U.S. pulls advisers from Afghan press center it funds

December 28, 2011

After funding and supporting the Afghan government’s press center for more than four years, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced Wednesday that it has withdrawn its advisers from the center amid concerns over the way it is being run.

The office, known as the Government Media and Information Center (GMIC), has become politicized in recent months, according to Afghan and Western officials, as pro- and anti-American factions within the Afghan government have sought to use its visibility to push certain causes.

The embassy’s announcement came in the wake of a news conference Saturday at which members of a fact-finding commission appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai criticized night raids and house searches by the U.S.-led military coalition. Their report prompted Karzai to announce that Afghanistan would not sign a bilateral agreement with Washington unless NATO stopped carrying out night raids.

The embassy billed Wednesday’s move as a step in its effort to disengage from the minutiae of Afghan government operations. But the advisers’ departure from a center that plays an important role in shaping domestic and foreign news coverage of Afghanistan was surprising and raised the possibility that figures critical of the West’s engagement here could gain a greater hearing.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, Afghan government officials involved in media relations have described a power struggle at the media center that mirrors a broader fight for influence between presidential aides who are close to the United States and those who are working against the goals of the international community.

A Western official with knowledge of the embassy’s decision said it stemmed in part from “concerns over how GMIC has been managed and allocation of resources.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because those concerns have not been publicly disclosed. The center received $4 million last year, mostly from the United States, and has said its international donors gave it $3 million this year.

The embassy had three advisers at the center.The U.S.-led NATO command also pulled the handful of troops assigned to it.

Embassy spokesman Gavin Sundwall said in a statement Wednesday that the United States was “reassessing and reviewing its relationship” with the center.

“We want to ensure that U.S. support and resources are used efficiently and effectively,” the statement said.

Sundwall said the decision was not made in response to Saturday’s news conference. “This has been under consideration and happened to coincide with the press conference,” he said.

Sefatullah Sahaf Safi, the center’s deputy director, said the Americans left unexpectedly.

“We didn’t get any notice,” he said in a phone interview.

Safi said that the center, which operates out of a large white building with high-tech audiovisual technology, has been used by a wide range of Afghan and foreign officials.

“There is no restriction on who can offer press conferences and who cannot,” he said, “as long as we do not allow people to talk against the nation’s interests or insult individuals.”

He said the center will remain an independent government agency regardless of whether the Americans return. “We hope this will be solved and they will continue to support GMIC,” he said.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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