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Afghanistan observer sees disappointment

By Tom Evans, CNN
  • NATO bullets and bombs have killed several dozen civilians recently
  • In past two weeks, more than 50 Afghan civilians believed to be killed in military operations

(CNN) -- As the top NATO commander in Afghanistan publicly apologized for the latest civilian deaths in the war, one of his former advisers said Tuesday the Afghan people have "crystallized their frustration" on the issue of civilian casualties.

"It's crystallized a disappointment with the international intervention that's been growing since about 2003," said Sarah Chayes, who just completed one year of service as an adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff in Kabul.

"I actually think the issue is broader," she told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "And so the impact on the Marjah (offensive) is really going to depend on what else happens in that operation."

Chayes was referring to the joint U.S., British, and Afghan offensive in Helmand province in which 15,000 troops are trying to take control of a town and the surrounding area from Taliban fighters.

Despite military efforts to avoid civilian casualties, several dozen have been killed recently by NATO bullets and bombs. In the past two weeks alone, more than 50 Afghan civilians are believed to have been killed in more than half a dozen U.S. and NATO military operations.

McChrystal on Tuesday released a video message to the Afghan population apologizing for an incident Sunday in which 27 civilians were killed in an air strike.

"I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people," he said. "I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans."

Video: McChrystal issues apology
Video: Inquiry into civilian deaths
Video: Civilians killed in airstrike

Chayes -- a former National Public Radio journalist who for several years lived among the Afghan population in Kandahar province -- said the tolerance for civilian casualties among Afghans has gone down in recent years. "I remember early cases of civilian casualties where I was actually surprised at the level of tolerance for it on the part of the people I was living amongst," she said.

"But it was because they felt that the international intervention was really doing something for them ... or they still held out the hope that it would."

She said the view of Afghan people on civilian casualties depends on issues such as whether they believe they are being governed by a responsive and respectful institution and whether they are seeing any prospects for economic improvement. "You need to protect the population and earn the population's trust," she said.

Chayes strongly criticized Afghan President Hamid Karzai's approach to tackling corruption in government, saying his administration is operating like a "criminal syndicate."

"Why I talk about a criminal syndicate is because it's not just ad hoc, people making up their ends of the month. It's because their superiors purchase their office."

She said the re-election of Karzai last year has not made any difference, despite his promise to crack down on graft.

"If you read carefully some of the statements made by President Karzai in his inaugural address and in response to some of the issues about corruption ... he's actually not really promising any action," she said.

"He's saying, yes, corruption is a problem, but it's not an issue of removing individuals, it's an issue of changing the legal framework."

Chayes said the coalition's biggest mistake in the war has been its failure to ensure the Afghan people are truly represented by their government.

"By not leveraging the government to respond to the needs of its people, we force them back into the arms of the Taliban," she said. "How Afghanistan turns out is going to have a major impact on how a lot of people (around the world) make up their minds about radical Islam."