'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Happy Talk 

Perhaps, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the journalist who wrote this article for the Washington Post, has a dry sense of humor:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai began talking as soon as his luncheon guests had taken their seats in his wood-paneled dining room at the presidential palace in Kabul, across a long table covered with platters of lamb and rice, baskets of flatbread, and glasses of pomegranate juice.

Security was improving, he declared, according to two people in the room. The cultivation of opium-producing poppies had been eliminated in many areas. The economy was on the upswing. He looked across the table at the most important of his visitors and pledged to work closely with a new U.S. administration.

"I'm at your disposal, Senator Obama."

The Democratic presidential candidate listened intently but revealed few of his own views about Afghanistan over the two-hour lunch last July. It was not until later that day, as a U.S. government jet flew him to Kuwait, that Barack Obama confided in his two traveling companions, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and then- Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

Obama voiced concern that the situation was worse than Karzai had acknowledged, Hagel recalled. He "was not taken in," Hagel said, "by all of the happy talk."

Is it possible that Chandrasekaran recognized the irony of Hagel attributing one of the qualities that Americans associate with Obama, his rhetorical optimism, to Karzai? And, if so, is there a barbed commentary about Obama and his contemporary domestic challenges embedded within it? If so, he masterfully got it past his editor into print. It is the sort of subtle commentary that got reporters, artists and intellectuals into serious trouble under less permissive governments, such as Mao's China in the 1960s.

Or, is the humorous effect of the article merely an accidental consequence of a style of American journalism that takes itself all too seriously? I'd like to believe the former instead of the latter. In any event, there are other rewards for those who read the article in its entirety.

For example, we encounter, yet again, one of those nonsensical paradoxes of Obama policy:

For Karzai, an elegant and engaging politician renowned for his ability to forge compromises between warring factions, the new American coolness is unlikely to be a surprise. Ten days before Obama's inauguration, Karzai told Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. during a private meeting in Kabul that he looked forward to building with Obama the same sort of chummy relationship he had with Bush, which included frequent videoconferences and personal visits.

"Well, it's going to be different," Biden replied, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. "You'll probably talk to him or see him a couple of times a year. You're not going to be talking to him every week."

Come again? Obama has frequently described Afghanistan as the central front of the war on terror, and yet, he's only going to talk to Karzai once or twice a year? Maybe, I misunderstand, failing to recognize the subtext that Obama and Biden are going to relate to Afghanistan in an overtly imperial fashion, unlike Bush, who perpetuated the pretense that Afghanistan was an independent country, with an elected, independent President, Karzai.

You can certainly justify such a belief from a cursory reading of the remainder of the lengthy article, which describes the US involvement in Afghanistan in precisely such terms:

Although the administration says it will make no endorsement in the elections, Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, has made little secret in diplomatic circles of his desire to see candidates challenge the incumbent.

Chief among them is former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, who has a doctorate from Columbia University and has worked at the World Bank. But Ghani and others do not appear to have the support needed to trump Karzai, who has installed governors and sub-governors who can help his get-out-the-vote efforts. There have been reports that former ambassador Khalilzad, who remains active in Afghan politics, is pondering a run for the presidency, but he has denied any such intention.

Given the likelihood of a Karzai victory, the administration is seeking to increase its engagement with local and tribal leaders -- not to persuade them to forsake Karzai but to get them to be more effective administrators. Administration officials hope that improvements in local government, coupled with improvements in security, will persuade Afghans to stop supporting the Taliban.

No doubt astute American Leftist readers immediately recognized Ghani's invaluable credentials: a doctorate from Colombia and a resume that includes employment at the World Bank, you know, just the background that Afghans demand when deciding which candidate to support. And, then, there's Khalilzad, the former ambassador who remains active in Afghan politics. You don't say?

To see the humor in this, consider this passage:

In November 2003, as the U.S. engagement in Iraq was becoming more violent, the Bush administration dispatched Zalmay Khalilzad, its foremost expert on Afghanistan, as ambassador to Kabul. An animated former professor who speaks Dari and Pashto, the country's two principal languages, Khalilzad was far more than an ambassador. U.S. diplomats described his role as the country's chief executive -- with Karzai as the figurehead chairman -- for the 19 months of his ambassadorship.

By his own account, 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.

"Karzai was being his usual indecisive self, so Zal drove the steel rod up his spine," said a U.S. official.

Well, that probably wasn't as painful as the alternative. Of course, any article that openly describes the imperial pretense of the US occupation of the country must invariably reveal the hubris that comes with it:

For Karzai, a dinner in February 2008 with Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and two other committee members -- Hagel and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) -- was a portent of what a Democratic administration would bring.

"Mr. President, how are you attempting to control the corruption in your government?" Hagel recalled asking Karzai.

"Who is corrupt?" Karzai responded, according to Hagel. "Show me. Give me the names."

Hagel mentioned that U.S. and Afghan officials had accused one of Karzai's brothers, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the provincial council in Kandahar, of links to narcotics trafficking. But Hagel couldn't cite specifics, and Karzai refused to budge.

When the conversation moved to poppy cultivation, Karzai insisted that his government was making good progress.

"Mr. President, you're not doing very well," Biden responded, according to Hagel. "Your poppy production is at record levels."

On other subjects, according to Hagel and two others in the room, the discussion seesawed in the same way, with Biden disputing Karzai's claims of progress.

The back-and-forth circled back to corruption, and when Karzai again refused to acknowledge any problem, Biden stood up and threw his napkin on the table.

"This dinner is over," he said, according to Hagel and the others in the room.

Although senior Obama administration officials believe that Karzai needs to remove his brother from his post in Kandahar, they have been unable force his hand. Last year, then-national security adviser Stephen Hadley asked then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden to find evidence of Ahmed Wali Karzai's alleged corruption, according to a former senior Bush administration official. Hayden eventually told Hadley, according to the official, "There are allegations all over the place, but in terms of hard evidence, we don't have it."

When Obama saw President Karzai last summer, however, the Afghan leader had eased his line on corruption.

"He didn't deny it," said Hagel, who was at the meeting. "He acknowledged they had a problem and that it was serious."

Fortunately, I wasn't drinking coffee when I read this passage, because, otherwise, I would have sprayed it across the room. Beyond taking the boorishness of Biden as a given, typical of his tendency to see himself as a 21st Century Raj, redrawing the boundaries of countries and all, the hypocrisy of this, in light of the subsequent actions of the Obama administration, is astounding. Obama and Biden subjected Karzai to a morally condescending inquiry about corruption and poppy cultivation, not realizing that they would perpetuate one of the most corrupt enterprises in world history, the looting of the government by transnational financial institutions.

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