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.
By forcing out two widely trusted officials, the Afghan president may be putting the US counterinsurgency strategy in jeopardy.
Daniel SchulmanJun. 8, 2010 6:00 AM
As the White House no doubt has learned in its recent dealings with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president can be uncomfortably unpredictable. He sprang his latest surprise on Sunday, forcing out two top security officials and Washington favorites who are widely viewed as among the most competent in Karzai's troubled government. And seasoned Afghanistan watchers warn their ousters could spell trouble for the Obama administration's counterinsurgency strategy.
The departures came after an attack last week targeting Karzai's highly publicized "peace jirga"—a conference meant to pave the way toward political reconciliation with the Taliban. Militants were able to get close to the highly secure event, which was attended by more than a thousand delegates and international dignitaries, by posing as a couple with an infant (instead of a baby, the attackers had swaddled weapons). One of the male militants was dressed in a burka, a disguise that apparently allowed him to avoid being searched for weapons or explosives by security. The attack was unsuccessful. Still, the too-close-for-comfort incident proved an embarrassment to Karzai, who was later said to have lost confidence in his intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, and his Interior Minister, Hanif Atmar, whose ministry is responsible for Afghanistan's police and internal security forces.
Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld exposed the injustices of the military commissions at Guantanamo. Now his career is on the line.
Daniel SchulmanMay 31, 2010 6:00 AM
For an Army officer, criticizing the military commissions at Guantanamo as a perversion of justice probably isn't the best career move. That goes double if you also happen to be a former top military prosecutor at Gitmo. That's why Lt. Colonel Darrel Vandeveld, a US army reservist with nearly 20 years of service under his belt, fears the worst when a military promotion board renders its decision in his case this week.
Theoretically, the military brass reviewing his record could reward his distinguished service—to which various awards and commendations attest—and bump him up to full-bird colonel. Or, they could derail his military career. Vandeveld has reason to believe the board may attempt the latter—forcing into retirement the officer who, in a July 2009 congressional hearing [pdf], declared that "the military commission system is broken beyond repair."
During a hearing of the Commission on Wartime Contracting earlier this week, Chris Shays got so exercised over the Justice Department's intransigence that he may have momentarily forgotten that the panel he co-chairs doesn't have subpoena power. He threatened to use it anyway to compel the agency to deliver up information that Shays, a former GOP congressman from Connecticut, says it has been stonewalling on for months.
Starting in December, the commission has repeatedly sought data from Justice on contracting corruption-related cases and prosecutions. That information—bringing together data from a collection of federal agencies and divisions—is contained in a database administered by an interagency law enforcement unit known as the International Contract Corruption Task Force.
The State Department press aide hinted at some kind of bureaucratic snafu. The invites had only gone out at the last minute. As a result, David Samuels (author of this epic piece on Balkan jewel thieves and a Mother Jonescontributor) and I found ourselves the lone journos at a media roundtable featuring a handful of members of the Afghan cabinet who'd accompanied President Hamid Karzai on his visit to Washington this week. Among them were General Abdul Rahim Wardak, the country's dour and barrel-chested defense minister; Wahidullah Shahrani, the youthful looking Minister of Mines; and Omar Zakhilwal, the Minister of Finance.
The event started late and ended abruptly a short time later, with the Afghan officials ushered out of the room by their handlers and shepherded on to their next appointments. And strictly speaking the roundtable portion never actually took place. But for about 15 or minutes or so I was able to chat with officials including Minister of Interior Haneef Atmar and Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, the former Afghan communications minister and currently a top security advisor to Karzai.
I already highlighted Atmar's comments on private security companies, but he was also eager to discuss the strides that have been made in combating corruption—successes, he griped, that have not received "the kind of attention that they should." Over the past year, he said, more than 200 police officers have been prosecuted on corruption-related charges. And he noted there has been a major crackdown on illegal roadblocks set up by police to "toll" (i.e., extort) passerby. "Our main roads and highways are much more conducive to travel." He also pointed to the ministry's fledgling Major Crimes Task Force, set up in partnership with the FBI to pursue high-level corruption cases. "It is a success story in terms of building an organizational framework to address the problem. It has yet to produce the desired result. It's a very, very young organization."
Shortly before departing Kabul to accompany President Hamid Karzai on a state visit to Washington, Interior Minister Haneef Atmar delivered a message to the country's myriad private security operations: You can't get away with murder. Anymore, at least.
Following recent incidents in which two civilians were gunned down, Atmar banned a pair of security companies—Compass and Watan Risk Management—from providing their services on the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway, where the shootings occurred. Additionally, the alleged perpetrators were arrested and are facing prosecution.
In the past, undisciplined and reckless guards, many of them locals drawn from the ranks of militias or moonlighting members of the national police force, have been known to fire wildly and indiscriminately, sometimes wounding or killing civilians; Compass guards were previously blamed for the death of a Canadian soldier. But, when these episodes occur, there has often been little in the way of consequences. As a result, outrage has mounted among Afghans who believe the country's many security firms—some of them glorified militias—operate with impunity. Military officials have expressed concern about the irresponsible actions of security contractors as well, since their conduct directly undermines the principles of counterinsurgency, which calls for protecting the populace even at the expense of protecting the troops.
According to Atmar, times are changing. "The level of tolerance of misconduct when it comes to these organizations is zero," he told me on Thursday, at a State Department event attended by a handful of Afghan cabinet members. "They have had all the time to develop their capacities to professionally provide a service. Now if they fail to do that very, very serious legal action will be taken."