New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 19, 2013
KABUL, Afghanistan » If the ease of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan is based on the supply of Afghan good will, it has been a troubling and potentially very costly week for the United States.
Even as a top aide to President Hamid Karzai unleashed a new round of hostile talk on television this week, accusing the United States of using the Taliban to divide Afghanistan, another disagreement — over customs fees and missing paperwork for U.S. cargo shipments out of Afghanistan — leapt into the open and threatened to steeply raise the price tag for the U.S. military withdrawal.
The common thread between them is a growing willingness by Afghan officials, from the president's office down through the ministries, to publicly counter what they see as U.S. arrogance. Just a few years after the setting of an U.S. withdrawal deadline for 2014 evoked alarm and worry among Afghans, the tone now has perceptibly hardened: Even the officials who openly want the Americans to stay are now saying that staying must be strictly on Afghan terms.
The latest is Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, once a favorite of the Western contingent in Afghanistan, whose anger at the U.S. attitude about customs fees led him to institute steep fines and briefly led Afghan officials to close the border crossings to Western military shipments.
"At the heart of all this is not just a revenue collection issue," Zakhilwal said in an email on Thursday. It is about "respect of Afghan laws and procedures."
Under a deal signed nearly a decade ago, goods shipped into Afghanistan by the U.S.-led coalition are not subject to taxes or customs duties. But, Afghan officials said, each container brought in must be accompanied by paperwork to claim the exemption, and most of the forms were never filed.
The customs issues "have been lingering for many years now with no serious intention or effort" by the coalition to resolve them, Zakhilwal said.
Now that the coalition is trying to take out its equipment, the Afghan government is demanding each container either come with its paperwork — or a $1,000 fine. Najeebullah Manali, a Finance Ministry official, put the number of trucks at roughly 70,000. That would mean a fine of $70 million.
If anything, Zakhilwal said, the Afghan government was giving the coalition a break.
"The duties owed to us run into hundreds of millions of dollars," he said. "The truth is that quite a bit of these goods (mostly fuel) have been smuggled into the market with consequences not only for our revenue but also distorting our market and damaging competition."
To force the issue, Afghanistan closed its border crossings with Pakistan to coalition shipments moving both ways on July 11. The crossings, through which most supplies move, were reopened Wednesday after the Finance Ministry gave the coalition another month to settle the matter.
U.S. officials have balked at paying the fines, portraying the Afghan border closure as a shakedown by a government that is short of cash and unwilling to tax its own business class, which has grown wealthy off U.S. supply contracts.
Instead, the coalition has turned to air shipments. It has flown out more than two-thirds of the material it moved in the past month, U.S. officials said. In previous months, more than two-thirds had been shipped by land.
Air shipments are a far more expensive solution than simply paying the fines demanded by the Afghan government. If continued, the air shipments could result in the drawdown of forces reaching or exceeding $7 billion, the upper end of its estimated cost.
An administration official in Washington sought to play down the effects on the withdrawal. "We'll work it out with the Afghans," the official said. "No one is overly worried."
The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing efforts underway to reach a settlement.
Those who could speak publicly about the dispute, which was first reported by The Washington Post, were circumspect.
"We are experiencing challenges with our equipment retrograde at Afghan border-crossing points," said Cmdr. William Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman, in an email. "We are confident that the situation will be resolved soon."
While U.S. officials were willing to stay quiet in hopes of working out a deal with Zakhilwal, their sense of discretion did not extend to the claims by Abdul Karim Khurram, the chief of staff to Karzai, that the U.S. was working with the Taliban.
Khurram has irked U.S. officials for years. One Westerner said that at coalition headquarters, he was viewed "as Satan himself."
Khurram reinforced that view in an interview this week with the Afghan channel 1TV. He openly accused the U.S. of colluding with the Taliban and Pakistan, where the insurgents shelter and, in the Afghan telling, they are given orders whom to attack and when by the Pakistani military.
"In the past decade, America used the Taliban as tools in this war," Khurram said. In this, he was being only slightly more strident than his boss, Karzai, who has also accused the U.S. and the Taliban of working to destabilize Afghanistan.
Khurram then claimed the U.S. was sending Taliban fighters to aid the Syrian rebels, while, in Afghanistan, the insurgents "kill children in cooperation with Americans."
"Cooperating with America was a failure," he concluded.
Khurram framed his commentary as a discussion of a long-term security deal that would keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan past 2014, when the NATO combat mission here ends. Negotiations on the pact were suspended by Karzai last month after a U.S.-orchestrated attempt to start peace talks with the Taliban went sour.
This week, although U.S. officials had publicly shied away from criticizing Karzai from airing similar themes, they issued a rare rebuttal.
"The allegation that the United States seeks to divide Afghanistan by giving a share to the Taliban is nonsense," said Ambassador James B. Cunningham in a statement issued Thursday. "We have not spent blood and resources, alongside our Afghan comrades, in pursuit of any other purpose than a stable Afghanistan that can provide for the security of its people, strengthen its institutions, and pursue the future which its people deserve."
As for the long-term security agreement, "we are ready to resume these negotiations at any time," he added.
Khurram, in the television interview, acknowledged that Afghanistan needed the aid of U.S. forces and financing beyond 2014. But given the experience of the past 12 years, Afghans had to carefully evaluate the terms under which the foreigners would remain "so the next generations do not curse us," he cautioned.
Among the issues he mentioned: Taxes.