The graveyard of straight-shooters

U.S. Army Major General Peter Fuller was relieved of his command in Afghanistan earlier this month because, when asked about Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s recent hand-over-heart vow that “if there is war between Pakistan and America, we will stand by Pakistan,” he called Karzai “erratic” and asked, “Why don’t you just poke me in the eye with a needle! You’ve got to be kidding me.” But what was more surprising than MG Fuller’s reaction — which, if one considers the 1,800 Americans killed protecting Afghanistan, was restrained — was that of a “Western diplomat” who, wishing to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of his statement, observed, “The phraseology could have been better.” In other words, weeks after Joint Chiefs Chairman (Ret.) Michael Mullen’s testimony specifically confirming Pakistani intelligence’s support of the Taliban’s September attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, which killed 25 people, six months after the U.S. hunt-down of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani Army town of Abbottabad, and 10 years into a war against a Pakistan-fueled insurgency, criticizing the grammar of a pro-Pakistan statement remains one step too far outside the shade for the coalition of the willing.

The firing comes amid revelations about a “secret memo” delivered from Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to Admiral Mullen last May. The memo called for U.S. support in convincing the ISI to axe its Taliban-training “Section S,” revealing the U.S.’s ongoing courtship of the ISI — a courtship the U.S. plans to continue, judging by Jeffrey Goldberg’s December profile in The Atlantic, “The Ally from Hell,” which ominously concludes with an insider’s assurance that General David H. Petraeus, in his new role as CIA director, will make progress with the ISI because he has “a good personal relationship with these guys.”

Whatever the U.S. position, it has not taken a “secret memo” for Afghans to conclude that Pakistanis are at the root of their problems. For most Afghans in Kabul, the target of a startling trend of shopping center attacks this year despite its vaunted “Ring of Steel” security perimeter, “Pakistani” is nearly synonymous with “terrorist.” Even in Pashtun-dominated Kandahar, most Afghans consider the violence — this year has brought the assassination of the provincial police chief, the provincial shurah chief, the Kandahar City mayor, and many district officials — to be a Pakistani export. Southerners rank Pakistani support as one of the top three reasons the Taliban fight, according to an Asia Foundation survey released this month. Shurah leaders in Kandahar and surrounding provinces privately say not only that they believe the ISI is supporting Taliban operations in the south, but that Pakistan will reach further as America exits.

President Karzai’s statement of Pakistani solidarity was, then, meant for Pakistani consumption, not domestic. This reflects an instinctive bow to Pakistani power at a time when the waning U.S. presence was unable to prevent the July assassination of Karzai’s close adviser Jan Mohammad Khan and the September assassination of his nationally respected Peace Council chief Burhanuddin Rabbani.

But the intended audience of the U.S.’s perennially tame statements on Karzai’s corruption and Pakistan’s subversion (Admiral Mullen’s statement came only after he retired) is less clear. The center of gravity in counterinsurgency, according to Gen Petraeus’s Army field manual, is not external actors but the domestic population. An Afghan population left guessing about U.S. feelings towards the puppet-masters in Pakistan or the corrupt administration in Kabul is more likely to be suspicious of the promises ISAF makes with conviction, particularly regarding the “transition” buzz: as a NATO spokesman assured Afghans this week, “NATO’s combat role will be progressively reduced, but Afghanistan will need support after 2014 and that support will continue.”