Page 3 of 4   <       >

As U.S. assesses Afghan war, Karzai a question mark

Continued photo coverage from the front lines of the military effort in Afghanistan.

When Petraeus arrived in early July as the new commander, he sought to pick up where McChrystal left off. He strongly urged Karzai, at their first meeting, to approve the creation of armed village defense forces, a controversial initiative that McChrystal had nearly persuade Karzai to back. But the Afghan leader responded angrily. He refused to endorse the program and instead lectured Petraeus on Afghan concerns over militias, according the U.S. and Afghan officials familiar with the meeting.

In late July, tensions escalated once again over the arrest of one of Karzai's aides on bribery charges by a member of an Afghan anti-graft task force that works closely with FBI investigators. Karzai quickly ordered the aide released and accused those who arrested him, in a nighttime raid on his house, of using tactics "reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union."

As U.S. diplomats and commanders in Kabul were busy addressing the fallout of that case, he was stewing about another matter: the impunity with which private security contractors operate in his country. In July, a sport-utility vehicle driven by private guards was involved in a collision in Kabul that left one Afghan dead. The incident, which led to a protest and shouts of "Death to America," struck a sensitive nerve for the president.

The next month, he issued a decree ordering the disbanding of all private security forces by the end of the year.

U.S. diplomats assumed he would eventually back down because banning private guards would shut down embassies, stop military supply convoys and force the U.S. Agency for International Development to cease work on reconstruction projects worth billions of dollars.

But the diplomats failed to grasp the depth of his anger - and his belief that the billions in foreign assistance flowing into Afghanistan was causing more harm than good.

"We could have listened to him then," a senior U.S. diplomat said. "But nobody took him seriously."

Firm on contractors

For weeks, the U.S. Embassy and the coalition military headquarters expected Karzai to rescind his order, or at least carve out an exemption large enough for the contractors to barrel through in their armored SUVs.

The president did make revisions, exempting embassy guards and military convoys, but he held firm on the private contractors protecting development workers. He accused them of being behind "blasts and terrorism," and he blamed the U.S. government for funding security firms that "send money to kill people here."

Karzai's stance flummoxed U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington. U.S. military officials tried to determine whether a quid pro quo was driving the decision. Several of Karzai's relatives and political allies have large ownership stakes in private security firms in southern Afghanistan. Even though the order applied to them as well, some appeared to be making plans to adapt to - and profit from - the new rules.

In Uruzgan province, Matiullah Khan, the leader of a powerful militia that has a monopoly on guarding supply convoys and other truck traffic from Kandahar, is making quiet moves to transition his 2,000-man force into a newly created highway police unit. According to Western officials familiar with the issue, he would be made a police general and his men would receive salaries and uniforms.

But, the officials said, it is highly unlikely military contractors and private merchants will stop paying protection fees to Matiullah once his men are members of the police.

<          3        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company