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Richard Holbrooke: Back seat driver in Afghanistan

On a recent trip to Afghanistan, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke got a first-hand taste of why Afghans, and especially the Afghan leadership, are so eager to get rid of private security contractors operating in their country after taking a scary car ride around Kabul against his wishes. In a briefing with reporters last week, Holbrooke ...

AFP/Getty
AFP/Getty

On a recent trip to Afghanistan, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke got a first-hand taste of why Afghans, and especially the Afghan leadership, are so eager to get rid of private security contractors operating in their country after taking a scary car ride around Kabul against his wishes.

In a briefing with reporters last week, Holbrooke revealed the story of how  security contractors in Afghanistan refused to take his orders — highlighting the problem of outsourcing security functions to private corporations. After recounting the incident, Holbrooke said that he better understood Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s concerns about private security contractors. Karzai still plans to kick all private security contractors out of Afghanistan, despite administration efforts to negotiate the details.

Holbrooke related an episode that occurred during a trip to Afghanistan. “I was driving through the street in a vehicle. I was a little bit late to a meeting. There was traffic. The vehicle, which was armored, of course, was careening around in a way I felt very uncomfortable about,” Holbrooke said.  “And I said to the guy sitting next to the driver, who was cradling a big weapon — I said, ‘You don’t have to drive that way. Slow down.’… And he said to me, ‘I don’t work for you, sir.’ And I said, ‘Who do you work for?’ And he just was silent again. And I was outraged. I was embarrassed. So I know where President Karzai’s coming from on this.”

Aid groups in Afghanistan have been scrambling to figure out how to comply with Karzai’s August decree that all private security contractors must leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. Some international aid groups are already preparing to shut down projects if their safety can’t be assured. The Obama administration has been discussing the decree with Karzai, in the hopes of expanding exemptions for contractors who are protecting U.S. government personnel to cover some other groups, such as those that protect international aid workers, that the United States feels are crucial to success of the international mission.

Those negotiations are being conducted by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.N. representative Steffan di Mistura, the British Embassy, and the British Department for International Development. Holbrooke supports these negotiations, which have already resulted in the deadline being extended until February, but said he said he personally agrees with the thrust of Karzai’s decree.

“Afghanistan is a sovereign country and respect for its sovereignty was necessary,” Holbrooke said. “You had tens of thousands of security guys from all sorts of countries wandering around heavily armed, some of them illegal, some of them highly corrupt, some not corrupt, under multiple contracts. You can’t have a country in a situation like that. So now, to get it under control and still be able to protect the international aid workers if they need protection, to get it under control without creating different sets of problems is a real challenge.”

Karzai will announce the final rules pertaining to his decree on private security contractors in Afghanistan on Nov. 15, after which there will be a 90-day implementation period.

“This will outline the process by which there will be a transition from the current situation, which is intolerable and untenable, to a point where private security companies do not exist or exist only under conditions that the government is comfortable with and that they operate,” Holbrooke said.

On a recent trip to Afghanistan, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke got a first-hand taste of why Afghans, and especially the Afghan leadership, are so eager to get rid of private security contractors operating in their country after taking a scary car ride around Kabul against his wishes.

In a briefing with reporters last week, Holbrooke revealed the story of how  security contractors in Afghanistan refused to take his orders — highlighting the problem of outsourcing security functions to private corporations. After recounting the incident, Holbrooke said that he better understood Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s concerns about private security contractors. Karzai still plans to kick all private security contractors out of Afghanistan, despite administration efforts to negotiate the details.

Holbrooke related an episode that occurred during a trip to Afghanistan. “I was driving through the street in a vehicle. I was a little bit late to a meeting. There was traffic. The vehicle, which was armored, of course, was careening around in a way I felt very uncomfortable about,” Holbrooke said.  “And I said to the guy sitting next to the driver, who was cradling a big weapon — I said, ‘You don’t have to drive that way. Slow down.’… And he said to me, ‘I don’t work for you, sir.’ And I said, ‘Who do you work for?’ And he just was silent again. And I was outraged. I was embarrassed. So I know where President Karzai’s coming from on this.”

Aid groups in Afghanistan have been scrambling to figure out how to comply with Karzai’s August decree that all private security contractors must leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. Some international aid groups are already preparing to shut down projects if their safety can’t be assured. The Obama administration has been discussing the decree with Karzai, in the hopes of expanding exemptions for contractors who are protecting U.S. government personnel to cover some other groups, such as those that protect international aid workers, that the United States feels are crucial to success of the international mission.

Those negotiations are being conducted by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.N. representative Steffan di Mistura, the British Embassy, and the British Department for International Development. Holbrooke supports these negotiations, which have already resulted in the deadline being extended until February, but said he said he personally agrees with the thrust of Karzai’s decree.

“Afghanistan is a sovereign country and respect for its sovereignty was necessary,” Holbrooke said. “You had tens of thousands of security guys from all sorts of countries wandering around heavily armed, some of them illegal, some of them highly corrupt, some not corrupt, under multiple contracts. You can’t have a country in a situation like that. So now, to get it under control and still be able to protect the international aid workers if they need protection, to get it under control without creating different sets of problems is a real challenge.”

Karzai will announce the final rules pertaining to his decree on private security contractors in Afghanistan on Nov. 15, after which there will be a 90-day implementation period.

“This will outline the process by which there will be a transition from the current situation, which is intolerable and untenable, to a point where private security companies do not exist or exist only under conditions that the government is comfortable with and that they operate,” Holbrooke said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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