Dan is Mother Jones' deputy DC bureau chief. He is the New York Times best-selling author of Sons of Wichita(Grand Central Publishing), a biography of the Koch brothers that is now out in paperback. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.
A Western official knowledgeable about Afghanistan's private security scene pointed me to this letter to the editor from the Afghan ambassador to the US, Said Jawad, that ran in the New York Times earlier this week. Jawad is responding to a recent Dexter Filkins piece about Matiullah Khan, a provincial powerbroker in Oruzgan. Khan, once a highway patrol commander, heads a paramilitary force said to be 2,000 men strong, which protects NATO convoys on a particularly dangerous stretch of road between Tirin Kowt and Kandahar. His men also take part in operations with US Special Forces soldiers. It's very lucrative work. He brings in an estimated $2.5 million per month.
The gist of Filkins' story—which is well worth reading in its entirety—is that while Matiullah's services may be helpful in the short-term, empowering him and other local strongmen (there are many) come at the cost of NATO's long-term objectives. For instance, as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) pointed out this week, building up a capable national army and police force is made even more difficult by the fact that local security operations, which pay better, are recruiting directly from the ranks of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. There's also the fact that Matiullah may be engaging in criminal activity on the side, conniving "with both drug smugglers and Taliban insurgents"—reports of which military commanders apparently ignore in order to justify relying on his services.
The questions Filkins raises in his story are legitimate and troubling, but his characterization of Matiullah rankled the Afghan ambassador. Jawad writes that the story "left the impression that an effective founder of a private security firm is somehow a 'semiofficial warlord,' undermining government institutions in Oruzgan Province."
The Taliban regularly attack supply caravans. NATO cannot secure the safety of its own transports, and because the Afghan Army is deployed in the battle with the Taliban, adequate police officers cannot protect remote highways. Yet risk-taking entrepreneurs like Matiullah Kahn have filled this security vacuum.
First, I'd say Jawad's impression was precisely the one that Filkins was trying to leave. Second, I actually think Filkins was being somewhat charitable when he referred to Matiullah as a "semi-official warlord." If there's even such thing as an "official" warlord, Matiullah is a member of the club. Also, Matiullah doesn't run a "firm" per se. It's basically a militia, which goes by the name Kandak Amniante Oruzgan (or Highway Police Oruzgan). What Jawad conspicously fails to mention is that Matiullah's operation is considered illegal by the government he represents, which requires security outfits, local and international alike, to be licensed through the Ministry of Interior.
In the past, the ministry has even offered Matiullah a license and a government contract, according to Hanif Atmar, who served as Afghanistan's Interior minister until earlier this month, when he was forced to resign by Afghan president Hamid Karzai. But Matiullah has refused to come under government control—which doesn't bode well for any potential efforts in the future to integrate his militia into the Afghan security forces, let alone disband his private army. (And let's not forget that in November Karzai vowed to phase out all private security operations within two years. Good luck.) "Parallel structures of government create problems for the rule of law," Atmar told the Times.
Creating a stable society and a strong central government are, above all else, the Afghan president's main objectives. So why would Karzai's man in Washington go out of his way to defend a warlord—or entrepreneur, or whatever you want to call him—who is confounding these goals?
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.
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.
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.
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.