No more KamAir flights for Afghan President

February 4, 2013
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By Hawa Dawi -

Much to his displeasure, President Hamid Karzai travelled to London on a British airline on Saturday to attend the third Afghanistan-UK-Pakistan trilateral summit to discuss regional peace and security issues. President Karzai’s preference was to fly KamAir but some countries purportedly refused the embattled Afghan airline to enter their airspace.

The U.S. military has blacklisted KamAir for their alleged role in smuggling Afghan narcotics to Central Asia. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently reported quoting anonymous U.S. military officials that the Afghan airline was transporting domestically-produced drugs to countries like Tajikistan.

The WSJ story infuriated President Karzai who chaired a heated Cabinet meeting last week and criticized the U.S. military for irresponsibly accusing KamAir of drug smuggling through a media report. This was followed by a diplomatic note from Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul requesting evidence of KamAir’s alleged wrongdoing.

Given the sensitive intelligence-cum-military nature of the issue, Washington is unlikely to make public or even share the evidence implicating KamAir in illicit drug trafficking. This means the Afghan government’s calls for evidence will land nowhere and instead make KamAir yet another matter of contention in relations between Kabul and Washington.

KamAir vehemently denies drug smuggling and has already started to suffer from the indictment. Its reputation as a passenger airline has been tarnished and its ability to commute passengers, even the Afghan President, has been increasingly curtailed.

If indeed KamAir is implicit in drugs smuggling, the black-listing not only tarnishes U.S.-Afghan relations but will also have corrosive impact on the fledging Afghan economy. Despite Afghanistan’s role as the world’s leading opium producing country, the Afghan economy relies heavily on income and import taxes. KamAir is one of the two major privately-owned airlines in Afghanistan, and provided a significant amount of revenue.

Set up in 2003, KamAir is Afghanistan’s first-ever private airline whose owner, Zamarai Kamgar, received his very first Boeing 727 from Uzbek leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum in exchange for supplying Dostum’s militias with food and fuel in the 1990s.

To share or to leak?

It is difficult to speculate whether the intelligence linking KamAir to drug trafficking was an unauthorized leak to the media. Unlike the Wikileaks revelations, the WSJ story has the hallmarks of a purposeful and authorized dissemination of sensitive intelligence information.

There could be all sorts of speculations as to why the U.S. government decided to share the KamAir narco-trafficking case with a media outlet before discussing it with the Afghan government. Calling the U.S. approach damaging, Afghan officials complain that instead of leaking the reports to the media, the U.S. government should have shared its concerns with Afghan government first so it could act. Such an approach seems logical, given the important relations Washington and Kabul share, the two governments should be able to privately discuss and resolve mutual problems and concerns than surprising each other through the media.

Much of this is an outcome of the ineffective governance in Kabul, especially President Karzai’s reluctance to prosecute cases of corruption. For example, in December 2010, Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan, warned President Karzai about massive corruption in a military hospital in Kabul. President Karzai’s inaction enabled the head of the military hospital, who had allegedly embezzled millions of dollars, to walk out clean. However, after pressing President Karzai for years to tackle rampant corruption and seeing no tangible results, the U.S. preference now may be to publicly indict and blacklist individuals and entities that are alleged to have a role in the intractable Afghan graft.

President Karzai has been leading one of the world’s most corrupt states for more than a decade now. Had U.S. officials informed the Afghan government about KamAir’s alleged illicit activities before they appeared in the media, the Kabul government was more likely to just angrily deny the allegations than to take any meaningful action. But now that the KamAir case is in the open, it is more important for the Afghan government to address the problem than to continue its criticisms of Washington for publicizing it in order to ensure that this case is not treated like other corruption cases of the past.

Hawa Dawi is an Afghan journalist and writer. She can be reached at wasdawi@gmail.com

Nader Naderi on transition in 2014

Light News Bites

• Days before a planned visit by President Karzai to Islamabad, Afghan and Pakistani national soccer teams met for a match in Kabul—their first such contest in 37 years. A capacity crowd of around 7,000 filled the stadium amid heavy security. The Afghan side's 3-0 victory touched off a raucous street celebration, boosting Afghan national pride as foreign forces withdraw, international aid dries up and the Pakistani-backed insurgency keeps up its attacks. (WSJ)
At the sentencing hearing of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, Haji Mohammed Naim, 60, from the village where Bales killed 16 civilians in March 2012 testified: "That bastard stood right in front of me, I wanted to ask him: 'What did I do? What have I done to you?'" A jury will decide whether Bales will get life in prison or be eligible for parole. His guilty plea in June means Bales won't face the death penalty. (Newswires)
• On August 8th the Afghan Air Force (AAF) conducted its first independent air assault operation. In the past AAF helicopters were part of larger NATO air operations and under NATO command. Operating from Jalalabad airfield, over a dozen AAF helicopters (Mi-17 armed transports and Mi-35 gunships) worked with a brigade of Afghan infantry to clear two districts under the Taliban rule.. (Strategy Page)
• A music concert organized last week in Afghanistan’s central Bamyan province to mark International Youth Day drew an audience of thousands from all over the country. Masoud Hassanzada, singer for the rock band ‘Morcha’ said: “We perform rock music is a new way… but people understand our messages. The poetry we use is about the daily life of Afghans, social issues and politics.” He added: “I think no political process can be successful without cultural support.” (UNAMA)
• Afghan Attorney-General Muhammad Isaaq Aloko has kept his job despite a decision by an angry President Hamid Karzai to sack him over an unauthorized approach to the Taliban. Aleko denies the claim. (Reuters)