Karzai Wins Again?

Remember the not-so-distant past when the word ‘corruption’ peppered every official US comment on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government?  Yet the ‘C’ word has been conspicuously absent during Karzai’s feel good tour of Washington this week.  President Obama claimed that the ‘perceived tensions’ were ‘simply overstated’; this despite the fact that as recently as last month, Karzai reportedly told  a group of Afghan lawmakers that he should quit the political process and join the Taliban.  So why have recriminations and threats suddenly been replaced by smiles and handshakes?

It has nothing to do with cleaning up corruption, that’s for sure.  By all accounts, it’s still business as usual in Kabul and Karzai’s brother, an alleged drugs lord, is still living large in Kandahar.   In my view, the Afghan President is being given the red carpet treatment not because of the ‘C’ word but because of the ‘D’ word – deadline.

President Obama hopes to begin withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan by July 2011.  Abandoning Karzai so late in the game would undoubtedly push this deadline back; something which would not go down well with US voters at a time when Obama will be gearing up for re-election. (Unlike Britain, US campaigning starts more than a year before voters actually go to the polls).

Karzai knows this all too well and true to form, he is manipulating the situation to his advantage.  As I’ve said in previous blogs, Karzai is an astute man who can run rings around his western counterparts.  It boggles the mind how in a matter of weeks, he’s refocused the Afghan debate away from corruption and toward issues which can only bolster him back home; limiting civilian causalities and reconciling with the Taliban.

Carrot or stick, Karzai will do what is best for Karzai.  And like a hard done by political wife, Obama is so invested in the Afghan President he has no choice but to stand by his man.  But does Britain have to stand by him as well?  Don’t forget, that while Karzai is being showered with affection in Washington, an innocent and upstanding British commercial security manager, Bill Shaw languishes in a notorious Kabul jail.

Unlike President Obama, the new British Prime Minister David Cameron has just come through an election and is therefore in an outstanding position to shake up foreign policy.  I personally would like the new PM to withdraw British troops from Afghanistan immediately. I doubt that’s on the cards though, so I’ll settle for demanding Mr. Shaw’s immediate release.

The Rules of Engagement v Hearts and Minds


This week, General Stanley McChrystal apologized to the Afghan people and personally to President Karzai after at least 27 civilians were killed by a NATO airstrike in the southern Province of Uruzgan.   To his credit, General McChrystal has taken concrete steps to limit civilian casualties in Afghanistan.  Since becoming commander of US and NATO forces, he has tightened the rules of engagement to restrict the use of artillery attacks and airstrikes.   These measures were definitely needed.  But I would like to see General McChrystal go even further.

Attack On Kabul: An Ominous Sign

Coalition commanders were full of praise for Afghanistan’s security forces after Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers assaulted buildings in the heart of Kabul Monday.  General Stanley McChrystal, the head of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, said the Afghan national forces should be ‘commended’ for dealing ‘effectively’ with the attack. US Brigadier General Anne Macdonald claimed the Afghan forces responded ‘very well’ while an ISAF spokesperson gushed that they had ‘rapidly’ seized the initiative.

Don’t be blinded by the spin.  Effective security is not about responding to an attack; it’s about being proactive and preventing one from happening in the first place.    Continue reading

Person of the Noughties


Many names will be considered for the title ‘Person of the Decade’; politicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, sports figures, bankers, terrorist (I use the singular because Osama bin Laden is really the only one worth considering).  While influence will likely be the deciding factor for most publications, I’m going to break from the pack and list survival as my primary criteria (this blog is after all about security in hostile environments). And by that yardstick, there’s one name in my opinion which stands head and shoulders above the crowd: President Hamid Karzai.

              When you consider the minefields – figurative and literal– the Afghan President has negotiated since 2001, the fact that he’s alive and still in power is nothing short of miraculous.  Continue reading

Afghanistan: Looking For An Honourable Way Out

NATO's Road to Nowhere

When President Obama announced this week that he intends to ‘finish the job’ in Afghanistan, I wondered exactly what job he was referring to; finding Osama bin Laden? Denying al-Qaeda a safe haven? Democratization? Promoting women’s rights? Curtailing the opium trade?  All have been cited over the past eight years as reasons for staying in Afghanistan.

With public support eroding by the day, fighting al-Qaeda now tops the list of excuses.  In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is telling us we must stay the course in Afghanistan to keep our streets safe. Tenuous connections between Afghanistan and home grown terrorists aside, it is clear that from Washington to Whitehall there is a concerted effort afoot to buy time for the coalition to achieve an honorable exit.

Continue reading

Afghanistan: The Biggest Loser?

The Taliban must have been rubbing their hands when the White House and Downing Street congratulated Hamid Karzai on his default Presidential victory. ‘What is astonishing is two weeks ago they were arguing that the puppet President Hamid Karzai was involved in electoral fraud,’ said a Taliban statement, ‘… but now he is elected as President based on those same fraudulent votes, Washington and London immediately send their congratulations.’

            The West’s hypocrisy is nothing exceptional in Afghanistan. As a matter of necessity, Afghans always back the winning side.  Thirty-five years of civil war have taught them to value survival over political principals. I know one Afghan who jumped from the Soviet Army to the Mujahudeen in the 1980s. When the Taliban came to power, he joined them. When they were ousted, he went to work as an interpreter for the US military.  Last I heard, he was an Afghan National Policeman.  Basically, whoever has the upper hand in Afghanistan has his support. Continue reading