KABUL – Near a busy intersection where burqa-clad women beg for spare change at car windows, Mahmoud Saikal, Afghanistan's former deputy foreign minister, sat under a photo of this capital city's crowded hillside neighborhoods in the stately living room of his compound.
"If you are from Kabul," he says, "you can find your place of birth in this photo."
It's the only landscape not changing in Afghanistan.
A series of American blunders in the past few months has raised questions about whether the decade-long U.S. mission in Afghanistan is doomed to failure. In February, reports that copies of the Quran had been burnt at a NATO base sparked protests across the country that left dozens dead. And last month, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 17 Afghan civilians in cold blood -- returning to his base in Kandahar province mid-massacre before going out to kill again. Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces are increasingly turning on their trainers: Three NATO soldiers were killed by Afghan police and military members on March 26 -- the latest of more than 80 coalition troops who have lost their lives in this way since 2007.
The escalating string of disasters has led to an increasingly contentious debate within President Hamid Karzai's inner circle between officials who say Afghanistan is better off without the United States and those who see the American presence as necessary for security. But even among America's erstwhile allies, there is a profound disappointment at the gap between the grandiose U.S. pledges and the dismal reality on the ground in Afghanistan.
"The U.S. could have been a more responsible superpower, a caring superpower," Saikal says. "It's important for them to stand for [their] values around the world. But I think the last three incidents were definitely deliberate acts that tarnish the values the U.S. stands for."
U.S. efforts to forge a lasting relationship with the Afghan government has been complicated by the eclectic makeup of Karzai's inner circle and the often haphazard nature of its decision making process.
"We make foreign policy decisions on the run on the steps of a ministry," laments Saikal, a former ambassador to Indonesia and Australia. The disarray, he says, makes it easier for those in power "to twist the law in their own personal taste."
That taste is only growing more anti-American. With popular anger at the U.S. military hitting an all-time high, Karzai has increasingly been forced to stand up to the United States to prove that he is not in the pocket of the foreign occupiers. He has renewed his demand that U.S. Special Forces end nighttime raids, and looks set to win a concession that would subject the raids to review by Afghan judges. But even with that victory, Karzai's advisors are increasingly debating whether cooperation with the Americans has brought more trouble than it's worth.
"Karzai's inner circle is split between a group that's very Afghan nationalist and suspicious of the West the other that has the technocrats and more Westernized elements that are pro-West," says a former senior U.S. military officer who commanded in Afghanistan.
Recent American missteps have rocked Afghan officials' faith in the coalition's ability to help govern the country's tenuous political situation. "The Afghans have to be wondering how incompetent we are," adds a former civilian advisor to ISAF in Afghanistan. "[Afghan parliamentarians] have to be very, very frustrated because we've undercut their ability to work with us. How do you now go about selling working with the Americans to people on the street?"
There is a pervasive fear on the streets of Kabul that, once coalition forces leave, the traditional hard-line nationalists -- known, during the Taliban's era in power, for gruesome torture and punishment -- will reemerge in full force.
"We see no sign to prove that the mentality of using violence for political [gain] has changed," Saikal says. "Whatever we've done [to counter it], the mentality is still strong. If that doesn't change, I'm afraid the future looks bleak."