Rifts Over Fees and Taliban Sour Afghanistan Exit
By Matthew Rosenberg, NY Times, July 18, 2013
KABUL, Afghanistan—If the ease of the American 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 American cargo shipments out of Afghanistan—leapt into the open and threatened to steeply raise the price tag for the United States 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 American arrogance. Just a few years after the setting of an American 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 American attitude about customs fees led him to institute steep fines and briefly led Afghan officials to close the border crossings to Western military shipments.
Under a deal signed nearly a decade ago, goods shipped into Afghanistan by the American-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.
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, Mr. 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 on Wednesday after the Finance Ministry gave the coalition another month to settle the matter.
American officials have balked at paying the fines, portraying the Afghan border closing as a shakedown by a government that is short of cash and unwilling to tax its own business class, which has grown wealthy off American 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, American officials said. In previous months, more than two-thirds had been shipped by land.
While American officials were willing to stay quiet in hopes of working out a deal with Mr. Zakhilwal, their sense of discretion did not extend to the claims by Abdul Karim Khurram, the chief of staff to Mr. Karzai, that the United States was working with the Taliban.
Mr. Khurram has irked American officials for years. One Westerner said that at coalition headquarters, he was viewed “as Satan himself.”
Mr. Khurram reinforced that view in an interview this week with the Afghan channel 1TV. He openly accused Washington of colluding with the Taliban and Pakistan, where the insurgents shelter, and, in the Afghan telling, they are given orders of whom to attack and when by the Pakistani military.
"In the past decade, America used the Taliban as tools in this war," Mr. Khurram said. In this, he was being only slightly more strident than his boss, Mr. Karzai, who has also accused the United States and the Taliban of working to destabilize Afghanistan.
Mr. Khurram, in the television interview, acknowledged that Afghanistan needed the aid of American 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.