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Petraeus Scandal Not Losing Afghan Hearts And Minds

(Clockwise from top left) General David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell; U.S. Marine General John Allen; David Petraeus with his wife, Holly; and Jill Kelley
A sex scandal involving the United States' two most-recent military commanders in Afghanistan might be fueling media frenzy at home, but the response has been surprisingly muted in the Afghan theater of war.

A public relations disaster could have been expected in Afghanistan after retired four-star General David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces there from June 2010 to July 2011, resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency after admitting to an extramarital affair.

Some might have predicted enemy forces to seize on the propaganda opportunity when it was announced that his successor as U.S. commander in Afghanistan, four-star Marine General John Allen, came under scrutiny for e-mail exchanges linked to the scandal.

The reactions to previous transgressions involving the U.S. military certainly provided cause for worry: deadly clashes broke out after U.S. soldiers burned copies of the Koran in April, and widespread condemnation followed the release of a video showing American soldiers urinating on the corpses of Taliban militants.

But for the most part, the reaction to the Petraeus scandal has been noticeably subdued in Afghanistan -- whether from the government, the media, or even the Taliban.

It appears that Petraeus's affair with his married biographer, Paula Broadwell, is not the type of thing that loses hearts and minds in Afghanistan.

A Domestic Issue

Waliullah Rahmani, an Afghan social commentator, suggests that much of this can be explained by the fact that General Petraeus is not as involved in Afghanistan as he once was. Many Afghans, Rahmani says, see this as an exclusively domestic U.S. issue, not one that raises concerns about the American mission in Afghanistan.

"It has happened while General Petraeus was out of the country," he says. "He is not someone who is engaged in the day-to-day business in Afghanistan and, for sure, he isn't someone who is influencing the destiny of Afghans, although he was [to a degree] when he was head of the CIA. Since it [didn't affect the country directly], people weren't attentive to it."

Rahmani says a "stronger Afghan reaction" could be expected if General Allen were to fall because of the scandal. He is under investigation for "potentially inappropriate" messages he exchanged with Jill Kelley, a glamorous Florida socialite who reportedly received threatening e-mails from Broadwell.
General John Allen
General John Allen

General Allen has denied an improper relationship with Kelley, and while U.S. President Barack Obama accepted Petraeus's resignation he has expressed "faith" in General Allen.

On November 14, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton attempted to downplay the effect the situation might have on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

She maintained that U.S. officials have discussed the matter with allied officials.

"There has been a lot of conversation, as you might expect, but no concern whatsoever being expressed to us because the mission has been set forth and it's being carried out," Clinton said at a press conference in Australia.

The most obvious sign that military operations in Afghanistan have not been affected is perhaps apparent in what the Taliban is not saying.

While the militant group has a long history of quickly seizing on U.S. military missteps as a propaganda tool, a week after the scandal broke no strongly-worded statements had yet been issued by the Taliban.

That does not mean it hasn't been noticed; it just appears to be more a source of amusement than a call to arms.

Dangerous Ramifications

In an interview with the AFP news agency this week in northwest Pakistan, a Taliban official reportedly burst into laughter at the mention of the Petraeus affair.

"What a bastard! But all Americans are the same, it's nothing new," the unnamed official said. "It's quite normal for Americans and Western people to behave like this -- they live in free-sex societies where nobody cares about this sort of thing, so what do you expect?"

After news broke of General Petraeus's resignation and the investigation into General Allen's actions, Afghan media have largely refrained from commentary and debate.

Ghulam Gilani Zwak, chairman of the TV station KabulNews, says the main reason is because talking about extramarital affairs is seen as a "cultural taboo" in Afghanistan, a deeply religious and conservative country where family matters are kept private and are outside the realm of public debate.

In rare cases where cases of adultery go public, severe punishment awaits. Under Shari'a law, any man or woman found guilty of having a relationship outside marriage or an extramarital affair can be publicly flogged or even stoned to death.

In Zwak's view, the "dangerous" ramifications of illicit scandals in Afghanistan ensure that many of them never come to light, especially if they involve tribal, religious, or government leaders.

"In our society [extramarital affairs] are seen in [a] very bad [light]," he says. "According to our law, [an adulterer] could go to court. Islamic Shari'a law means he could go to jail for several years. A person [found guilty] can also be killed."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.