“We want the Americans to respect our sovereignty and be an honest partner. And bring a lot of money.”
Thus declared Afghan President Hamid Karzai to a council of his country’s tribal elders, the loya jirga. You have to hand it to him: No client regime before has shown such open disregard for its patron and protector. In its engagements in what used to be called the third world, the U.S. had the misfortune of riding with a bunch of unsavory rulers -- Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and so on.
During the Cold War, we cornered ourselves. It was either communism or these strongmen. None, I dare say, spoke with such open contempt of their American patrons as Karzai has.
If the expedition to the Hindu Kush was meant to teach the Afghans the saving graces of democracy, it has been Karzai’s pride to teach the Americans the ways of the Afghan hills. Here is Karzai, in 2009, about the baksheesh the Iranians gave his regime: “They do give us bags of money -- yes, yes, it is done. We are grateful to the Iranians for this.”
The foreigners have a role to play, he tells us. Bring the money and provide the military protection without which he would be hung from the turret of a tank or be lucky to make a run for it to Dubai.
My favorite Karzai utterance was made to a loya jirga in November 2011. “The lion doesn’t like it if a foreigner intrudes into his house. The lion doesn’t like it if a stranger enters his house. The lion doesn’t want his children to be taken by someone else in the night. The lion won’t let it happen. They should not interfere in the lion’s house: just guard the four sides of the forest.” That Afghan lion is a peculiar beast. It relies on other creatures to make its kills.
We have made Karzai the insolent “ally” he has become. We have driven up the strategic rent of these Afghan hills. Two presidents have declared over and again the importance of Afghanistan to the “war on terror,” first George W. Bush, then Barack Obama. Obama upped the ante. He declared Afghanistan the good war of necessity, the quintessential Sept. 11 war. He has made that war an essential part of his legacy.
The loya jirga that Karzai just assembled surprised the preening warlord by coming out in favor of an accord with the Americans. He was unmoved. He said he would leave the approval of a security pact to his successor.
The spectacle of American officials scurrying after Karzai, as signaled by the sudden arrival in Kabul on Monday of Susan Rice, the U.S. national security adviser, is demeaning, to say the least. We’re asking him for the privilege of protecting his country for years to come.
His truculence is no mystery. “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” wrote Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, in 2009. “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.”
This stark conclusion has been echoed in recent days by former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, a candidate for the presidency in next year’s race.
“This is dangerous,” he said. “He thinks the Americans are keen to stay in Afghanistan at any price and at any cost. That is not the reality. He thinks this is his personal duel with the American administration. This is not. It is about the future of Afghanistan.”
The ardor with which the Obama administration has been so keen to conclude this accord with Karzai stands in stark contrast to its eagerness to leave Iraq in 2011. Today the argument could be made that Iraq is of infinitely greater strategic importance than Afghanistan, and that a residual U.S. presence in Iraq would have served U.S. interests in that greater Middle East.
But Iraq wasn’t the “good war.” We didn’t haggle long in Baghdad. We made the Iraqis an offer they were meant to refuse: a token force that could have hardly defended itself, let alone been of help to the Iraqis.
With no national debate, with Congress mired in all sorts of disputes, Obama proposes a U.S. commitment in Afghanistan that runs to 2024. The hope that this commitment will produce a decent government that could defeat the Taliban is a thin reed. We should dispense with the illusion that the forces we train will stand up and fight, that an Afghan regime addicted to foreign handouts will come together when it truly matters.
With our guns and money, we have suspended the feuds of Afghanistan. When we truly pack up our gear, the hard truth of that country will win out. The warlords and the vultures will take what they can and leave the place to darkness and ruin.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is the author of The Syrian Rebellion.