Brilliant Reportage on Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 5/6/2009 · 1 comment

In stark contrast to the normal complaints about Afghanistan is this excellent report by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. While the overall point of the piece was about President Obama isolating President Karzai, there were a ton of nuggets buried in there with enormous implications.

Before we look at those, however, I think it’s worth addressing a point Spencer Ackerman raised on this issue: is the Obama administration’s approach to Karzai isn’t “beginning to seem like anything-but-Bush-ism?” It kind of is, and that’s dangerous. While it is appropriate and long overdue to end the weird Butch Cassidy thing Bush had with Karzai, shunning and undermining the democratically elected president of an allied country on whose soil we have deployed tens of thousands troops—whose purpose is, after all, propping up the legitimate, democratically elected government—strikes me as distinctly counterproductive. This isn’t the first time the issue of Obama’s isolation has come up, and it probably won’t be the last.

Anyway, onto to the alarming anecdotes in Chandrasakeran’s piece.

In order, because there’s no other way to take them.

By his own account, [Zalmay] Khalilzad ate dinner six nights a week at the presidential palace, where he met with Karzai and his advisers into the evening. No significant decision was made by Karzai in that time without Khalilzad’s involvement, and sometimes his cajoling and prodding, the diplomats said.

A vivid demonstration of Khalilzad’s influence occurred in 2004, after a paroxysm of factional fighting in western Afghanistan involving Ismail Khan, a warlord who was the governor of Herat province. It was clear to Khalilzad that Khan needed to go, but Karzai was hesitant. So Khalilzad flew to Herat for discussions with Khan and announced that Khan would be moving to Kabul to become a cabinet minister. A few days later, Karzai issued an edict to that effect.

Considering the role he played in trying to electioneer Benazir Bhutto back into power in Pakistan, I think it’s safe to say that Khalilzad is one of our most disastrous officials in the government.

By late 2006, as concern grew in the White House over Karzai’s leadership, Bush initiated biweekly videoconferences with Karzai, just as he was doing with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“It was a conversation. It was a dialogue. It was a lot of ‘How are you doing? How is your son?’ ” according to a senior U.S. government official who attended some of the sessions. Karzai sometimes placed his infant son on his lap during the conversations. “President Bush felt very strongly that these two emerging leaders were so central to U.S. interests that he saw their coaching, their mentoring, as one of his central tasks,” the official said.

That is a remarkably condescending way to treat two other grown men who happen to be the heads of state of their respective countries.

But the familiarity came at a cost. In late 2007, Bush’s National Security Council authorized aerial spraying of poppy fields because of concern that drug profits were financing the Taliban, according to that official and another senior Bush administration official. Bush was passionate about spraying. “I’m a spray man myself,” he declared, according to one of the officials.

The plan, according to the officials, was to force the Karzai government to accede to spraying, and then use that acquiescence to overcome opposition from the U.S. military and the British government, whose troops were deployed in the areas of greatest poppy cultivation.

But when Karzai objected during a videoconference, saying the sight of spray planes would “look like chemical warfare” to the Afghan people, Bush backed down.

“He had come to the point where he related so closely to Karzai that he yielded to his instincts,” the official said. “When it becomes personal, and it becomes more like partnership edging toward friendship, the personal dynamics are such that it’s harder to put the heat on.”

In other words, Bush used the power of his convictions to attempt to force a policy not a single player in Afghanistan wanted, and only relented because his buddy leaned on him. In every sense of the word, that is appalling leadership. As one former official said, “The president of the United States had become the case officer for Afghanistan,” which is a profoundly disturbing thing to realize when we ponder the deliberate and sustained starving of resources for Afghanistan under Bush.

There is a great deal more, and the story is well worth reading in full. Major kudos to Rajiv for this reportage—even if it misses some of the broader implications, it is important that this kind of reporting gets out into public more.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Farhad May 6, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Khalilzad played the role of a grand wazirs (wazir-i kabir), which has always been common in Afghan history when weak rulers are in power. The grand wazir makes and executes on decisions. During his time in Afghanistan, there was much progress that was made but it was not long lasting.

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