Afghan president flexes muscles against West: analysts

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The Afghan government, angry at being sidelined over peace talks, flexed its muscles Thursday by ordering the takeover of a US military prison and parading British detainees at a news conference.

President Hamid Karzai ordered the transfer of the prison at Bagram -- sometimes called "Afghanistan's Guantanamo" -- to Afghan control within a month, citing reports of human rights violations there.

And in an unusual move his government publicly produced two British employees of a Canadian private security conference and announced that they would be charged with illegal weapons smuggling and the company would be closed.

All three countries have provided troops to support Karzai's government against an insurgency by hardline Taliban Islamists.

But the Taliban announced this week that they planned to open an overseas political office, a move seen as a precursor to talks with Washington and it's Western allies aimed at ending Afghanistan's 10-year war.

A senior official in Karzai's administration told AFP Thursday that the Western-backed leader was unhappy over the process as it had not involved his government.

"Any peace process without Afghanistan's government in the lead is meaningless," the official said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "But so far, the Afghan government has not been involved."

Analysts saw clear links between the Taliban-US move and the government's action over Bagram and the private security company, even though both have been in Karzai's sights previously.

"By such moves the president now wants to reaffirm his position and show that his government matters and matters a lot and should be a regarded as a main player," author Waheed Mujda said in reference to the Bagram takover.

"He wants to show to Americans that the role of his government, in particular in regards with recent developments, should not be ignored."

Karzai issued the order for an Afghan takeover of Bagram after receiving a report detailing "many cases of violations of Afghan Constitution and other applicable laws of the country, the relevant international conventions and human rights," his office said.

The detention facility was built within the sprawling US military base at Bagram, north of the Afghan capital Kabul after the US-led invasion in 2001 and soon gained a reputation for extra-judicial brutality.

The Afghan defence ministry announced in January 2010 that an agreement had been signed with NATO's International Security Assistance Force on a handover of the prison to Afghan control, but that never happened.

"Karzai wants to prove to the Americans that he can always find ways to put pressure on Americans, thus should not be pushed aside in US-Taliban talks," said Kabul University professor Wadir Safi.

"And he also wants to show to the Taliban that the Afghan government is independent and not a follower of the United States."

Safi also saw the parading of the British private security personnel as part of the same muscle-flexing.

"In the past when confronting similar situations government officials would never be this serious, they would try to downplay the issue and not let it get to the media," he said. "Today we witness they parade the detained foreigners on TV."

The two British men, who said they worked for a Canadian security firm, were arrested Tuesday with 30 AK-47 assault rifles -- many with their serial numbers erased -- while driving through Kabul, a government spokesman said Thursday.

The men, and two Afghans who were travelling with them, were shown to the media along with the weapons, but all four stood with their backs to reporters.

Afghanistan is home to thousands of private security personnel providing services for foreign troops, diplomatic missions and aid organisations.

But relations with the authorities have deteriorated and Karzai has accused the firms of breaking the law and taking business away from Afghans.

Perceptions that those working for security firms are little more than gun-toting mercenaries, roaming the countryside with impunity, have made them deeply unpopular among Afghans.

The US led an invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, ousting the hardline Islamist Taliban government.

About 130,000 US-led troops are still in the country, now fighting a Taliban-led insurgency across Afghanistan. The coalition combat troops are set to leave the country by the end of 2014, handing control for security to Afghan forces.

© 2012 AFP

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