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Another Thanksgiving in Afghanistan

Scandal takes center stage and warlords amass as soldiers hit the mess for turkey day.

This won’t be the most pleasant Thanksgiving for U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan –the 12th since the war began in October 2001. Turkey Day in wartime is no hootenanny, but this holiday season may be particularly bleak for troops whose former commander and current one are apparently embroiled in the same drama.

Everyone at home is talking about David Petraeus and Gen. John Allen and the hubris of the military brass: the generals enjoy too many perks, they live in a bubble, attending lavish lawn parties in Tampa and exchanging “flirtatious” emails with married women. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the U.S. lost 13 men this month, a reality largely ignored by the media. But the soldiers surely know, as do most civilians who make it a point to pay attention: things aren’t going so well, and a scandal at the top couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“It would be beyond unfortunate–it would in fact be a cosmic tragedy–if one of the victims of this unfolding scandal were thus to be the entire nation of Afghanistan, which is in real danger of being abandoned to the ravages of a civil war that various warlords are already preparing to fight,” wrote a clearly agitated Max Boot, a reliable neoconservative megaphone. But on this point he is right: reports indicate that powerful Afghan warlords are not waiting around to see how this saga ends; in fact, they are already reconstituting their pre-9/11 mujahedeen for a post-occupation world.

It’s one of many seldom-discussed red flags, and another indication that Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is expected to replace Allen as commander of U.S. forces, carries a grave burden, even without the taint and distraction of scandal.

“From the little I’ve heard from the ground the [Afghan security forces] are not holding territory, they’re falling back into bad habits of abusing locals, and things are not holding together very well,” Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and editor of Registan.net, told TAC. “I’m afraid the facade is crumbling.”

That assessment might be too generous: the facade has been weak from the beginning. But the fragility of the situation seems to have reached a breaking point. While Foust suggests the Petraeus/Allen scandal won’t “affect much” on the ground, it does raise some serious questions. If the former top commander (Petraeus) spent so much energy cultivating positive press about “progress” in Afghanistan–even embedding a biographer (Paula Broadwell) who also wrote and spoke publicly about the war–how much of the coverage was real? When the new commander, Dunford, tells the Senate Armed Service Committee, “I think we are making progress, and I believe our objectives are achievable,” can we really believe him?

Let’s take a look at two critical, but under-reported, signs of trouble:

Violence stirs warlord ambitions In August, General Allen announced that roughly half of all the violence in Afghanistan was happening in ten provinces. While Allen considered this a promising measurement, Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman pointed out that the violence was mostly concentrated in areas where the U.S. had focused its forces since 2009, specifically Helmand and Kandahar provinces. But that “Surge” managed to neglect the more dangerous places along the eastern border with Pakistan, which is pretty much a no-go zone, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda-friendly insurgents are hiding and crossing back and forth over the border today.

Meanwhile, November figures from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) show that enemy-initiated attacks (EIA) against the U.S. and allied forces actually increased in September and remain above 2009 and pre-Surge levels. Violence against civilians is still running higher, overall, than any previous year, save for the super-violent months of 2010.

Shortly after the Petraeus scandal broke, Chris Sands at the Global Post interviewed several men in Kabul, including one in a neighborhood “quietly coming under the Taliban’s influence.” Asked about conditions since 2008, Milad Kashifi said, “each day is worse than the last.”

Recent episodes in the north of the country indicate that the violence is spreading from the restive east and south. A suicide attack killed 42 people in October, including 25 security officials, in the northern province of Faryab. Meanwhile, reports indicate that the Taliban is creeping back into the central province of Bamyan, the first to be handed over to Afghan security forces in 2011.

There is little confidence in the army or police forces, and so the impulse is to rearm and defend, residents tell reporters. “Many people are increasingly worried that the end result of American efforts will be a gradual descent into anarchy as warlords and insurgents vie for power,” wrote Sands.

That became a very real concern this month when Ismail Khan gathered “thousands of his supporters in the desert” to reorganize his mujahedeen in anticipation of the withdrawal of U.S combat forces by 2014. Khan is one of many powerful warlords who disbanded private militias after the U.S. invasion in order to support a centralized Afghan government. A resurgence of the militias could mean a return to the internecine fighting that emboldened the Taliban in the first place. According to The New York Times, Khan is not the only one gathering his forces for a prospective reunion.

“People like Ismail Khan smell blood,” Afghan senator Belqis Roshan told the Times. “They think as soon as the foreign forces leave Afghanistan, once again they will get the chance to start a civil war, and achieve their ominous goals of getting rich and terminating their local rivals.”

Community Policing, Afghan Style — This month a warrant was issued for the arrest of Hakim Shujai, accused by the people of Uruzgon province of killing 120 people over the course of three years. There is some dispute over whether he was a local police commander or an impostor. Nevertheless, residents want him to pay for what they say was a reign of abuse and cruelty.

This is not the first complaint about the Afghan Local Police (ALP), who are funded and equipped by U.S taxpayers — and it’s getting worse. Not only was recruitment suspended in September because the police were in part blamed for insider attacks against U.S. forces, but local commanders and their militias have been accused of terrorizing the population, too.

In March 2011, Petraeus, who had spearheaded the ALP program, called it a “community watch with AK-47s.” Almost two years later, the U.S is supporting some 16,000 local “police” with the assistance of U.S. Special Forces, which arm and help train recruits. It should come as no surprise that this program, which one squad leader compared to “heading to Compton [Los Angeles] and hiring a gang to help you out,” would prove to be as big a threat as the warlord militias.

Last year, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam released detailed reports warning that the ALP program was enabling local strongmen and their cronies to carry out long-standing vendettas, violence, and petty corruption. The reports also documented complaints that U.S. forces helped hand-pick the worst cases, like commander Nur-ul Haq, a former member of Hezb-i-Islami, which most recently took responsibility for a deadly suicide attack in Kabul. His forces were accused in 2011 of malicious night raids, killing and “disappearing” political rivals, and the gang rape of a 13-year-old boy.

Local residents continue to lodge complaints against the ALP, particularly in places where Taliban violence seems to be getting worse.

How these armed thugs will react to American withdrawal is anyone’s guess. While the Obama administration may intend for this to be one of the last Thanksgivings in Afghanistan for U.S. troops, the reality on the ground will make getting out extremely difficult.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor.