Daniel Schulman

Senior Editor

Based in DC, Dan covers politics and national security. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, the Village Voice, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. He is the author of the new Koch brothers biography, Sons of Wichita (Grand Central Publishing). Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.

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Sen. Levin Backs Security Co. Phase Out

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 8:00 AM EDT

If Carl Levin has his way, Afghanistan's booming private security industry will soon be a thing of the past. On Tuesday the Michigan Democrat, who chairs the powerful Senate armed services committee, threw his support behind a little-noticed plan announced by Hamid Karzai late last year to phase out the use of security companies within two years. During his inaugural address in November, the Afghan president said he intended for "Afghan security entities" to take over the work currently handled by local and international firms.

Given the Obama administration's go-for-broke counterinsurgency strategy, and the involvement of powerful local interests (including multiple members of the Karzai clan) in the security business, Karzai's timetable is viewed as unrealistic. But Levin, whose panel has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into security firms in Afghanistan, said the American and Afghan governments "need to take concrete steps to achieve that goal."

In prepared remarks, Levin criticized PSCs for undermining counterinsurgency efforts, including by setting back initiatives to train Afghan police and soldiers, a crucial piece of the Obama administration's strategy. Levin's comments, which were submitted into the congressional record but not delivered publicly, were included in his opening statement for an Afghanistan-themed hearing held by the armed services committee—one abruptly cut short on Tuesday (and rescheduled for Wednesday morning) after Gen. David Petraeus briefly fainted while fielding questions.

"Our reliance on private security contractors—who often draw on militia forces—is empowering local powerbrokers and warlords who operate outside the government’s control," Levin said. "As stated in one recent military analysis of Kandahar, 'what used to be called warlord militias are now Private Security Contractors.'"

The widespread hiring of private security contractors undermines the Afghan security forces’ ability to recruit and retain personnel.  Some private security contractors working under Defense Department contracts, actively recruit those with ANA or ANP experience. Our Committee’s investigation into private security contractors in Afghanistan has revealed that they are frequently paid more than Afghan security forces. And a Department official recently testified that one reason for high attrition rates among Afghan National Civil Order Police officers, for example, is that "many of them are recruited by higher paying private security firms."    
 


The threat that security contractors pose to mission success is not insignificant. In May 2010 the U.S. Central Command’s Armed Contractor Oversight Directorate reported that there were more than 26,000 private security contractor personnel operating in Afghanistan. Last week, General McChrystal acknowledged the problems arising from our contracting practices, specifically private security companies, and said that ISAF will be looking at what needs to be done. I hope that review will lay out a path to phase out the use of private security contractors in Afghanistan and to integrate those personnel into the Afghan National Security Forces.

Levin has put his finger on a major dillemma. NATO has become dependent on the services of local security providers, in many cases regional poobahs who command large militias. Matiullah Khan is a prime example. He is a former Afghan highway police commander who now has a large paramilitary force under his command in Oruzgan Province. His fighters both guard convoys (charging as much as $1,200 per truck) and fight alongside US special forces soldiers. Through Khan's ties to NATO, he has amassed wealth and power—despite the fact that he is effectively running an operation considered illegal by the Afghan government, which licenses security outfits. (Khan's operation is unlicensed nor is it a company per se.)

By funding operations like Khan's, as well as those that are said to have ties to the Afghan president's half-brother and Kandahar troublemaker Ahmed Wali Karzai (or AWK as he's locally known), American and international forces are creating a parallel power structure that competes with the central government they are trying to prop up with anti-corruption, rule of law, and other capacity building initiatives. It is hard to see the powerbrokers who NATO has effectively empowered talking kindly to any efforts to shut down the private secuirty private, let alone fully integrate their militias with the Afghan security forces. It would be nice to hear Gen. Petraeus' thoughts on the topic when Tuesday's postponed hearing resumes this morning.

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Gen. Petraeus Collapses During Hearing

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 10:58 AM EDT

Via Politico:

Gen. David Petraeus collapsed in his chair under intense questioning from the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command, was immediately surrounded by advisors including Michele Flournoy, the Pentagon’s deputy under secretary for policy, who was testifying with him. Petraeus is known for his superior fitness level; he was escorted out of the hearing room, pale and looking downward.

Several minutes later, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) returned to the room to say that Petraeus was feeling much better and probably just didn’t drink enough water before coming to the hearing. Levin said there would soon be a decision about whether the hearing would continue.

Petraeus’s collapse came just as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was wrapping up a pointed round of questions about his support for the president's plan to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. 

