Archive for October, 2010

Incessant Opportunities: a war blog by Cy Kofant

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

October 31, 2011

Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan- Today General Robert W. Smith held his first press conference since being tapped as the chief American commander (C-TRAGICOM) in Afghanistan three days ago, after the abrupt departure of General David Petraeus. The behind-the-scenes luminary – the two-star commander of Fort Distant, Wyoming – showed the charisma that made him a natural pick for the top job when he answered tough, even carping questions from the reporters flown from Kabul to the press conference. The affable general – an impressive 7’ 2” tall –won most of his audience over by the conclusion of the q&a.

While it is now nearly six months since I have taken one of my helicopter tours of the Afghan battlespace with a top general – readers may recall my blog entry from June, when my trip was cancelled due to our handing over Kandahar Air Force Base to the Taliban –I have heard from acquaintances who have traveled around Afghanistan without our military that there are still areas – notably the city centers in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat – which remain safe from Taliban incursions. I have never actually been to any location in Afghanistan by myself, but my military sources corroborate these accounts.

Having known Bob since I wrote an 18000-word profile of the then-colonel in 2003, I believe no reasonable person could doubt his qualifications for the mission. I flew with Bob from Fort Distant as he prepared to take up his new job and can report that he only ate once, and used the bathroom facilities not at all, during the 36 hours we spent in the air.

Here are some nuggets from Bob’s press conference that I think readers will particularly enjoy.

Question: “There are now 276,000 American troops in Afghanistan yet almost none of the country remains secure. Can you please explain how you will use your vastly expanded manpower to achieve the results that your predecessor, General Petraeus, was unable to?

Answer: “We’ve just now got the inputs right in Afghanistan. Our new strategy, which we are unveiling today, is called, “A soldier in every home” – that’s “Askar dar har khana” in Dari – and we envision being able to place one American serviceman or woman in every Afghan home – that is approximately 2.5 million homes, because as you know Afghans live in large extended families – on a rotating basis over the coming year.

This will place security where it is needed. And as an additional benefit, our servicemen and women will get invaluable local language training at no cost whatsoever to American taxpayers. They will be fed by their Afghan hosts, again lowering our costs, and providing a gradual acclimatization to the wholesome Afghan diet and its numerous microorganisms.

Question: “Can you comment on the recent allegations in the American press that some family members of President Karzai recently bought the entire city of Geneva, Switzerland, with money stolen from the American people?”

Answer: “President Karzai – who I met with for the first time today, at his Presidential bunker at Bagram Air Force Base – understands very well that if he is to be an effective president for life – as the recent amendment he was able to get past the Afghan Parliament mandates – he has to show progress on corruption very soon. President Karzai shows every sign of understanding this and I am confident that we can work together effectively, especially since the unfortunate disappearance of Ambassador Eikenberry.”

Question: “There are rumors that Ambassador Eikenberry is actually in captivity in the hands of some members of President Karzai’s family –

Answer: “I think you said it yourself, sir: rumors. What we know for a fact is that the Ambassador, who was extremely frank in his evaluations of our Afghan partner family, the Karzais, wrote a cable, a very frank cable, on the 1st of July, shortly after the KAF handover. He has not been seen since then. But you can infer from the fact that he has not been replaced that we still hold out hopes for his safe return.”

Question: “As you know, the Army flew us reporters up to Bagram for this conference. As recently as fall of 2010 it was safe to travel in a civilian car to Bagram, but since the fall of Kandahar –

Answer: “If I may make a correction there, reporter – acting in concert with our Afghan partner family, we decided to take an opportunity presented to us by the Taliban to take over the very costly operations at Kandahar Air Force base or KAF as it was known. This was one of the more controversial moves undertaken by my predecessor, even though as you are aware, contrary to the initial reports, no aircraft were included in this transition. “

Question: “Would you care to comment on the attrition figures for the Afghan National Police?”

Answer: “Well, General Halting, who is in charge of the training command–– General Halting has told me that his team has developed a new model for force generation for the Afghan National Police. The newest estimate is, that if we run 1,743,000 Afghan males between the ages of 18 and 36 through our six-week training program, we will end up with about 1250 men who are still with the police six months later due to the attrition.

