Karzai not our son of a bitch anymore?

One of the great unsourced quotes which explains how a great power or powerful person can be trapped into following the dictates of a client or subordinate is: “He may be a son of a bitch; but he’s our son of a bitch.” The quote is so good that it has multiple parents. It’s variously attributed to FDR and Cordell Hull (either about Somoza or Trujillo), Thaddeus Stevens (about one of two “rascal” office seekers), LBJ (about J. Edgar Hoover) and perhaps others.

In the Afghan War, whatever else went wrong, we could always comfort ourselves that Hamid Karzai was our son of a bitch. We picked him principally because he was against our enemies. And he was one of the few Afghans who had a sense of nationhood. Afghanistan has never experienced nationhood as known in the West because it never passed through the 19th century as the West did. In Afghanistan the only three forces of nationhood have been the monarchy (a feudal one, which played warlords, like knights, off against each other), communism and the religious fundamentalism of the Taliban. Karzai’s family included a number of high-ranked royal retainers of the last Shah, Mohammed Zahir. Hamid himself once supported the Taliban after the shah was gone, because they represented centralized authority. His support did not disqualify him from our favor; after all, we had supported the mujahedin against the Soviets. (Even Sylvester Stallone supported the mujahedin in “Rambo III.”) His falling out with the Taliban was over tactics, not ideology. The break took place before the worst of the Taliban crimes began, however.

Karzai spent his exile in Pakistan, which actively supported the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. When his father was assassinated in 1999, reputedly by Taliban agents, Karzai became a relentless opponent of the Taliban. The problem was that there was really only one genuine unifying force for the opponents of the Taliban: Ahmad Shah Massoud. Against him was ranged the forces of the Afghan government, the Pakistan military and Al-Qaeda, with its network of foreign jihadists and other Islamists inspired by its militarism.

The US failed to support Massoud in the mujahedin struggle, because it saw things in those days only through the polarized lens of the Soviet-American confrontation. America had long considered Pakistan its proxy in the anti-Soviet struggle in Central Asia, and it poured money and military aid into the country, ignoring Pakistan’s own foreign policy (which was becoming militantly anti-Indian), principally because India had tried to remain unaligned (something that Dulles felt was almost as bad as communism itself). The internal affairs of Pakistan did not much concern the US, particularly as the country seemed to be able to rid itself of democrats by means of its US-sponsored military, which kept the country firmly anti-communist (if also reactionary and anti-democratic). After the populist prime minister Ali Bhutto was deposed (and later executed), the US believed it had a reliable ally in Zia ul-Haq, and so looked to Pakistan’s guidance in how to fund the mujahedin struggle after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

President Carter’s reaction to the invasion was typical of his erratic fixations and overreactions: He called it the worst security threat since World War II. It certainly doesn’t take anywhere near that level of alarm to crank our national security apparatus into a full throttle weapons and military aid regurgitation mode. And when Reagan took over the money tap was turned on full. (Remember when $600 million a year was considered a considerable amount of money to be giving away for someone else’s war?) The money was spent as directed by Pakistan, which was careful to use it for the benefit of its Pashtun allies in the South, under the lead of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar was the ultimate modern war lord, ruthlessly killing erstwhile allies for his personal aggrandizement, associating himself with foreign jihadists, including Osama bin Laden, and eventually de-legitimizing the very government he was offered to take part in. His conduct was so deceitful that even Pakistan stopped backing him. In the end Pakistan decided to put its chips on the Pashtun force that would topple the “unity” government in Kabul, the Taliban.

Massoud continued to fight the Taliban in the North. The US lost interest in the whole affair once the Soviets withdrew and so the Taliban was able to create its regime of terror. Few cared much as the Taliban massacred the Shia and Hazara, deprived women of all civil rights, and imposed a fundamentalism that showed that Orwell, the Stalinists and Pol Pot all lacked sufficient imagination. After the American invasion in 2001, the New York Times would record some of the astonishingly detailed and banal rules of an extremist religious party determined to regulate every aspect of life:

“A kite seller will be imprisoned for three days. The owner of a house will be punished if women are heard singing during a wedding. No images or photographs are to be posted in public places. The following are considered ‘unclean things’: ‘pork, pig, pig oil, anything made from human hair, satellite dishes, cinematography, any equipment that produces the joy of music, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computer, VCR’s, televisions, anything that propagates sex and is full of music, wine, lobster, nail polish, firecrackers, statues, sewing catalogs, pictures, Christmas cards.'”

Karzai and other more secular nationalists would join Massoud who consolidated all anti-Taliban forces, but with no international support and facing a ruthless police state supported by Pakistan (and benefiting from the US aid that had flowed through Pakistan), Massoud did not make much headway. And then right before Al-Qaeda attacked the US, Massoud was assassinated on September 9, 2001 (perhaps to decapitate the Northern Alliance which would be the logical ally of the US when it sought to retaliate). Al-Qaeda’s hijackings in the US two days later proved to be at least a temporary misfortune for the Taliban because it brought US and other troops to the region and the Taliban was ejected from Kabul and for a time from Afghanistan altogether.

Karzai meanwhile improved on his own prospects at this time by emphasizing the need to decimate the Taliban. He was not a scheming blowhard like the Iraqi Chalibi, who had long since insinuated himself into the heart of the US neocon cabal and was planting stories in the New York Times through the gullible and upwardly mobile Judith Miller. Karzai was a genuine nationalist and a genuine Afghan. He was so adept at national politics that he became Chairman of the Interim Authority established by the Bonn Agreement of 2001. The Loya Jirga which was  convened in June 2002 to approve the newly drafted national constitution appointed Karzai interim president of the Transitional Authority pending elections to be held in 2004.

