The handwriting is on the wall, apparently, that the United States cannot sustain its troop commitment within the Afghan NATO forces that are currently attempting to stabilize the country. And since Hamid Karzai’s regime remains wildly corrupt – such an embarrassment to the Obama administration that the U.S. President personally flew to Kabul to try an convince the President that more effective anti-corruption efforts are essential (and maybe to make “nice” too?) – Karzai had to make some assessments as exactly how he could possibly maintain power in the absence of Western troops. He has recently opted to distance himself from the United States and turned instead to a neighboring power sure to make a very clear point to our President: Iran.
Why should Karzai do anything that the U.S. wants – especially if he and his cronies are forced to give up or curtail their gorging at the corruption trough – if he knows he will be just one more regional warlord in a post-NATO world? This forces the U.S. to balance creating another regional ally to a nuclear nation that feasts on antagonizing the West (Iran) against once again supporting a corrupt and ineffective regime that it helped place in power.
If there is any doubt that Karzai will ever do “the right thing,” let’s start with his brother, Ahmed, a powerhouse in southern Afghanistan: “Senior American officials spent months weighing the allegations against Ahmed Wali Karzai: that he pays off Taliban insurgents, that he launders money, that he seizes land, that he reaps enormous profits by facilitating the shipment of opium through the area. And the officials concluded that the evidence, some compelling, some circumstantial, was not clear enough to persuade the president to move his brother out of town, two NATO officials said. ‘My recommendation was, remove him,’ a senior NATO officer said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity. ‘But for President Karzai, he’s looking at his brother, an elected official, and nobody has come to him with pictures of his brother loading heroin into a truck.’… Some have regarded the case as a test of American will to confront President Karzai. ‘Watch what the Americans do,’ said a diplomat in Kabul. ‘If they let Ahmed Wali stay in power, it means they are not serious about governance.’” New York Times (March 31st). Ahmed isn’t going anywhere, but President Obama went to Afghanistan. In fact, the apologetic spin from U.S. officials is about how useful Ahmed might be to communicate with the Taliban; darker sources say that Ahmed takes money from wherever he can, including payments from the CIA, a fact which could be embarrassing to the allies.
So exactly what provoked the surprise Obama visit? After all, after issuing an invitation to Karzai to visit the White House in the near future, the President had recently revoked that invitation. The New York Times (March 30th) put the events into proper perspective: “The reason [for the revocation], according to American officials, was Mr. Karzai’s announcement that he was emasculating an independent panel that had discovered widespread fraud in Mr. Karzai’s re-election last year… Incensed, Mr. Karzai extended an invitation of his own — to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who flew to Kabul and delivered a fiery anti-American speech inside Afghanistan’s presidential palace… ‘Karzai was enraged,’ said an Afghan with knowledge of the events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. ‘He invited Ahmadinejad to spite the Americans.’”
Did the Obama trip “smooth things over” as some pundits suggest or did the parties simply iterate their antagonistic positions and create the appearance of cooperation? Karzai made a few token appointments of independent personnel to review the recent election results, but we know where that is going. Other than the feeblest attempts to stem corruption – a huge thorn in America’s search for justification for continued involvement in Afghanistan – Karzai has pretty much resisted any genuine reform movement. His power base appears to consist of a loose alliance of local warlords and corrupt administrators who trade their support of their President for ample access to flowing wealth, most of it undoubtedly generated by the lucrative opium trade that remains the mainstay of the nation’s economy.
That Karzai picked Iran is significant not only as the most emphatic means of declaring independence from American policies but that this fundamentalist Shiite country is held in disdain by the equally fundamentalist (and anti-Shiite) Sunni Taliban. An alliance with Iran could potentially give Karzai a threat against the Taliban who seeks to dispose of him and his government, a card to play in the inevitable negotiations with the enemy. Further, with civilian casualties from NATO efforts mounting, Karzai also has to cater to a growing anti-Western sentiment among his own people, who want the war to leave their ravaged villages and farms. Even as Taliban apply their legendary cruelty to negate NATO efforts and undermine local support for American stabilization efforts, the people caught in the middle would prefer to see an end to the “NATO attack followed by a Taliban retaliation effort” cycle that has made local lives almost unlivable.
American policy-makers can spin the events anyway they want, but the truth remains that there are ever-decreasing reasons for Americans to die in support of a regime that is the antithesis of everything we seem to believe in. The Times: “Iran is a neighbor of Afghanistan, and American officials say they do not object to the two countries discussing issues of mutual interest. ‘He can be close to us, have a cooperative bilateral relationship with us, and a good working relationship with his neighborhood,’ a senior American official said… But the recent visit by Mr. Ahmadinejad seemed designed to generate as much attention as possible — including in Washington. With Mr. Karzai standing at his side in Kabul, Mr. Ahmadinejad accused the United States of promoting terrorism.”
I’m Peter Dekom, and sometimes, you just can’t find justification for continuing our presence in Afghanistan.