By Joel Brinkley

Hamid Karzai isn't just a corrupt, irresponsible buffoon. The Afghan president's latest pronouncements show him to be a determined enemy of the very people who are trying to save him.

In a speech a few days ago, he announced that he was going to ban private security companies from working in his country, the people who protect civilian aid workers and others.

The security companies "are against Afghanistan's national interest, and their salaries are illegal money," the president declared. "They are thieves during the day and terrorists during the night." All of them should leave "as soon as possible." Fifty-two companies employ about 30,000 people, most of them former military officers.

His point: The Afghan police "have the capability of handling security issues."

Karzai spoke on the same afternoon that the bodies of 10 medical-aid workers arrived back in Kabul. They had traveled north to offer eye care to villagers, many of whom had never seen a doctor before. The doctors didn't think they needed special protection because they had been working in the country for years. But Taliban killers captured the group, lined them up against a wall and shot them. Where were those vaunted Afghan police?

Karzai spoke even as millions of people picked up that week's copy of Time magazine, or noticed it in racks while waiting in a supermarket checkout line. Bibi Aisha, a teenage Afghan girl, looked back at them from the cover with an expression both angry and sorrowful. Her husband, following Taliban direction, had cut off her nose and both her ears.

Once again, where were those Afghan police?

In fact, many policemen sympathize with the Taliban -- especially with the group's view of women. Most police are also illiterate and thoroughly corrupt. So Karzai wants to put the lives of American and other Western aid workers, specialists whose mission is to help the Afghan people because the government won't, into the hands of these feckless policemen? Surely Washington and NATO will not stand for that.

Think again. Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a NATO spokesman, told reporters in Kabul on Sunday that he agreed with Karzai to an extent. Private security firms should operate in a new framework that allows the Afghan government to control their activities, he said.

Karzai has Washington and NATO over a barrel. They seem afraid to offend him, even as he continually insults and betrays the nations that are trying to protect him. The West should not -- cannot -- put Western security officers under Karzai's control. Look what's happening to the new anti-corruption task force now that Karzai is trying to take control -- so it doesn't go after him or any of his friends.

Early this year, the United States twisted his arm, forced him to set up a so-called "Major Crimes Task Force" charged with attacking corruption within the government. American and British law-enforcement officers are heavily involved in the task force's investigations.

Karzai, speaking to his foreign benefactors last month, lauded the new unit and promised to give it "the legal basis and resources to act quickly and decisively." After that, the task force did in fact act decisively. It arrested one of Karzai's most senior aides, Mohammed Zia Saleh, who administered Afghanistan's National Security Council. The investigators had wiretapped him and recorded an exchange in which he demanded a bribe. They charged him with corruption and put him in jail.

Karzai was furious. He ordered his attorney general to release this aide from jail, on bond. And then he angrily announced that he would set up a commission to investigate the work of the task force and a related anti-corruption agency. No one involved has any doubt that his real aim is to take control of the task force -- and then defang it.

With every passing week, the Afghanistan dilemma seems to tumble from bad to worse. As often as not, Karzai is to blame. Congress is already withholding $4 billion in aid because of corruption concerns. But the State Department seems less willing to take him on. After he tacitly threatened to eviscerate the anti-corruption task force, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to him on the phone. Then her spokesman said the Afghan government "reiterated its commitment to fighting corruption." Sure.

Sixty-six American soldiers died in Afghanistan last month -- a record. In his speech, Karzai declared, "No Afghan administration will be successful unless it lays off its foreign advisors and replaces them with Afghans."

I say, go ahead. Give it a try. See how long you last.

Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times.


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World - Afghanistan & The Karzai Problem | Global Viewpoint