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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Dazed and Confused by Karzai

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 1:57 PM EDT

"Does the U.S. Government have any reason to believe that President Karzai is like, hiding out in the basement of the palace doing bong hits or, you know, something worse?"

This question came during Wednesday’s State Department press briefing, when spokesman P.J. Crowley was grilled about the Afghan president’s "flighty" and "erratic" behavior lately, which has included blaming ex-UN diplomat Peter Galbraith and others for orchestrating the fraud that marred last fall’s presidential election. It was in the context of Karzai’s recent remarks that Galbraith coyly suggested in a TV interview earlier this week that, according to “palace insiders,” the Afghan president "has a certain fondness for some of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports." The Karzai-as-dope-fiend meme took off from there, temporarily reducing the high-stakes tensions between the Obama and Karzai administration’s to the plot of a Harold and Kumar movie.

Sure, US officials have been dazed and confused (apologies, I couldn’t resist) by Karzai’s odd conduct, but, Crowley says, there’s no reason to believe his anti-Western-paranoia is drug-related:

He is the president of Afghanistan. He's been significantly engaged with us on a regular basis. The Secretary talked to him Friday. Ambassador Eikenberry talked to him on Friday. He was with General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry over the weekend. We have no information to support the charges that Peter Galbraith has leveled.

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Hamid Karzai: Practical Joker?

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 12:44 PM EDT

Is Afghan President Hamid Karzai pulling a prank? He says that his re-election was indeed tainted by epic fraud. But here's the twist: He says the UN, and in particular its former No. 2 official in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, were behind it:

"There was fraud in the presidential and provincial election, with no doubt there was massive fraud," he said.

"This wasn't fraud by Afghans but the fraud of foreigners, the fraud of Galbraith, or (head of the EU's observers Philippe) Morillon, and the votes of the Afghan nation were in the control of an embassy."

Accusing Galbraith of taking part in the fraud is particularly strange. The diplomat was reportedly removed from his post last fall because he was too outspoken about the tainted election, clashing with his boss, Kai Eide (who was later dismissed himself), over whether to aggressively pursue allegations of vote-rigging and ghost polling sites. In October, Galbraith wrote:

For weeks, Eide had been denying or playing down the fraud in Afghanistan's recent presidential election, telling me he was concerned that even discussing the fraud might inflame tensions in the country. But in my view, the fraud was a fact that the United Nations had to acknowledge or risk losing its credibility with the many Afghans who did not support President Hamid Karzai.

I keep waiting for Karzai's office to issue a release—"April Fool's!"—informing the international media that we've been punk'd. Apparently Galbraith, who called Karzai's remarks "absurd," thought the Afghan president was pulling his leg, too. He told the BBC: "At first I thought it was an April Fool's joke but I realised I don't have that kind of warm, personal relationship with President Karzai that he would do that."

Speaking of tense relationships, Karzai is on mighty thin ice with the Obama administration, particularly after his recent move to wrest control of his country's Electoral Complaints Commission by claiming the authority to appoint all five members of the panel, three of whom had previously been chosen by the UN. (The Afghan parliament voted overwhelmingly against Karzai's decree on Wednesday.) Karzai's maneuver so enraged US officials that the Obama administration abruptly cancelled a planned visit by the Afghan president to the White House. Karzai responded to this slight by inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul, where the Iranian firebrand delivered an anti-American speech. After President Obama's surprise visit to Kabul on Sunday, the White House put the Karzai visit back on its calender—a move that it might be rethinking right about now.
 

Rep. Hank Johnson Thinks Guam Could Capsize

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 10:15 AM EDT

It couldn't have been easy for Admiral Robert Willard, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, to maintain a straight face during his completely bizarre grilling by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) last week. Willard was testifying before the House Armed Services Committee at a hearing concerning his command's FY 2011 budget. Part of the hearing centered on plans to shift thousands of US troops from Okinawa to Guam. This move is likely to put a serious strain on the tiny island—but not the kind that Johnson is worried about. Take it away, Hank:

My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.

To which Willard, who appears to be stifling a grin, says:

We don’t anticipate that. The Guam population, I think, currently about 175,000, and again, with 8,000 marines and their families, it’s an addition of about 25,000 more into the population.

Earlier, in another cringe-worthy moment, Johnson goes into exhaustive detail about the island's dimensions, eventually posing this question to the admiral: "I don't know how many square miles it is, do you happen to know?"

Willard: "I don't have that figure with me, sir, but I could certainly supply it to you if you'd like."

Since Willard definitely has more important things to do than Google the square mileage of Guam, I'll save him the trouble: approximately 212.

Jon Stewart needs to send Johnson a thank you note. You can't make this stuff up.
 

UPDATE: Johnson, via his spokesman, responds:

“I wasn’t suggesting that the island of Guam would literally tip over,” said Johnson. “I was using a metaphor to say that with the addition of 8,000 Marines and their dependents – an additional 80,000 people during peak construction to the port on the tiny island with a population of 180,000 – could be a tipping point which would adversely affect the island’s fragile ecosystem and over burden its already overstressed infrastructure.

“Having traveled to Guam last year, I saw firsthand how this beautiful – but vulnerable island – is already overburdened, and I was simply voicing my concerns that the addition of that many people could tip the delicate balance and do harm to Guam.”

Another Embassy Guard Scandal?

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 11:42 AM EDT

Surely last September's scandal involving the bacchanalian hijinks of ArmorGroup’s vodka-butt-shot-taking guards taught the State Department—and specifically its diplomatic security division—a major lesson about the perils of loose oversight, right? Perhaps not, according to a recent review of Triple Canopy’s $438 million contract to guard the US embassy in Baghdad conducted by the State Department’s Inspector General.

No, Triple Canopy personnel were not spending their off duty hours gallivanting around with coconut bikinis covering their privates and subjecting each other to lewd hazing rituals. But the IG’s report [PDF], dated March 10 and first obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, does raise the question of whether anyone might have been the wiser if they had been. Among other areas where oversight was MIA, the IG’s office reported that the "Embassy is not properly overseeing" Camp Olympia, where Triple Canopy’s guards reside.

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