Now we can do better than that. So, we have decided to implement a new program, increasing the salary of the Afghan police to around $70,000 a year, starting this December 1. Given the effects on the economy at home of the various bailouts of the Afghan financial system, and the increase of troops to 276,000, this will provide an excellent employment opportunity to those servicemen and women who desire to continue serving in Afghanistan even after their deployment is finished.”

Question: “General, when the Central Bank of Afghanistan collapsed due to currency trading losses in January of this year, the U.S. Treasury stepped in to cover the $1. 5 billion loss. Shortly afterwards, a consortium controlled by President Karzai’s family purchased Citibank. Some have suggested, that–

Answer: “I think that the American people realize that you cannot have an effective counterinsurgency strategy without keeping your partner family happy. Thank you very much for your questions, ladies and gentlemen.”


Cy Kofant blogs for Blinkers Magazine. A long-time analyst of the American military and its counterinsurgency doctrine, he has made numerous trips to Afghanistan with successive American commanders. He is the author of the forthcoming three-volume biography, “General Bob Smith: a leader for all times”.

Inside Karzai’s Kickback Scheme

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

President Karzai’s brazen admission to accepting cash from Iran through his Chief of Staff Umar Daudzai comes as no surprise to government insiders. It’s utterly of a piece with the routine and pervasive corruption that has become a signature of the Karzai administration. A former Afghan cabinet minister wrote me that Daudzai—Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Iran from 2005 to 2007—is said to receive $3.5 million every month from the Islamic Republic. Further, he claims that both Daudzai and Minister of Education Wardak “used some of that money for Karzai’s campaign and bribing a number of parliamentarians.”

The same source reports that the regime’s thirst for cash dates back to the salad days of 2002, when Daudzai was dispensing funds from his office in a two-story building in the east part of the palace. The money is kept in a cabinet there. In 2002, ministers received no regular salaries and labored in the name of patriotism, if they were honest, or for simple lucre, if they weren’t. So when a cabinet member needed travel money or emergency funds, Daudzai would open the magic cabinet and hand over a wad of bills. The recipient would sign for it, but “anyone could open Daudzai’s office and the cabinet and anyone could fabricate a signature.”

Presumably Americans close to the palace knew about these sorts of practices long ago, but kept silent—part of the stay-out-of-jail-free pass the Karzai regime has enjoyed until recently.

Daudzai himself has made out like a bandit. According to my source, he’s the owner of a couple of Kabul mansions and a country house, and sends his kids to the pricey International School of Kabul (annual tuition around $6,000 per child). Dexter Filkins reported in The New York Times that he also has multiple houses in Dubai and Vancouver.

The larger question, of course, concerns whether the United States ought to be worried about this influence-buying by Iran. My view is we shouldn’t panic. After all, if Karzai were so easily purchased by a foreign power, he would have long since done what we’ve been asking him to do and cleaned up his administration. Iran’s putative $3.5 million a month amounts to small potatoes compared with, say, the $1 billion First Brother Ahmad Wali Karzai is reported by the Times of London to receive every year for doing business with coalition forces. And presumably Karzai has access to these same funds, as well as Other Brother Mahmoud Karzai’s farflung business empire, if he needs to bribe the stray MP.

The alleged transfer of Iranian IED expertise to the insurgency and the possible flow of terrorists bound for at the United States across the porous Afghan-Iranian border should worry us much more.

That said, Daudzai’s clearly not a good guy, but he’s hardly alone in the Karzai orbit. If we had any guts, we’d throw the bastards out. But we don’t. History, and the Afghans, won’t judge us well.

Paranoid, moody, reclusive — the ‘mad one’ who rules Afghanistan but may help us lose it

Monday, October 25th, 2010

“Delusional,” “paranoid,” “off his meds” — those are only a few of the words used to describe Hamid Karzai in Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars.” But it’s not just the closed-door assessments of the administration that raise concerns about the Afghan president. Karzai’s public appearances have become more bizarre, including a recent speech where he openly wept, lamenting that he didn’t want his 3-year-old son Mirwais to “be a foreigner growing up outside Afghanistan.”

With his green cloak and sheepskin hat, Karzai cut a swashbuckling figure when he visited the US after the ousting of the Taliban. He embodied American hopes for a new Afghanistan, one where politics were transparent, women had rights, and the Taliban were decisively rejected. been dashed. Karzai has attempted to stifle Afghan and American anti-corruption investigators, and approved some shockingly retrograde women’s laws that include allowing “local custom” to determine if a wife can leave the house without her husband’s permission. When it comes to the war, Karzai seems to reserve his strongest criticism for US mistakes rather than Taliban encroachment.

