By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow
The mid-2000’s were a much different time. It was a simpler, kinder world that existed well before the advent of modern vices such as iPads, Kardashians, and the ultimate evil known as Justin Bieber’s autobiographical 3D film. It was an innocent time, unmarred by modern trappings, when people weren’t afraid to trust each other. Like, say, when the U.S. trusted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to run an effective, democratic, government and generally not say bizarre things.
Well, the world has changed since those lost halcyon days, but Karzai’s increasingly erratic comments can sometimes make a sort of sense. At the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, President Karzai called for Western security contractors to leave Afghanistan, even though it would probably make is country less safe, and cost more American and Afghan lives overall. See, many interactions between state officials can be characterized by the “logic of the two level game”, where the public puts constraints on the choices of international leaders. The recently leaked documents showing the proposed Palestinian compromise with Israel is a good example—even though Palestinian negotiators were willing to cede portions of East Jerusalem, negotiators knew the Palestinian public would never accept such a deal, and didn’t take the offer seriously.
Afghan public opinion was likely driving the President’s comments on Sunday. The Afghan people hate Western security firms, and a recent incident where contractors drove over over a car, killing six unarmed civilians, sparked a riot in the streets of Kabul. There’s also the findings that security contractors actually paid the Taliban and local warlords because they didn’t properly vet the people they were doing business with. Then there’re the suspicions of murder. Generally, security contractors have a reputation for acting outside the law, closing streets on a whim, and acting like all-around thugs. And don’t think that Afghans aren’t painfully cognizant of the Blackwater (now Xe) contractors who got into a firefight with suspiciously unseen “insurgents” in Baghdad that killed either 14 or 17 civilians (depending on who you ask) and wounded 20. If that incident would have happened in Boston, it would have been called a massacre. About three times over.
So, it actually makes a good deal of sense with President Karzai uses his forum at Sunday’s Munich Security Conference to call for Western security firms to get out of his country and stop running people over, even though he knows it’s pretty unlikely. The United States employs 19,000 private security guards in Afghanistan, and its difficult to foresee how the U.S. military can keep doing its job without them. Karzai still isn’t going to win any popularity contests in Helmand province, but his overblown demands are masking some valid concerns about the conduct of private security firms.
But don’t worry: Hamid Karzai is still going to say some baffling stuff. In the main thrust of his speech, President Karzai put the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) on notice, calling for their “speedy” withdrawal from the country. PRTs have enacted small-scale development projects all over Afghanistan since 2002, including the now-infamous provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan (full disclosure: the author briefly worked to become a part of a Human Terrain Team, which has a somewhat related mandate and scope). There are currently 26 teams operating down range comprised personnel of many different ISAF nations. While some PRTs have met with mixed results, and there is certainly great room for improvement, the majority of studies have found that PRTs are a positive force in Afghanistan. People were so dumbfounded by Karzai’s statements that they repeatedly gave him a second shot to interact with reality, asking him if he actually meant that he wanted to remove the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Repeatedly, he answered yes.
But, wait, then why is Foreign Policy’s extraordinary blog The AfPak Channel agreeing with this? Check back Tuesday, when Streit Talk’s coverage of the MSC continues with “Part 2: The Chorus of the Bloggers.”