Looming withdrawal deadline prompts Karzai to hasten divorce from West 

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's call to ban private security contractors and dismantle the NATO teams helping to rebuild the country is a high-stakes ploy that will make efforts to aid the Afghan people and contain the Taliban insurgency even more difficult, experts said. Karzai made the announcement in Germany over the weekend, saying it was part of his plan to speed up the process of withdrawal by foreign countries in the coming year. The reconstruction teams operate outside the Karzai government's control in helping to build schools and provide basic services in remote parts of the country. The level of corruption inside the Afghan government is so high that many officials -- both Western and Afghan -- say the jobs can't be done under Afghan government control.

"Neither Karzai nor the current government should be in charge of the disseminating the [provincial reconstruction team] funds or dismantling the teams, because corruption is so prevalent that no one can be trusted, even Karzai," said an Afghan official who spoke to The Washington Examiner by telephone. "Even when the money is disseminated through the appropriate channels it never finds its way into the hands of those who need it," the official said. "These are difficult times for the Afghan people and made only worse when the people don't know who to turn to or who to trust."

U.S. officials in Afghanistan have not criticized Karzai's statement, downplaying any suggestion it represented a rift between NATO and the Afghan government. U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Dorrian, spokesman for the International Security Assistance Forces, said "ISAF and President Karzai share the same goal of building capacity within the Afghan government to provide security and government services to the Afghan people. We will continue to support his efforts to eliminate the need for private security firms and provincial reconstruction teams, because they provide services that ultimately the Afghan government must provide."

But that can't be accomplished with the level of corruption that now exists in Afghanistan, others said.

"Karzai's promise to investigate corruption is like having the fox in charge of the hen house," said one U.S. official who asked not to be named.

Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who specializes in South Asia, said Karzai's demands to control the funding being used by provincial reconstruction teams is part of a high-stakes game between Afghanistan and the U.S., with Karzai determined to show the Afghan people he is not an American puppet while pressuring the U.S. and Western allies to hurry progress before bailing out in 2014.

The problem, she said, is that Karzai's public antagonism toward the U.S. and NATO is "extremely unhelpful and undermines popular Afghan support for the continued presence of coalition troops in" Afghanistan.

"While everyone would be better served if Karzai worked through transitional issues with the coalition governments discreetly and out of the public eye, U.S. officials must prepare for more public outbursts from Karzai," she said. "He is seeking to put as much distance as possible between himself and the coalition forces and to prove to domestic constituents that he is not beholden to the U.S."

For Karzai, a public flirtation with the Taliban, while hastening divorce proceedings with the West, makes good internal politics.

"Karzai realizes that time for him is running out with the 2014 deadline looming," one U.S. official said. "Karzai is beating his chest to show that he is not in the pocket of the U.S. Unfortunately, he has filled his pockets with the money of the Afghan people."

A military official, who works closely with reconstruction teams in the nation's dangerous southern provinces, said that Karzai's grandstanding on issues like taking control of reconstruction teams "is hurting the mission." The official said that corruption in the local and national government has hampered efforts to bring needed supplies and services to the Afghan people.

"This shouldn't be about politics and trying to play nice with Karzai," the U.S. military official said. "The Afghan people don't trust Karzai, so they don't trust us because we support him. Our soldiers and Marines have given everything. What for, if we're not going to finish what we started and do what we need to do to get the job done."

Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at scarter@washingtonexaminer.com.

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