NATO military leaders and politicians increasingly wonder:

This is the man we’re fighting for?

Hamid Karzai was born on Oct. 24, 1957, to a prominent family in Kandahar. Though described by some media as an “aristocrat,” Karzai’s family worked with royalty but was not one of them. His grandfather was president of the national council under King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 until 1973. His father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, later became deputy speaker of parliament, moving the family to the capital, Kabul.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced the family into exile. His father went to Pakistan; at least one brother, Abdul Qayum, was in the US starting a chain of Baltimore restaurants. Hamid went to college in India, graduating with a masters degree in international relations and political science.

Karzai’s childhood has inspired some armchair psychology among his peers. Former Afghan diplomat Wahid Monawar notes that a former Afghan governor who grew up with Karzai says the president was often beaten up by his six full and half-brothers, which led to a persecution complex. His father nicknamed him “the mad one” for his moods.

At college, he liked to watch street magicians and learn their tricks. This, Wahid maintains, is a key to Karzai’s personality: even now focused on sleight of hand rather than substance, tactical advantages rather than strategy.

After a brief trip to Europe, Karzai returned to Afghanistan to join one of the “seven dwarfs,” or Pakistani-funded resistance groups. It was here that Karzai mingled with many of radical elements of the mujahidin. His faction was led by Sibghatullah Mujadidi, a grand-nephew of the jihadi leader who played a role in ousting reformist King Amanullah in the 1920s. He met the leaders who brought Arab jihadis into the Afghan war.

After the Soviets left, Karzai became deputy foreign minister to the unstable Afghan government that followed. But in 1996, when the Taliban took over Kabul, Karzai was on the outs. He angled to become an ambassador but was rejected and turned against the Taliban.

Karzai’s opposition was cemented when in August 1999, his father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, living in Quetta, Pakistan, was assassinated by the Taliban while at prayers. Upon his father’s death, Hamid was chosen head of his local tribe, the Popalzai — apparently because his older brothers Mahmoud and Abdul Qayum were content living in the United States.

Meanwhile, Karzai’s personal life is something of a blank. In Afghan culture, most men marry in their early 20s. Karzai finally wed, at 42, to Dr. Zeenat Quraishi, a gynecologist, who’s a distant relative of Karzai and also from Kandahar. One child, Mirwais, was born to the couple in 2007 — again unusual in a country of large families. Unlike some other political leaders, who have brought their spouses to vote, Karzai’s wife almost never appears in public. Whatever his alleged support for women’s rights, on the home front Karzai plays by Kandahari rules.

During the 1990s, Karzai was far from a national figure. Ahmad Wali Massoud, brother of the slain resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, was Afghanistan’s ambassador to the Court of St. James in 2001. He recalls that a few months before 9/11, Hamid Karzai sought him out to get an introduction to his brother. But Ahmad Shah Massoud wasn’t even sure who Karzai was.

On Dec. 5, 2001, Karzai was elected chairman of the interim administration, by participants of the United Nations-sponsored Bonn Conference. Yet on the first ballot, according to a participant, Karzai got just two votes. The unequivocal winner was Abdul Satar Sirat, an Islamic theologian who studied at Columbia University and has a doctorate in Islamic studies from Pacific Western University, and who was a former minister of justice. Sirat bowed to American pressure to stand aside because Americans decided an Uzbek would never be accepted.

Through the first presidential election in 2004, and even through the first part of 2006, Karzai enjoyed a honeymoon at home and abroad. The foreign press was adulatory; most Afghans were focused on the unprecedented economic growth and the opportunity to acquire undreamed of consumer goods like cars, video cameras and mobile phones. Few complained publicly about incompetent and corrupt officials.

Everyone was patient and wanted to give the new government time to work the kinks out. Yet those who were actually in that government knew they were coasting on thin ice.

