By Stanley Kutler
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, according to a New York Times report last week, admittedly accepts large cash payments from the Iranian government. The political and religious dynamics of the region are complex. Iran obviously has an interest in keeping the Taliban at a distance and at the same time countering Pakistan’s influence in the area. In this caldron of intrigue we have a huge American expenditure in treasure and blood aimed at keeping Afghanistan in our camp, so to speak.
Umar Daudzai, Karzai’s chief of staff, is the acknowledged conduit for the Iranian money. Their “relationship is intimate,” an Afghan political leader said of Daudzai and the Iranians. The Times article obligingly noted that it is not clear whether Daudzai has personally profited, but then he is reported to own at least six homes in varying places, including Dubai and Vancouver, Canada—all acquired since he became Karzai’s chief of staff.
Imperial powers must operate with a level of collaboration from native groups. The clients, of course, have their own interests, and sometimes the tail wags the dog. But the historical landscape is littered with failures of the breed, marked by corruption, ineptitude and unreliability.
Think of the American experience in then-South Vietnam. The country did not survive, let alone its leaders. Is it déjà vu all over again? In 1954, we created a classic state where there had been none. In a whirlwind of publicity, we anointed Ngo Dinh Diem as president of South Vietnam. The old “China lobby” saw him as a savior who would rescue East Asia from the clutches of Red China and immediately hailed him as the “George Washington of Asia.” (How we trifle with the reputations of our great leaders!) Diem was a Catholic in a Buddhist country and with little indigenous following, perhaps except for his Catholic brethren, then refugees from the Vietminh state in the north.
In nine years of rule, Diem managed to alienate large segments of his country’s populace, amid what was to become a familiar pattern of authoritarianism and nepotism involving his relatives, most notably his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, an opium addict attracted to the Gestapo practices of the Nazi regime. Corruption was rife within Diem’s family, involved as it was in drug dealings, rice contracts with the U.S. government, and coerced contributions to the Catholic Church—headed in South Vietnam by Ngo Dình Thuc, archbishop of Hue, who happened to be Diem’s older brother. Madame Nhu labored mightily to install her version of morality upon the Vietnamese.
Diem eventually alienated his own military, which carried out a coup on Nov. 1, 1963, resulting in the assassination of Diem and Nhu. The U.S. military secretly promised the conspiring South Vietnam generals that Washington would not interfere. Thereafter a succession of incompetent and corrupt generals “governed” what was left of the country. Remember the likes of Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky? They became president and vice president, respectively, while we suffered the embarrassment of Ky’s admiration for Adolf Hitler.
We do not do coups well, and for our trouble we gained 10 more years of fruitless war, paid for with our men and materiel and presided over by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, each determined not to lose the war and to gain “peace with honor.” Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, chief of naval operations, said there were two words that did not characterize the Nixon-Kissinger 1973 peace accords: peace and honor. North Vietnam’s negotiator refused to accept a Nobel Prize for peace; Kissinger has yet to return his.
Enter President Karzai. Like Diem, he has held power as a result of corrupt elections, featuring the not-so-invisible hands of his American backers. Once again, we have bet the mortgage on one leader, no matter how inept and corrupt he might be. Karzai is playing off various sides, eagerly accepting the largesse and patronage of at least two governments, each with its own interests. Karzai has admitted that Iran has lavished millions of dollars in regular payments to him and his entourage. He has used the Iranian money, according to the New York Times story, to buy the allegiance of elected officials and insurgent commanders. Are we not to believe that Karzai has personally enriched himself, too?
Iran’s motives are difficult to fathom. Some American and NATO officials simply believe that Iran has conducted an aggressive campaign inside Afghanistan to undermine the U.S. mission and to gain influence in local politics.
Tunnel vision abounds; demons may not always be what they appear. Iran clearly has other fish to fry in the region. Consider its long, eastern contiguous border with Afghanistan; look, too, at its similar border with Pakistan. Iran, we might remember, did nothing to interfere with the American invasion of Afghanistan, supposedly undertaken to wipe out the Taliban, almost a decade ago. Perhaps Iranian concerns and motives should be obvious to American military commanders. Iran certainly would prefer the passive Karzai regime to a resurgent Taliban, openly aided by our supposed ally Pakistan.
We are once again waist-deep and sinking in a quagmire. We have a client state that is difficult to control and pursuing its own interests. At the same time, President Barack Obama is now captive to Karzai and the American military, and he is saddled with an increasingly unpopular, intractable war. To reverse that course, he undoubtedly will have to clash with current U.S. military leaders. When he had the opportunity and when it was right to begin our disengagement, the president instead raised our stake, fearful both of letting Karzai fail and rejecting the adventurism of his military people.
Obama’s Afghanistan war inevitably will become entangled in our already poisoned domestic politics. We can only guess at the turmoil and anguish that await us.
Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.
White House / Pete Souza
President Hamid Karzai chats with President Barack Obama during dinner at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, last March 28.