At Large

No Kumbaya in Kabul

Not just McChrystal and the White House, but no one seems to be getting along in Afghanistan.

By 6.23.10

There appears to be one thing on which all parties can agree regarding Afghanistan. No one seems to be getting along with each other. Hamid Karzai took Barack Obama's tongue lashing in March on the subject of graft in Kabul exactly as one would expect. The make-up trip to Washington was pure show. Karzai has barely concealed his contempt for a man he has confided to friends is a political novice.

Starting things off was the leaked Nov. '09 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry  saying, "President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner." Eikenberry and Karzai no longer talk. No one wonders why. The cable also trashed General Stanley McChrystal's surge strategies, so presumably the American ambassador and the general also don't talk very much anymore. After the exposure in print of McChrystal's aides' disparaging remarks concerning White House understanding of the political military issues in Afghanistan (and the apparent agreement of McChrystal himself regarding those remarks), the discipline of internal diplomacy appears non-existent.

Then there is the oft-repeated rumor that President Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, also doesn't have a friendly relationship with President Karzai. Of course there is nothing really new in that situation because there are many people with whom Holbrooke doesn't get along. Being brilliant but overbearing has been the knock on this gentleman for many years.

There are many simplistic answers given when the question is asked as to why such conflict and turmoil seems to be standard operating procedure for this part of the world. Aside from the ever present dust, heat or cold of which most visitors complain, the explanation offered by White House and DoD insiders is the conveniently irrelevant, "Well, you know, Karzai's brother is tied to the drug trade, makes millions of dollars from U.S. aid programs, has a private army, etc. And by the way, the Taliban are being paid off not to attack NATO supply convoys." Hmm, that surely explains everything.

On top of all this the Afghan Minister of Interior and the head of the National Directorate of Security, aka the chief intelligence officer, have resigned as a result of the Taliban launching some rockets into President Karzai's peace jirga. There is a consensus in Kabul's press circles that no one in Afghanistan really believes that's why they quit. But at least the explanation served its purpose and didn't scare the horses, as Queen Victoria would have said.

Nobody was upset at the departure of the two excellent English-speakers other than the CIA and SIS (MI-6) chiefs of station, as well as perhaps their Russian counterpart. There's an old Afghan saying that roughly translates into meaning you can't tell the players without a scorecard. It's quite applicable in this case.

Hanif Atmar, the former interior minister, started off in the late 1980s as a member of the KGB-trained Khad secret police, the mainstay of the Kabul government during the Soviet occupation. Unfortunately young Hanif lost one of his legs fighting the mujahedeen and fled to London with others of the waning communist era under President Najibullah. Atmar attended the University of York where he studied information technology and international economic development. Eventually this led him to the posts of minister of rural development and subsequently interior minister under his fellow Pashtun, Hamid Karzai. Here's where the scorecard comes in.

Amrullah Saleh has been an old friend of the United States ever since he was deputy intelligence chief for the late great British/American paramilitary asset, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader. Though an ethnic Tajik from the north, Saleh made the transition to the Karzai entourage in 2004 as head of Afghan intelligence joining his fellow northerner, Abdullah Abdullah, who was foreign minister.

Karzai and Abdullah always were competitive and the relationship disintegrated when Abdullah decided to challenge for the presidency. Obviously Saleh was tainted by his earlier relationship with Abdullah and the Northern Alliance's close U.S. contact. Karzai wanted that special relationship to be strictly his alone. Pakistani intelligence (ISI) presumably are happy to see Saleh go as he had been actively campaigning against them at every turn regarding their aid to the Taliban.

Suitable for a man who had spent a good portion of the '90s managing a neighborhood restaurant in Chicago, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother, apparently had worked out a "live and let live" arrangement with Hanif Atmar, so at worst he is of two minds with the passage of the former KGB-trained minister of interior. Not unexpectedly neither the Russian rezident in Kabul nor any of the numerous British Foreign Office reps who had close relations with the York alumnus have offered comment.

Musical political chairs is an old Afghan tradition. It provides work for all who are worthy and many who aren't. The intrigue around the Karzai court apparently has infected the American and British side just as earlier Afghan politics played havoc with Russian efforts to secure the country to their end. Vietnam often has been mentioned in explaining Afghanistan; the number of casualties may be smaller, but unfortunately the endless intrigue and backbiting of Saigon seems to be well replicated in Kabul.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.