‘They do give us bags of money—yes, yes, it is done, we are grateful to the Iranians for this.” This is the East, and baksheesh is the way of the world, Hamid Karzai brazenly let it be known this week. The big aid that maintains his regime, and keeps his country together, comes from the democracies. It is much cheaper for the Iranians. They are of the neighborhood, they know the ways of the bazaar.
The remarkable thing about Mr. Karzai has been his perverse honesty. This is not a Third World client who has given us sweet talk about democracy coming to the Hindu Kush. He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity. We are there, but on his and his family’s terms. Bags of cash, the reports tell us, are hauled out of Kabul to Dubai; there are eight flights a day. We distrust the man. He reciprocates that distrust, and then some. Our deliberations leak, we threaten and bully him, only to give in to him. And this only increases his lack of regard for American tutelage. We are now there to cut a deal—the terms of our own departure from Afghanistan.
The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war—and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty—there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan. By latest cruel count, more than 1,300 American service members have fallen in Afghanistan. For these sacrifices, Mr. Karzai shows little, if any, regard.
In his latest outburst, Mr. Karzai said the private security companies that guard the embassies and the development and aid organizations are killer squads, on a par with the Taliban. “The money dealing with the private security companies starts in the hallways of the U.S. government. Then they send the money for killing here,” Mr Karzai said. It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
The brutal facts about Afghanistan are these: It is a broken country, a land of banditry, of a war of all against all, and of the need to get what can be gotten from the strangers. There is no love for the infidels who have come into the land, and no patience for their sermons.
In its wanderings through the Third World, from Korea and Vietnam to Iran and Egypt, it was America’s fate to ride with all sorts of clients. We betrayed some of them, and they betrayed us in return. They passed off their phobias and privileges as lofty causes worthy of our blood and treasure. They snookered us at times, but there was always the pretense of a common purpose. The thing about Mr. Karzai is his sharp break with this history. It is the ways of the Afghan mountaineers that he wishes to teach us.
When they came to power, the Obama people insisted they would teach Mr. Karzai new rules. There was a new man at the helm in Washington, and there would be no favored treatment, no intimacy with the new steward of American power. Governance would have to improve, and skeptical policy makers would now hold him accountable (Vice President Joe Biden, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, et al.). Mr. Karzai took their measure, and everywhere around him there were signs of American retreat, such as the spectacle of the Pax Americana eager to reach a grand bargain with the Iranian theocrats.
Mr. Karzai didn’t need to be a grand strategist. He had, as is necessary in his world of treachery and betrayal, his ear to the ground, his scent for the irresolution of the Obama administration. He saw the scorn of Iran’s cruel leaders for America’s diplomatic approaches. He could see Iranian power extend all the way to the Mediterranean, right up to Israel’s borders with Lebanon and to Gaza. The Iranians were next door and the Americans were giving away their fatigue. Why not accept the entreaties from Tehran?
A year ago, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, laid out the truth about Mr. Karzai and his regime in a secret cable that of course made its way into the public domain. “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” Mr. Eikenberry wrote. The Karzai regime could not bear the weight of a counterinsurgency doctrine that would win the loyalty of the populace. There were monumental problems of governance but “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.” In Mr. Eikenberry’s cable, Mr. Karzai is a man beyond redemption, who was unlikely to “change fundamentally this late in his life and in our relationship.”
In one of his great tales of the imperial age, “Lord Jim,” Joseph Conrad depicts the encounter between a criminal and a noble figure. “Gentleman” Brown and a band of robbers had come into Tuan Jim’s domain—a small world, Patusan, where Jim’s writ ran and the natives honored and deferred to him. Everything was on the side of Jim—possession, security, power. But Brown senses the hidden irresoluteness of Jim, a man who had come to this remote, small world in the Pacific in search of redemption. We are equal, says Brown: “What do you know more of me than I know of you? What did you ask for when you came here?” Jim pays with his life. He had let the ruffian set the terms of the encounter.
A big American project, our longest war, is now waged with doubt and hesitation, and our ally on the scene has gone rogue, taking the coin of our enemies and scoffing at our purposes. Unlike the Third World clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy. He is a different kind of client, but then, too, our authority today is but a shadow of what it once was.
Mr. Ajami is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.