Wednesday, 18 November 2009

New round-up: Afghanistan

From yesterday’s news:

At his annual Mansion House foreign affairs address Gordon Brown says that a ‘clear timetable’ for the handover of security to Afghan forces could be agreed as early as January 2010. ‘The international community will meet to agree plans for the support we will provide to Afghanistan during this next phase.’

In a speech to the NATO parliamentary assembly David Miliband says the military commitment in Afghanistan is ‘not a war without end’ but that NATO’s priority was not to risk leaving a ‘vacuum’ for a resurgent Taliban.

Transparency International reports that Iraq and Afghanistan are among the most corrupt states on the planet. ‘When essential institutions are weak or non-existent, corruption spirals out of control.” And who made ’em weak to non-existent in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Now some quotes from Aram Roston’s article in The Nation last week, ‘How the US Funds the Taliban’:

On October 29, 2001, while the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan was under assault, the regime’s ambassador in Islamabad gave a chaotic press conference in front of several dozen reporters sitting on the grass. On the Taliban diplomat’s right sat his interpreter, Ahmad Rateb Popal, a man with an imposing presence. Like the ambassador, Popal wore a black turban, and he had a huge bushy beard. He had a black patch over his right eye socket, a prosthetic left arm and a deformed right hand, the result of injuries from an explosives mishap during an old operation against the Soviets in Kabul.

But Popal was more than just a former mujahedeen. In 1988, a year before the Soviets fled Afghanistan, Popal had been charged in the United States with conspiring to import more than a kilo of heroin. Court records show he was released from prison in 1997.

Flash forward to 2009, and Afghanistan is ruled by Popal’s cousin President Hamid Karzai. Popal has cut his huge beard down to a neatly trimmed one and has become an immensely wealthy businessman, along with his brother Rashid Popal, who in a separate case pleaded guilty to a heroin charge in 1996 in Brooklyn. The Popal brothers control the huge Watan Group in Afghanistan, a consortium engaged in telecommunications, logistics and, most important, security. Watan Risk Management, the Popals’ private military arm, is one of the few dozen private security companies in Afghanistan. One of Watan's enterprises, key to the war effort, is protecting convoys of Afghan trucks heading from Kabul to Kandahar, carrying American supplies.

Welcome to the wartime contracting bazaar in Afghanistan. It is a virtual carnival of improbable characters and shady connections, with former CIA officials and ex-military officers joining hands with former Taliban and mujahedeen to collect US government funds in the name of the war effort.

Whereas in Iraq the private security industry has been dominated by US and global firms like Blackwater, operating as de facto arms of the US government, in Afghanistan there are lots of local players as well. As a result, the industry in Kabul is far more dog-eat-dog. “Every warlord has his security company,” is the way one executive explained it to me.

In theory, private security companies in Kabul are heavily regulated, although the reality is different. Thirty-nine companies had licenses until September, when another dozen were granted licenses. Many licensed companies are politically connected: just as NCL is owned by the son of the defense minister and Watan Risk Management is run by President Karzai’s cousins, the Asia Security Group is controlled by Hashmat Karzai, another relative of the president. The company has blocked off an entire street in the expensive Sherpur District. Another security firm is controlled by the parliamentary speaker’s son, sources say. And so on.

“Most escorting is done by the Taliban,” an Afghan private security official told me. He’s a Pashto and former mujahedeen commander who has his finger on the pulse of the military situation and the security industry. And he works with one of the trucking companies carrying US supplies. “Now the government is so weak,” he added, “everyone is paying the Taliban.”

Taliban, Mr Miliband? Taliban Schmaliban!

The last eight years begin to look like a speeded-up version of so many old-model colonisation-decolonisations. Invade and destroy the old regime; secure the resources; divide and rule the population; identify and cultivate the most corruptible local elites; install them in power; officially pull out, … but in reality control of the economy remains in our hands. I say ‘our hands’ but mean the bloody hooks of the bankers and contractors. As in Egypt, so in Afghanistan, we, the real we, merely provided the initial tax base and soldiery (this is Combat Barbie’s ‘service.’).

The system of transferring nominal authority without threatening the bankers’ actual control was developed and perfected by Sir Andrew Cohen at the Foreign office in the late 1940s. See Ronald Robinson, ‘Imperial Theory and the Question of Imperialism after Empire,’ and the same author’s contribution to Morris-Jones and Fischer (Eds), Decolonization and After: The British and French Experience (Cass, 1980), ‘Andrew Cohen and the Transfer of Political Power in Tropical Africa, 1940-1951.’ In the first of these Robinson asks whether decolonisation and the recognition of nationalist claims was not simply the ‘continuation of imperialism by other and more efficient means?’ Aye, and still is.

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