This newspaper (NYT) carried a very troubling article on the front page on Monday. It detailed how President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan had invited Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Kabul — in order to stick a thumb in the eye of the Obama administration — after the White House had rescinded an invitation to Mr. Karzai to come to Washington because the Afghan president had gutted an independent panel that had discovered widespread fraud in his re-election last year.
The article, written by two of our best reporters, Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler, noted that “according to Afghan associates, Mr. Karzai recently told lunch guests at the presidential palace that he believes the Americans are in Afghanistan because they want to dominate his country and the region, and that they pose an obstacle to striking a peace deal with the Taliban.”
The article added about Karzai: “ ‘He has developed a complete theory of American power,’ said an Afghan who attended the lunch and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. ‘He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.’ ”
That is what we’re getting for risking thousands of U.S. soldiers and having spent $200 billion already. This news is a flashing red light, warning that the Obama team is violating at least three cardinal rules of Middle East diplomacy.
Rule No. 1: When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. Karzai brazenly stole last year’s presidential election. But the Obama foreign policy team turned a blind eye, basically saying, he’s the best we could get, so just let it go. See dictionary for Vietnam: Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky.
When you can steal an election, you can steal anything. How will we get this guy to curb corruption when his whole election, and previous tour in office, were built on corruption? How can we be operating a clear, build-and-hold strategy that depends on us bringing good governance to Afghans when the head of the government is so duplicitous?
Our envoy in Kabul warned us of this before the election, but in his case, too, we were told to look the other way. On Nov. 6, the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, wrote to Washington in a cable that was leaked: “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” he warned. “Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending ‘war on terror’ and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.”
One reason you violate Rule No. 1 is because you’ve already violated Rule No. 2: “Never want it more than they do.”
If we want good governance in Afghanistan more than Karzai, he will sell us that carpet over and over. How many U.S. officials have flown to Kabul — the latest being President Obama himself — to lecture Karzai on the need to root out corruption in his administration? Do we think he has a hearing problem? Or do we think he believes he has us over a barrel and, in the end, he can and will do whatever serves his personal power needs because he believes that we believe that he is indispensable for confronting Al Qaeda?
This rule applies equally to the Israeli prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. There is something wrong when we are chasing them — two men who live in biking distance from one another — begging, cajoling and pressuring them to come to a peace negotiation that should ostensibly serve their interests as much as our own.
Which leads to Rule No. 3: In the Middle East, what leaders tell you in private in English is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language.
When Karzai believes that the way to punish America for snubbing him is by inviting Iran’s president to Kabul — who delivered a virulently anti-U.S. speech from inside the presidential palace — you have to pay close attention to that. It means Karzai must think that anti-Americanism plays well on the streets of Afghanistan and that by dabbling in it himself — as he did during his presidential campaign — he will strengthen himself politically. That is not a good sign.
As Filkins and Landler noted, “During the recent American-dominated military offensive in the town of Marja — the largest of the war — Mr. Karzai stood mostly in the shadows.” And if Karzai behaves like this when he needs us, when we’re there fighting for him, how is he going to treat our interests when we’re gone?
We have thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan and more heading there. Love it or hate it, we’re now deep in it, so you have to want our engagement there to build something that is both decent and self-sustaining — so we can get out. But I still fear that Karzai is ready to fight to the last U.S. soldier. And once we clear, hold and build Afghanistan for him, he is going to break our hearts.