad Berkazai, who serves as media adviser to the mayor of Kandahar. "If America is fighting for that, they should stay. If they are not — if they are going to leave behind militias and warlords — then they should leave now."

Either way suits Col. Abdul Razzik. Back in Spin Boldak, our interview over, I pose for a picture with him. I admire his watch — a black, diamond-encrusted Concord — and he takes me outside to show off his base. The parking lot is full of Humvees and armored SUVs, all provided by the Americans. Razzik points out a fort on top of a small, rocky hill behind his headquarters. "That's an old British castle," he says. "It's about 90 years old." We stare at the ruins, a remnant of the last Western power to see its visions of empire end in the graveyard of Afghanistan.

I ask Razzik what his plans for the future are. "It is the happiest time in my life," he says. "I am the police chief here, and I am in my own country." Then he asks if I need an escort for the trip back. I politely decline, and thank him for his time. A few minutes later, as we are driving back to Kandahar, my translator notices that we're being followed by two green Ford Rangers, courtesy of Col. Razzik. It's his job, after all, to offer us a semblance of security as we find our way out.

This story is from the February 7th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

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