Or Our Rivals

“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.” It’s an intriguing comment for an ally to make. (See, “Afghan Leader Is Seen To Flout Influence of U.S.”)

On one level, it may well reflect that we are not reliable allies for him personally. In so far as we oppose his efforts to preserve his and his family’s influence at all costs, we might not be the ally he wants. Similarly, if we oppose other forms of corruption in the country or we want to intervene to ensure more fair elections, we might be seen as wanting to “dominate” by replacing feudal and tribal ways of doing business with alien western ways. In that sense, he may believe, we may not “understand” how his profoundly indigenous and traditional culture works.

Last week I commented on Newsweek’s account of the massive waste and corruption in the largely unsuccessful effort to train an Afghan police force. That too seemed based on a cultural disparity. Without a tradition of public service transcending tribal and family loyalties, or a system of public education, it may be unrealistic to expect a police force we would recognize.

But what about our judgment in yoking our war effort to this ally? Rebuked over his effort to dismiss the commission investigating election fraud, he retaliated by inviting Iran’s president to give a talk in the presidential palace in Kabul, a talk in which the U.S. was bitterly attacked. No doubt, tribal cultures do understand loyalty and betrayal as much as we do.

Friday’s Times carries an account of a recent rambling speech in which he accused us and other allied forces in Afghanistan of “perpetrating the fraud that denied him an outright victory in last summer’s presidential elections.” Peter Galbraith, former deputy UN representative to Afghanistan, called Mr. Karzai’s speech “absurd,” adding that it “underscores how totally unreliable this guy is as an ally.” (See, “Afghan President Rebukes West and U.N.”)

Saturday, The Times reported that Karzai called Hillary Clinton to express “surprise” at the reaction his comments aroused, blaming the press. The White House had called the comments “troubling,” but the Times reported that it caused “consternation” in Washington. (See, “In Call, Karzai Tries To Clarify a Diatribe.”)

Diplomats are concerned that his statements may undermine support in the west for this unpopular war. But that is the least of it. Is the war viable under these circumstances?

Karzai’s comments may be “absurd,” as Galbraith says, but, on the other hand, how did we get into this absurd situation? The Bush and Obama administrations cannot have been ignorant of Karzai’s character, temperament and interests. Did they underestimate his volatility? Did they feel we had no choice? Is this another gigantic miscalculation on our part, like the WMD in Iraq?

It’s possible that Karzai is “crazy like a fox,” playing to his local supporters and neighbors. But he seems easily wounded, petulant, impulsive. And even in the official language of diplomacy, Clinton sounds like she’s talking to a child, trying to strike the right balance between sympathy and firmness.