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What's the fuss, Afghans ask about McChrystal controversy

By Atia Abawi
General Stanley McChrystal (left) and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at ISAF headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, in April 2010.
General Stanley McChrystal (left) and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at ISAF headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, in April 2010.
  • McChrystal arrived in Afghanistan last summer as the top NATO commander
  • His comments about the mission and colleagues have provoked anger in Washington
  • Spokesman for Afghan president says he hopes McChrystal will not be replaced
  • Businessman: McChrystal has taken heed of the needs of Afghans

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Washington may be up in arms over General Stanley McChrystal's comments to Rolling Stone magazine about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and how some of his colleagues are handling it -- but some in Afghanistan are asking what the fuss is all about.

McChrystal arrived in Afghanistan last summer as the top NATO commander -- but if Washington is mad at the general, his friends in Afghanistan seem to be unaffected.

Many among the local population in Kabul say that McChrystal revamped the forgotten war, putting it on a different path and instilling a counter-insurgency strategy (COIN) in an attempt to regain the trust of the Afghan people.

He instilled a new hope, they argue, for those Afghans who actually backed the war effort, also angering the Taliban -- which ramped up their PR -- in the battle for hearts and minds.

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President Hamid Karzai has vocally expressed his support for General McChrystal and called him the "best" commander for the war in Afghanistan, according to his spokesman Waheed Omar.

He added that McChrystal is a man of great integrity who understands the Afghan people and their culture and that Karzai hopes president Barack Obama will not replace the commanding general with someone else.

McChrystal and Karzai have built a strong relationship in the year he has been in Afghanistan, flying to districts and provinces in order to gain the support of villagers while showing a united front.

He hasn't just been sitting around NATO headquarters barking orders say local officials - he's been going out in the field, meeting with soldiers and most importantly meeting with Afghans. General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry, explained that McChrystal's knowledge of Afghanistan stems from his discussions with Afghans.

He stated that McChrystal is a frequent attendee at village council meetings -- known as "shuras" -- throughout the country, where he listens to their problems, concerns and needs.

But McChrystal's tactical directive that restricts NATO forces on the ground from attacking enemy forces without having proof that they are militants has angered many soldiers.

Many feel that their own lives are put in greater danger because of it. While for Afghans, it means less of a chance of civilian casualties - a sore issue that has caused friction in the Afghan - NATO relationship.

"For Afghans it was very important that after a civilian was killed he would apologize on behalf of his people and his military," said Abdul Ghani, a 65-year-old businessman who was a former government official during the Taliban regime from 1996 through 2001.

"This showed that he was supporting the locals and he was trying to avoid a long-term fight and avoid civilians being killed." Speaking through his salt and pepper beard, Ghani credits NATO's involvement, and particularly McChrystal, for bringing security and allowing him to run his business and make a living.

"He made a mistake and he used poor judgment in criticizing US officials," Ghani said "but it is normal and everyone makes mistakes."

But Ghani's optimism about McChrystal stems mostly from his pessimism at past international leaders. He believes McChrystal has been the best one so far.

"We are satisfied with Mr. McChrystal and we hope he will not repeat the bitter experiences of the past," Ghani said.

The Ministry of Defense, which is being pushed by the U.S. and NATO to add more troops to their arsenal, is also standing behind McChrystal.

"Since the arrival of General McChrystal to Afghanistan many of our problems have been solved," ministry spokesman Azimi told CNN, "including problems with civilian casualties, unlawful detentions. He has also improved the coordination between Afghan and international forces on and off the battlefield."

By focusing on building infrastructure and civilian issues, Azimi adds, McChrystal has been able to win back some Afghan support.

But with the firestorm in the United States, the Afghan voices are being muffled again.

Journalist Matiullah Mati contributed to this report.