Afghanistan: The Taliban Pile Onto Petraeus

As if the disgraced former CIA chief didn’t have enough to feel bad about, the Taliban are gloating over his fall. Sami Yousafzai reports.

Barbara Sax / AFP / Getty Images

The Taliban are beside themselves with glee at the very public humiliation of Gen. David Petraeus. As the leading architect of the U.S. military surge in Afghanistan, he made thousands of mortal enemies among the insurgents, and their old grudges only intensified when he retired from the Army last year and became director of the CIA– the chief operators of the drone war inside the guerrillas’ formerly safe havens across the Pakistani border.

Now the general’s Afghan foes consider themselves both avenged and vindicated by the disclosure of his illicit affair with a married woman, his biographer Paula Broadwell. “The American general’s sex disgrace is a slap not only to the character of the U.S. but also to the faces of [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai and all others who are pro-Western,” says a former cabinet minister from the toppled Taliban regime, now active as a regional leader in the insurgency. “The bloodshed addict General Petraeus was not only after the blood of unfortunate Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also taking the chastity of married women.”

The general’s infidelities seem to have begun only after he left Afghanistan, but that doesn’t stop his Afghan detractors from speaking as if he desecrated their homeland with his extramarital affair. “We are Pashtun,” says Mullah Juma Khan Akhund, a Taliban commander in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, “Committing such an immoral crime has a traditional punishment, and it disrespects our people and our land. We used to tell everyone that these invaders are here not to help Afghans but to disrespect and kill them. General Petraeus’s affair gives living proof of that.”

But Juma Khan is so delighted at the general’s disgrace that it’s hard for him to stay angry. Laughing, he continues: “General, my son” – to address someone as “my son” in Kandahar is to challenge him to a fight – “you can’t win this war. And now, even before your final defeat, you’re hiding your face in shame because of your immoral sexual relationship.” Breaking off his sermon to the absent general, he turns philosophical: “I heard on the radio that he was the most successful general in Afghanistan. But how could someone who is disloyal to his wife be loyal to his nation?”

The moral disapproval of Petraeus isn’t confined to Afghans in the tradition-bound countryside. “The U.S. ought to keep its drones focused on its own generals, and not on al Qaeda and the Taliban,” says a young student at Kabul University. His shock – if not his indignation – is shared by Mustafa Ahmadzai, an arts major at the same university. “Sex is part of American political and military life,” allows Ahmadzai. “But in a country like Afghanistan? No way. Before leaving for Afghanistan, I’m sure U.S. forces are strongly advised to leave their sexual organs behind in the U.S.A.”

Everyone seems to agree that the general should pay for his indiscretion. “Petraeus and his married mistress should be handed over to the Afghans to be stoned,” says Juma Khan. “They have offended our culture, our religion, and our land.” Zair Gul Zadran, a Haqqani Network commander in Khost province, says he’s surprised that anyone would get in trouble for an extramarital fling in the United States. “Our understanding was that sex is a common matter in American society. But if he committed the offense in our country, there is a traditional penalty: he should sacrifice dozens of sheep in contrition for his impropriety.”

Other Afghans view the general’s sin with a mixture of respect for tradition and unapologetic curiosity.

“By our customs he has insulted our land and our society,” says a tribal elder named Zamrak Zadran. “The way to make it right is for him to get cleaned up and hand himself over to a Pashtun jirga [assembly of elders].” Nevertheless, he says, “It’s interesting how the writing of the general’s life story was combined with voluptuary behavior. Now his biography will be overshadowed by the fact that he became a sexy story. I would love to read the details of the lady’s private nights.”

One thing particularly seems to bother many of the insurgents. Before Petraeus left Afghanistan, Karzai decorated him with the Afghan government’s highest honor, the Ghazi Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan medal, named for a hero in the war against the Soviets. He should get it back from the profligate and immoral General Petraeus,” says the former Taliban cabinet minister.

On Thursday the Taliban website Al Emara posted a Pashto-language editorial headlined “Libertine Friend.” Under a photo of Karzai awarding Petraeus the medal, the editorial castigated the Afghan president for his association with the now fallen general. “Just imagine the ghosts of those heroes whose names Karzai has insulted by awarding their medals to this dirty general. Those ghosts would grab Karzai and ask him: ‘Why did you reward such a dirty general?’ What answer could Karzai give?”