In what may be one of the most duplicitous betrayals since Benedict Arnold, we now have reports that our erstwhile Afghan ally, President Hamid Karzai, is negotiating behind our backs with our, and presumably his, Taliban enemies.
We should have seen it coming. The signs were there all along.
On my last trip to Afghanistan, several years ago, I sat waiting in the conference room of one of Karzai’s aides.
The room was large, with a beautiful polished wooden table, plush sofas and chairs. I was accompanied by two of America’s best diplomats – an experienced foreign service officer and a former military officer.
They were bland-looking in their polyester blend suits, but they were hardworking and dedicated and experienced in the intricacies of Afghan history and politics.
We had some time to chat, and both said they had been posted to Kabul months ago and missed their families back home, but they thought their mission was worth the sacrifice.
They also warned me that the aide I was hoping to interview often ran behind schedule and was, as they said, “a bit flashy.”
The aide breezed in nearly an hour late, fluttering his hand about some minor difficulty with his new armored Mercedes.
He was young, maybe mid-20s, wearing a superbly tailored three-piece, light-weight wool suit, and flashing a gold Rolex on his wrist, which he kept checking every few minutes.
I kept thinking I should check my wallet. This guy would be herding goats in the mountains if it weren’t for America’s generosity.
I asked him about the long-term prospects in Afghanistan, and about when his country would be strong enough to stand on its own.
He said it would take another 10 years, and that they were making plans for continued U.S.-Afghanistan programs that would go to 2030.
In other words, he was counting on American protection and largesse for decades to come.
When I expressed some skepticism, he countered with how essential Afghanistan was to American security. He implied that the Karzai government was the only thing preventing Al Qaeda from coming back and plotting more September 11th attacks on Americans.
Not only did this young man have a vaulted sense of his own importance, he had a similar view of his nation’s importance.
If it weren’t for the fact that we were spending considerable amounts of American blood and treasure to support the likes of him in Afghanistan, I would have told him his ambitions were absurd and laughed in his face.
We are now treated to the spectacle of his boss, Hamid Karzai, behaving even more egregiously.
He is stalling an agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan that outlines conditions for a U.S. presence once our combat troops leave by the end of the year.
He regularly flirts with the Taliban and is reportedly in secret negotiations with them. He even more regularly blames everything bad that happens on the Americans. He has become the world’s leading ungrateful whiner.
Pundits scratch their heads and speculate about why Karzai is behaving so badly. Does he have a personality disorder? Is he off his medications? Is he under so much pressure that he is starting to crack?
Balderdash. He is just behaving in the time-honored Afghan tradition of hedging his bets and changing sides.
He was our ally as long as we were in Afghanistan propping him up and spending vast amounts of money there.
For 10 years he has told us what he knew we wanted to hear – that he was uniting the Afghan tribes and building a new, pro-American democratic nation.
He promised the military and police were making great strides and could soon stand as a bulwark against Al Qaeda and radical Islam. He promised he was vigorously rooting out incompetence and corruption.
But President Karzai knows the winds of war are shifting. Americans are on the way out, and the Taliban are coming back in. So it’s time for him to switch sides and try to convince the Taliban he was their man all along. What better way to do that than trash-talk America?
Karzai knows that once we leave, he’s on his own, with an incompetent army and police that won’t fight for him, a corrupt government, and surrounded by Afghan tribes that hate him. And while the Americans may have rules of engagement, the Taliban don’t.
Karzai is worried he will end up like his predecessor, President Mohammed Najibullah: tortured, mutilated, dragged through Kabul behind a truck and hanged upside-down from a lamppost.
And if the Taliban don’t buy it, Karzai has a Plan B. He and his cronies will be on the last American helicopter out of Kabul, weighted down with bags of gold, en route to their secret Swiss bank accounts.
The question isn’t what’s wrong with Karzai, it’s what’s wrong with us? Why did we look the other way amid corruption and drug dealings? Were we really naïve enough to believe the Afghans wanted Western-style democracy? Did it not occur to us that they told us what we wanted to hear so we would defeat their enemies and stay and build them a nation?
The Bamiyan Valley is a beautiful valley in central Afghanistan, nestled in the Hindu Kush Mountains and surrounded on all sides by limestone cliffs.
On one side are large empty niches that once held the 100-foot Bamiyan Buddhas, hand-carved by Buddhists in the fifth century but destroyed by the Taliban in the 20th Century.
On another side of the valley are the ruins of an entire city carved into the limestone cliffs a thousand years ago.
In the 13th century Genghis Khan killed every man, woman and child in retribution for killing his son in a siege, and it became known as the City of Screams.
On a third side of the Bamiyan Valley is the NATO base, home to a New Zealand contingent.
When I met with the base commander, he said he was proud to be there because his great, great grandfather had been in the British Army and was posted in the same region in the 1880s. At the bottom of the valley are several Russian tanks, remnants of the disastrous Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s.
All came, all eventually left. The only thing that endures is the farmer I met who was walking behind two oxen and a wooden plow, planting his field in the same way his ancestors had done for thousands of years. Nearby, his wife was washing clothes, by hand, in the stream.
I drove away from the farmer along the brand new Laura Bush Highway. The only other people on the road were a boy riding a donkey and an old man herding his goats. It was in stark contrast to the roads of New York, with traffic jams and potholes.
Several years ago I met with a leading Afghan government official at his home in Jalalabad. It was a beautiful spring day, with the Kabul River snaking below us and the perfume of roses wafting up to the rooftop veranda.
We spent a lazy afternoon talking first about current events and then moving on to the longer view – the future of Afghanistan, the region, and especially the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan in the years ahead.
I warned him that America would not stay in Afghanistan forever, that we would eventually grow tired and leave no matter what the outcome.
He bowed his head and said, ‘We know you will leave. But we are a poor people and you a rich people. We will try to get as much from you and we can before you do leave. Please don’t think too badly of my people. This is our way.”
What happens next in Afghanistan is all too predictable.
We will leave, the Taliban will come back, the Afghan tribes will engage in yet another brutal civil war. Afghanistan will once again be left to the Afghans to sort out.
Hamid Karzai will retire in luxury in Dubai and write a book. And that farmer in the Bamiyan Valley will continue to plow his field, and his wife will continue to walk to the stream, with a basket of clothes on her head, to do the week’s washing.