Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that interim Afghan prime minister Hamid Karzai was the darling of Washington? There he was during President Bush's State of the Union address, making a fashion statement that was lovingly analyzed by various fawning commentators – the cape, hat, shirt and trousers were apparently characteristic of different regions in Afghanistan and wearing them all symbolized bringing the country together.
What a paragon of political wisdom! What a dashing collaborator in the war on terrorism! What a feather in the administration political cap! What a symbol of gravitas, good will and the eternal hope that nation-building will actually work this time! If Hamid Karzai had stuck around Washington long enough he probably could have created a groundswell for the US presidency – except for that pesky little constitutional provision about being native born, which is also keeping Arnold Schwarzenegger from fulfilling his manifest destiny. And I don't care about subsequent events, I still want one of those cool Mazar-e-Sharif capes, even if it's a fad shared by others, which I usually shun. TODDLING TO TEHRAN
So what was Washington's newest favorite doing earlier this week speaking to the Iranian Majis or parliament? Was he boldly declaring his solidarity with his American patrons, whose president had specifically declared that Iran was one of the three members of the "Axis of Evil" worth criticizing by name? Was he courageously telling the Iranian legislators that they had better change their ways and get in line, or the United States would slap them into shape and he would be cheering from the neighboring border? Well, not exactly.
What Karzai delivered to the Iranian parliament was not a stern ultimatum but a message of thanks. Thanks for supporting Afghanistan in the 1980s war against Soviet domination and tyranny. Thanks for being there for Afghan refugees. And thanks for not supporting the Taliban regime – at least not as strongly as did Pakistan, America's most essential ally in the fabled war on terrorism.
"We will never forget your support of the Afghan nation's struggle against the former Soviet Union and later against terrorists," Karzai told the Iranian legislators, who cheered almost as wildly as did US legislators on January 29. "You have shared our sorrows and pains," he said a bit later, "and millions of our refugees have been a big burden on your shoulders." The speech was broadcast live on Iranian state-run radio.
Karzai also met with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He listened respectfully to a lecture about how Afghanistan "should be careful that the issue of reconstruction is not exploited by others [Great Satan, anyone?] to infiltrate Afghanistan politically and economically." In response, Karzai assured the ayatollah that "demands for Islam and independence will determine the destiny of Afghanistan."
PURSUING REAL INTERESTS
Is Hamid Karzai a treacherous hypocrite who should be unseated immediately by the wise nation-builders at the Weekly Standard – or more likely by their preferred surrogates, the US military – rather than waiting for his six-month interregnum period to end? I've heard of grumbling in certain quarters in Washington, but it's been relatively quiet and is unlikely to result in any action.
That's because, as Ted Carpenter, honcho of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute told me, that Karzai is fairly shrewdly covering his bases and playing smart regional politics. Iran has traditionally meddled in Afghanistan and there is a relatively active separatist move by warlords in the western part of country. Hamid Karzai has probably received quiet assurances that Iran won't actively or overtly support western secessionists in exchange for nice words – and perhaps more concrete assurances that the Karzai regime will be solicitous of Iran's interests.
The issue is a fairly live one. One Gulbiddin Hekmatyar, a Afghan warlord currently in exile in Iran, has been branded a "war criminal" by Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Omar Samad. "He will be treated as a war criminal if he decides to return," said Samad.
Conveniently enough, the Iranian government closed Hekmatyar's offices in Iran earlier this month, a move the Associate Press figured was "apparently aimed at easing tensions with the United States." It probably didn't hurt relations with the provisional government in Afghanistan either. Indeed, it may have been a necessary precondition for the glowing words about Iran Karzai uttered earlier this week. The $500 million over the next five years that Iran has pledged for reconstruction in Afghanistan probably helped as well.
UNDERMINING RHETORICAL OVERKILL
The United States seems unlikely to interfere with all this calculated lovey-doveyness between Iran and Afghanistan, then, although warhawks who want to take the "axis of evil" nonsense seriously might try to get the US government to slap his wrist or pressure him to be beastly to Iran. That kind of hands-off policy would be a triumph of relative realism.
But the fact that the United States is likely to acquiesce in Karzai's attempt to neutralize any potential threat from Iran underlines the vapidity of the "axis of evil" rhetoric. As many commentators have noted, while there are certainly evil things about the regimes Iraq, Iran and North Korea, there's no evidence that they are allied in anything resembling an axis. And while all of them might be said to pose a potential threat to US interests imperially conceived, none of them are an immediate threat.
One wonders if an unstated backing away from the rhetorical overkill of the State of the Union address is behind the recent confirmation that David Frum, the ambitious Canadian neoconservative writer, is leaving the White House speechwriting staff. The story is that Mr. Frum formulated the notorious headline-grabbing combination of words and his wife, writer Danielle Crittenden, bragged about it in an e-mail to friends that somehow made it to the public prints, leading to a modest amount of handwringing about the journalistic ethics of publicizing private e-mails.
As Robert Novak and the Drudge Report said yesterday, Frum and the White House deny any connection, of course, saying that Frum had already decided to leave and had made his intentions known before the State of the Union speech was delivered. However, President Bush, during his recent visit to South Korea, had already backed away from the most bellicose implications of his comments about North Korea. Maybe he's backing away – without saying so, of course – from the idea that these three countries deserve the most intense prewar scrutiny.
On the other hand, according to any number of people in Washington I have talked to in recent months – and a couple of stories – Dubya is said to be more hard-nosed than any president in recent memory on the matter of leaks from the White House. He has apparently told staffers that any leaks, even benevolent ones, will lead to immediate sackings, and most staffers have no doubt he means it.
The possibility that the masters of the universe in Washington will let Hamid Karzai look after Afghanistan's relations with its neighbors raises the possibility that the urge to engage in ambitious nation-building might be resisted as well. The evidence – based on inferences from public statements, not anything resembling inside information – is that a fairly large-scale struggle among the Bushies is now underway.
Last week Colin Powell, who seems to have been captured thoroughly by his State Department constituency and forgotten his earlier aversion to nation-building, dropped hints that the US should prepare for a long-term commitment in Afghanistan that might involve the presence of up to 30,000 troops. It is certainly true that the level of chaos and intergroup conflict in Afghanistan has risen of late, and stability might be seen as a chimerical rather than a realistic hope. This week Gen. Tommy Franks, without openly referring to Powell's comments, said that the United States should be thinking about wrapping up military operations in Afghanistan as quickly as possible. My read is that the uniformed services (as did Secretary Powell when he was still in the military) still prefer that the military be used for combat or combat-like operations with something resembling clear objectives and exit strategies. Meanwhile the diplomats are still entranced by the idea of shaping the world and using the military to get recalcitrant countries to resemble the bureaucratized social democracies that are the degraded ideal these days.
But intergroup conflict has been the norm in Afghanistan for decades, though there have been periods of relative calm. The country was formed not from any logical grouping of ethnic, social or historical concatenation of interests, but as a buffer between the old British and Russian empires. It might or might not survive as a unified country. Trying to build a centralized bureaucracy there – the kind of institution most nation-builders view as the desirable norm – is more likely to intensify conflicts than to ameliorate them. The whole Afghan situation might become moot, of course, as various forces in Washington prepare for what seems an inevitable confrontation with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. I'd count on something macho before the November elections.