Of particular worry to some officials is that Karzai cared more about coordinating with old contacts from the mujahidin days than actually running a democratic government. One former minister says, “Karzai never took Cabinet meetings as seriously as his meetings with jihadi leaders. For instance, in the middle of a serious Cabinet session, he would tell us that he had to go upstairs to meet [a jihadi leader]. During a session on [insurgent leader] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, when he was still in Tehran, I asked Karzai to seek the possibility of having him extradited to Afghanistan by the Iranian government. His reaction was both emotional and irrational, saying: ‘What are you saying? Hekmatyar is our great mujahid brother. This is an insult to him.’ ”

According to the same former Cabinet minister, Karzai showed disregard for democratic process at the start. During the first or second Cabinet session in early 2002, the minister says, Karzai asked the Cabinet to vote for Faisal Ahmed Shinwari as new chief justice of the Afghan Supreme Court without allowing the ministers to ask questions about him or have more time to make up their minds about a highly sensitive position.

Shinwari, it turns out, was an extreme fundamentalist, who supported marriage for 9-year old girls, opposed women singing on TV, and supported the death penalty for blasphemy. “Shinwari was a disaster, who paved the way for a lot of corruption in the judicial system,” the minister says. “It was Shinwari who appointed hundreds of semi-literate mullahs as judges in the country.”

By 2006, many of the more capable members of Karzai’s cabinet left the government. Some for other opportunities, but my off-the-record interviews with two of the departing ministers revealed discomfort with Karzai’s disorganization and irrationality.

A turning point was May 29, 2006. Early in the morning, a military vehicle traveling from Bagram Air Force Base to Kabul lost control of its brakes and rammed several civilian cars, killing five Afghans. Rioters rampaged through Kabul. Karzai cowered in his palace, never showing himself in public, though he did appear on TV. After this, Karzai apparently suspected the loyalties of his own Cabinet. The riots couldn’t be a spontaneous reaction to frustration with the American presence, corruption and the slow pace of economic progress; they must have been orchestrated by disloyal officials. Karzai began to surround himself with the former loyalists of his old mujahidin friend Hekmatyar, a supporter of Osama Bin Laden.

During this period, President George W. Bush may have unwittingly played into Karzai’s eccentric dramas by holding videoconferences every other week with him. Woodward says that this led to his “taking up any dispute directly with Bush,” depriving other US officials of any leverage with him.

By 2008, the insurgency was in full swing and the weaknesses in Karzai and his government inescapable. Woodward’s book details the utter lack of confidence of nearly every senior US official and military leader in Karzai. National Security Adviser and retired Gen. James Jones is quoted as saying, “He doesn’t get it, or he doesn’t want to get it . . . We haven’t been tough enough on him, given the sacrifice in lives that we are making.”

Apparently the first review team sent by former commander Stanley McChrystal to assess the situation, in summer 2009, headed by Col. Chris Kolenda, concluded that the American counterinsurgency — no matter how excellent — might fail ‘because of the weak and corrupt Afghan government.”

There are dark rumors about the reasons behind Karzai’s mood swings. Woodward hints at marijuana use and manic depressive behavior, which Karzai has dismissed. Elizabeth Rubin, one of the few American journalists to spend time at the palace, noted that Karzai “always has a cold or a cough and takes vitamin-C tablets compulsively.”

Whatever psychological or pharmaceutical issues Karzai may have, it’s his paranoia that has proved to be the most frustrating. According to Afghan diplomats, Karzai believes that the US is deliberately transporting Taliban insurgents to northern Afghanistan to destabilize the country. An Afghan social scientist reported the same rumor to me in Kabul this August and wondered why the Afghan government was doing nothing to dispel it, but perhaps the answer is that it comes from the highest reaches of that government.

Karzai inveighs against every American airstrike that the Taliban say killed civilians before giving American investigators time to respond. He has nipped nearly every anti-corruption investigation in the bud. Meanwhile, his businessman brother Mahmoud — an American citizen — is under investigation by prosecutors in New York’s Southern District for charges that may include tax evasion and racketeering. And his politician half-brother Ahmad Wali, who lives in Kandahar, is dogged by charges of drug dealing and collaboration with the insurgency.

Just last week, I heard that the former American ambassador Zal Khalilzad was in Kabul again, this time warning Karzai, “Najibullah once sat where you sit.”

Najibullah was the last Communist-era president of Afghanistan; he spent the last year or so of his life hiding in a UN compound in Kabul. When the Taliban took Kabul, he was tortured and murdered. His body was hung in public in the main square on Sept. 26, 1996.

Karzai could take this as a warning to do better. Or he could become even more withdrawn, convinced that the United States is out to get him. His paranoia may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Obama administration could become convinced that we cannot leave until Karzai does.