Winning: Karzai Blinks

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December 9, 2010:  The Afghan government blinked, and has allowed most private security companies to keep operating. Earlier this year, president Hamid Karzai ordered all private security companies to shut down operations by the end of the year. This order was seen as an effort to keep foreign monitors away from foreign aid sent to Afghanistan, since it was well known that foreigners working on aid projects would be forced to flee the country if they had to depend only on the Afghan Army and police for security. The presidential ban on private security firms only allowed those guarding diplomats and military installations to remain, and then only after an international outcry. For months, donor nations, especially the United States, have pressured Karzai over the issue. What ultimately changed Karzai's mind was a growing number of foreign aid operations threatening to shut down, and take their charity somewhere else, if they could not protect themselves from all the bandits, Taliban violence and government officials looking for a handout.

For the Afghan officials, preventing foreigners from supervising foreign aid was essential if there was to be any opportunity to steal most of the aid. This sort of corruption is seen as a major opportunity, and it has been crippled by the insistence of the donor nations that even more foreign auditors and supervisors be sent in. But Afghanistan is an unruly and dangerous place, especially for foreigners. There are far more deaths to this "usual violence" than to "the war" (against the Taliban and drug gangs). Foreign aid workers will not go outside their heavily guarded compounds without a security team. But they won't even have a guarded compound if the presidential decree is carried out. With nearly all the aid workers gone, the government would get what they always wanted, complete control over the billions in foreign aid that arrive in Afghanistan each year. It has long annoyed the Afghan government that most of this aid is delivered to the Afghan people by their foreigners, denying officials an opportunity to steal much of it. While the donor governments can try to watch over the aid disbursement using diplomatic personnel, the Afghans can counter that by limiting how many diplomatic personnel can enter the country.

Karzai was quite obstinate about this issue, as the inability to plunder the foreign aid has made it difficult to get more warlords and senior politicians under his control. U.S. aid alone, since 2001, has amounted to $55 billion, and too much if it escaped the grasp of corrupt Afghan officials.

Iran has recently demonstrated how foreign aid is supposed to work. This happened when, as Afghan officials flew back from a recent diplomatic visit to Iran, some were seen boarding the aircraft carrying bags of cash. The Afghans admit that this cash came from Iran, as part of the aid Iran has been providing. But the bags of cash were obviously for the Afghan officials, and the Afghans could not understand what all the media fuss was about. The Iranians understood that, if you want to provide aid for Afghanistan, you have to start at the top. Some of it will trickle down to those who need it most (or not, according to those pesky Westerners). But the Western aid donors are threatening to halt their aid, rather than see most of it stolen by Afghan politicians. This caused a stalemate, which was only broken when Karzai became convinced that if the private security firms went, so would foreign aid workers and, most importantly, the billions in aid money they were spending to rebuild Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Karzai said he will not stop trying to eliminate the private security firms.

 


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