Despite the fact that his authority was so limited (owing to the ongoing civil war) that he could not leave Kabul without fear of assassination, it was his original appointments that evidently awakened dreams of Afghan royal glory in him. He became a walking fashion statement for the new royal Afghanistan with his well-tailored capes and his signature wool Karakul hat. He became adept in the feudal ways of Afghan ruling–dealing with local powers mostly by bartering power or privilege or money, since he had essentially no police power. He won the election in 2004; the UN found fraud, but not enough to invalidate the elections. Everyone was happy enough that it had been pulled off in the midst of Taliban threats of violence. He became the darling of the American neocons and their tools, Republican legislators. This was because he gave the illusion of making headway toward founding a democratic state (a stated goal of the neocons) while allowing the brunt of American forces to be used in an unrelated adventure, Iraq, the planning and execution of which the al-Qaeda attacks inconvenienced.

Meanwhile his brothers were making money hand over fist, one, it is said, by drugs and the other by the various deals which can be enjoyed when you are related to power, especially when that power is backed by the Treasury of the US government. Playing local oligarchs off against each other evidently was not the height of Karzai’s ambitions. Yes, he wanted to be re-elected, which he achieved by means of fraud massive enough to disturb the US government. But on top of that Karzai began a game of cozying up to Iran (his western neighbor) to protect himself from Pakistan (his eastern neighbor). This would have been sensible enough, arguably, except that his sponsor, the United States, has been whipped up into a frenzy over Iran (partly for historical reasons, partly because Iran threatened US hegemony in the Near East, and partly because Israel wants the US to continue stoking enmity against Iran). The influence that Iran acquired in the Middle East, of course, largely comes from the inept handling of the Iraq misadventure. But the only superpower on earth doesn’t regard its own malfeasance as a reason for things not coming out as it hoped.

Yet it was more than simply realpolitik Karzai was engaged in; it was large-scale fundamental corruption. He was accepting regular sums of cash from Iran delivered, literally by bag men, in plastic bags. The amounts, the methods, the secrecy, the source all would have shocked us down to our Max-Weber-protestant-ethic soul, if we hadn’t long ago psychologically checked out of this morass, concluding even before the shocking last piece of evidence was in, that it was a corrupt quagmire, different from Vietnam solely because we have not yet starting to use a lottery to decide who would be sent there to risk a senseless death.

You would think that the embarrassing money revelation would have humbled Karzai a bit or emboldened the US to threaten to throw him to the wolves, but not only did that not happen but Karzai has just recently delivered himself of a long diatribe lambasting his American sponsors for all his troubles. Ahmed Rashid had a “two hour animated conversation” with Karzai in the Presidential Palace and published his report on November 18 in the Financial Times (free registration required). The behavior of Karzai is stunning. According to Rashid, his political views have undergone a “dramatic change.” He blames the US for failing to require Pakistan to allow him to negotiate as he pleases with the Taliban. (Pakistan refuses to release  Taliban figures who had once negotiated with Kabul. Pakistan too is playing a many faced game.) He rejects charges the US has made against him and his government. He no longer supports the US “surge” in the South and he opposes the key NATO strategy–night raids–on the ground that it terrorizes the people and nets few insurgents. Most surprising is his wish to be done with NATO altogether so that he can establish a regional peace with Iran and Pakistan.

It’s hard to say whether Karzai has become unbalanced in some way (either mentally or because he has been thoroughly corrupted by Iran). Surely he can’t believe that he would receive the tender mercies of the Taliban if NATO weren’t there to protect him. Nor would Iran attempt to save his hide, no matter how much they are bribing him with now. It’s likely, therefore, that Karzai is playing the kind of game that our Asian clients have long since become adept at playing against us. He undoubtedly knows that notwithstanding US public opinion, our wise leaders would never “abandon” Karzai to the Iranians and Pakistan especially if he asks for it. Knowing that the President has promised to begin drawing down troops in the summer of  2011, he claims that the worst thing that could happen to him was to be thrown into the briar patch of continued US presence. You can see the game already producing results, because the US has now decided with NATO that another 3 years wouldn’t be so bad. But the US is really not even convinced that 2014 is enough time, contradicting NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on this very point.

What is eminently clear to everyone who is not trying to justify costly mistakes is that the situation is about to spiral out of control. Our involvement long ago lost its rationale. (We are not even making an effort to track down Al-Qaeda leaders. Didn’t candidate Obama promise to go into Pakistan if they refused to root Osama and cohorts out?) It’s also clear that after 9 years Karzai and his government have failed to create even the rudiments of national institutions. His brand of royal gamesmanship, balancing local powers against themselves, is not at all the strategy to deal with the nationalist forces and fundamentalist insanity of the Taliban. And so his exit strategy must be the usual one for our clients–a hefty bank account and retirement in some place like Southern France.

Until that inevitable end arrives, we will be pouring more money and treasure down that rat hole, while the right-wingers in this country dismantle our own society on the ground that we cannot afford to live as we used to and still make ourselves safe by supporting “allies” like Karzai. The Administration will fear being charged with having “lost” Afghanistan, just as the conservatives here have always irresponsibly used foreign adventures to intimidate democrats. So it will be checkmated by its opponents and its client and another Democratic administration will be wrecked because the President arrogantly believed he could ride a tiger and dismount whenever he pleased.

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