Post-McChrystal Afghanistan: Karzai Shorn of a Key Ally

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U.S. troops of the 97th MP Battalion patrol in Kandahar

The day after the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, a variety of reactions emerged. His replacement at the head of what is officially called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by General David Petraeus calmed the nerves of some and inspired hope in others. But many in the Afghan capital — most likely including President Hamid Karzai, who considered McChrystal his chief American ally — are deeply pessimistic about what's to come. "If [McChrystal] is fired, the international effort in Afghanistan will become a headless chicken as it was before McChrystal's arrival," said a Western diplomat in Kabul, shortly before receiving confirmation of the dismissal on Wednesday night. "If he leaves, I would be happy to leave too. Because he's the best ISAF commander we've had in years."

The sentiment was echoed in both Afghan and foreign circles across Kabul on Thursday, even as many conceded that Petraeus, who as chief of Centcom oversees both Iraq and Afghanistan and is McChrystal's boss, was the best possible substitute. President Obama sacked McChrystal on Wednesday after an article in Rolling Stone magazine portrayed an atmosphere derisive of the Obama Administration, fostered by McChrystal's circle of officers in Afghanistan.

Some Afghans in the capital were confident that the ongoing U.S. troop surge would not be disrupted. "One superb general is being replaced by another. Therefore, continuity of policy is ensured," says Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan Finance Minister and the third runner-up in the 2009 presidential race. "I think this is probably one of the smoothest transitions in military history." Still, Karzai had personally lobbied in the final hours on behalf of the commander whom many here deem to be his only friend in the U.S. Administration. On Thursday, the Afghan media expressed regret for the exit of a commander they called "effective" and praised his efforts to lower civilian casualties. They also fretted over the challenge of continuity, at a time when the war effort is floundering.

"Was it necessary to fire McChrystal in the current situation in Afghanistan?" an editorial in the Persian and Pashto daily 8 in the Morning asked. It said the dismissal of Karzai's only ally among the Americans was a bad sign, but more troubling was what it revealed about the U.S.-led effort. "The conflicts amongst officials on Obama's political team make one issue clear: they have never worked as a team ... Internal conflict calls the American task in Afghanistan into question. This creates mistrust towards the American team."

Many Afghan officials lamented McChrystal's loss, even though his replacement, Petraeus, is the father of the modern counterinsurgency doctrine. But others insist the counterinsurgency strategy is flawed. "Working with Karzai means that you'll continue with the dysfunction of the Afghan government, you'll continue with the corruption," says Haroun Meer, a former researcher at the Afghan Center for Research and Policy and a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Meer argues that the main reason NATO is failing to win hearts and minds is that its counterinsurgency hopes are pinned on a partnership with a government that people will never respect. However, he is optimistic about Petraeus' appointment because he believes that Petraeus will put pressure on the Afghan President, rather than coddle him. "One of the reasons the strategy failed in Marjah was not because of the military approach; it was because the Afghan government was unable to fill the vacuum to provide services to the people to gain the trust of the people," he says.

But for many civilians who remain deeply skeptical of any major turnaround in the war, the change in leadership ultimately will matter little. "This is not going to affect Afghanistan," says Noor Mohammed, a 57-year-old Kabul shopkeeper who has tired of NATO's ineffectiveness. "These are people who come and go."

With reporting by Shah Mahmood Barakzai / Kabul