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In Afghanistan, doubts grow, weariness deepens

Long before he’d ever heard of Rolling Stone magazine, Abdul Baqi harbored deep doubts about the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan.

“The Americans are here for their own reasons, for their own benefit,” the cleanshaven 23-year-old university student said, shaking his head. “If they really wanted to bring peace to Afghanistan, they could have done so already, whoever was in charge.”

For many Afghans, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s dismissal over intemperate remarks in a magazine profile has served mainly to underscore their own weariness with a conflict that has dragged on for nearly nine years with no end in sight.

McChrystal, the West’s top military commander in Afghanistan, was summoned to the White House on Wednesday to give an accounting of withering comments by him and senior aides about key members of President Obama’s national security team. It was after 10 p.m. in Kabul when Obama announced that he had accepted the general’s resignation.

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For some, the general’s woes have sharpened fears that the Western campaign against the Taliban movement -- which ruled the country for five long, harsh years -- is floundering. And many Afghans think that the Americans, like the Soviet Union two decades ago and so many would-be conquerors, ultimately will fail.

“I think the Russians had more determination than the Americans do,” said Masood Sayedi, a 34-year-old company worker. “That doesn’t mean it turned out well for them either, but more problems now only help the Taliban.”

McChrystal won the respect, even affection, of many Afghans with his stance that Western forces’ chief aim should be the safeguarding of Afghan civilian lives.

But even widespread gratitude for that doctrine does not outweigh a nagging sense that key Western goals are going unmet, such as stamping out corruption in the administration of President Hamid Karzai and providing basic government services, absent in so much of the country.

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Obama has built up the U.S. force in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000 troops. The strategy formulated by McChrystal calls for securing population centers, particularly in the restive south.

But the summer has brought a steady stream of disquieting news: a much-vaunted Western campaign in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar clouded by delays; the relentless pace of suicide bombings that make nearly everyone wonder, when they leave home in the morning, whether they will return safely.

“The situation just isn’t getting any better,” said Hesmauddin, a 28-year-old storekeeper in a Kabul bazaar, who like many Afghans uses only one name. “We feel as if the sound of bullets [is] all around us.”

In the hours before McChrystal’s meeting with Obama, senior Afghan officials voiced renewed support for the general. Presidential spokesman Waheed Omar told reporters in Kabul, “We hope ... we continue to partner with Gen. McChrystal.”

When the news broke in Washington, Karzai expressed regret but said he respected Obama’s decision and that he looked forward to working with Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Nervousness about the transition in military leadership was especially acute in Afghanistan’s south, where deaths of Afghan civilians and Western troops mount daily. June probably will end with the highest one-month death toll of the war for international forces.

The turmoil has heightened concern that parliamentary elections scheduled for September will be a trigger for even greater violence.

“So the operation in Kandahar is postponed, but the election campaign is already going on, and there are so many Taliban in the south,” said Khalid Pashtoon, a lawmaker from Kandahar province. “It seems as if this war will be a long one.”

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Most people here worry that infighting among key figures responsible for formulating the Obama administration’s war strategy has already emboldened the insurgents.

“All this is good for the Taliban,” said lawmaker Fawzia Kofi, who recently escaped an assassination attempt. “Not for anyone else.”

laura.king@latimes.com


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