KABUL, Afghanistan — It had never happened before, or so the frustrated U.S. Army public affairs officer complained.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s notoriously scrupulous, U.S.-trained bodyguard team had just shown the door to their overlords, the U.S. Army, banning them from entering an Afghan military base unless they dismounted from their armored vehicles and entered weaponless.
By doing so, they asserted their claim to sovereignty in a way that, while following the American hymn-book, nevertheless clearly rankled the Yanks.
The scene was at a military base outside Kabul where Karzai would later address the graduation of the second class of officers in the history of the new Afghan national army. To get there, the military convoy sped through the depressed neighborhoods slumping along Kabul’s outskirts, on a highway closed to ordinary traffic lined with concentric rows of soldiers, roof-mounted snipers and Hummers at roadblocks.
Already the target of several assassination attempts, the Afghan president’s security team was taking no chances. At a time when Taliban attacks have started probing deep into Kabul, the attendance of senior Afghan and U.S. military officials at the graduation ceremony was more than mere protocol: These cadets are essential for coordinating an often directionless army’s campaign against the Taliban in the south and north of the country. After 2011, the Americans and NATO will begin drawing down from military operations, turning the battlespace over to their Afghan colleagues.
“You’re the gatekeepers of this soil,” Karzai told the crowd of cadets sitting inside a large hangar to a sound of a military band and heavy helicopters thundering past outside. Perfectly timed applause erupted every time Karzai spoke.
“You’re extremely special because you’re the bridge between the Afghan warriors of old and those who sit in this hall today, who defeated a superpower and maintained independence for Afghanistan,” he said.
But the heaviest applause of the day came when, comfortable with his crowd and riffing without any notes, Karzai said that neighbors India, Iran and Pakistan have offered to train Afghanistan's military officers but, he asserted, one day Afghanistan will offer this service to other countries.
“And the first day is today,” he bowed out to thunderous applause.
But in addition to the enthusiasm, there was also cynicism. One officer, who declined to be named, alluded to Afghanistan’s rampant corruption, saying that “without vaseteh [connections], you end up fighting the Taliban in Helmand or Kandahar. With vaseteh, you spend a pleasant service in the Presidential Palace.”
The list of graduating officers was weighted with Tajik and Hazara surnames, ethnicities that made up the backbone of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance before 2001.
Leaving the ceremony, guests were ushered by presidential handlers under the silent stares of snipers and past armored vehicles. The intense security underlined the fragile security of even the capital.
“How much can this class do to save Afghanistan and how much will the governing corruption allow them to maneuver?” asked an Afghan journalist, heading away from the event. “It just doesn’t add up.”