"It wasn’t Senator McCain’s questions, I assure you," Petraeus quipped when he returned to the hearing room. Though Petraeus said he was fine and seemed intent on continuing his testimony, Levin has postponed the hearing until tomorrow.

When Congressmen Attack

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 12:51 PM EDT

The political gods have just smiled on Renee Elmers. She's the Republican candidate in North Carolina's second congressional district who up until a couple hours ago was thought to have almost no chance of unseating the incumbent, Democratic congressman Bob Etheridge. Her prospects may have just gotten a boost courtesy of an ambush-style video starring an irate Etheridge roughing up a young man who claims to be a student working on a "project."

The videos—posted to YouTube on Friday and highlighted by the Andrew Breitbart-run site Big Government this morning—are now burning up the intertubes. Etheridge has apololgized, but his hot-headed reaction has provided his rival with a readymade attack ad (literally). 

It's unclear whether anything took place off camera in the lead-up to this confrontation that set Etheridge off, but it's hard to imagine he could have behaved in a more unflattering manner. And there's really no excuse for getting physical. Per the video, Etheridge was simply asked whether he "fully" supports "the Obama agenda." The interviewer and camera crew may have been angling to catch the congressman acting evasive, or maybe saying something dumb or damaging. If so, he played directly into their trap and then some.

AP: Alvin Greene Facing Felony Charge

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 3:13 PM EDT

First, Alvin Greene (whom MoJo's Suzy Khimm interviewed last night), shocked political observers by seemingly coming out of nowhere to win South Carolina's Democratic Senate primary. Now the unemployed vet has another surprise in store. Turns out, he's presently facing a felony rap for an incident that involved Internet porn and a University of South Carolina co-ed. Via the AP:

Court records show 32-year-old Alvin Greene was arrested in November and charged with showing obscene Internet photos to a University of South Carolina student. The felony charge carries up to five years in prison.

Greene said he had no comment when asked about the charge Wednesday and hung up on a reporter. The unemployed veteran posted bond after his arrest. He has yet to enter a plea or be indicted.

Records indicate Greene showed photos to a woman and talked about going to her room at a university dorm.

 

Karzai's Survival Instinct

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 1:49 PM EDT

What's up with Hamid Karzai? That's the question on the minds of Afghan watchers in and outside of government following the resignations of two top officials who were respectively responsible for the country's intelligence service and internal security apparatus. As I describe in my piece on this topic today, they weren't just any bureaucrats. They were widely viewed as two of the most solid administrators in the Afghan government. Highly trusted, they had developed a strong rapport with US and NATO officials who are now understandably alarmed by their departures.

Officially, the cause for the resignations of Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh was the failure of their agencies, and the collective security forces and operatives under their command, to prevent an attack targeting Karzai's highly publicized peace jirga. Beyond two of the militants involved in the assault, who were killed by Afghan forces, there were no other casualties. As Karzai's office has portrayed it, removing Atmar and Saleh was a matter of accountability ("Someone had to take responsibility for this," Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said.) But in a government where corruption and cronyism are rampant, you'd think Karzai could think of better people to make examples of. Karzai's office insists that that attack was the sole reason why Atmar and Saleh resigned. But there were other issues at play. Among other things, both officials reportedly had disagreements with Karzai over his strategy for political reconciliation with the Taliban.

In today's New York Times, Alissa Rubin has an interesting (and troubling) look at the psychology behind Karzai's latest move—a move that certainly seems to run contrary to his goal of forging a strong central government:

To some, the forced departure of the two men is a troubling indication of the president’s mounting insecurity and his fear that even those closest to him are not looking out for him.

Compounding those fears is Mr. Karzai’s lack of faith in the Americans and his uncertainty about whether they will back him over the long term. That impression has been reinforced by President Obama’s pledge to start withdrawing troops in July 2011 and his administration’s arm's-length relationship with President Karzai.

"The root of this is the perception that President Karzai got last year from the kind of cold reception that he got from the American administration, and that made him feel insecure," said Ahmed Ali Jalali, who was Afghanistan’s interior minister from 2003 to 2005. He now teaches at the National Defense University in Washington.

The insecurity has left Mr. Karzai alternately lashing out in anger and searching for new allies, turning to Iran and elements within the Taliban. Both are antagonistic to American interests.

"He is trying to create new networks, new allies and contacts both inside the country and outside the country in case there’s a premature withdrawal, so a lot of this is more of a survival gesture," Mr. Jalali said.

The bottom line, according Rubin's piece, is that Karzai's survival instinct has taken over. One question is how far he's willing to go to ensure his own political survival. Another is the degree to which the Obama administration's initial tough love approach to the Afghan president may have compounded an already difficult situation. 

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