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What Lesson to Draw from Hamid Karzai?

When the United States and the international community agreed to an interim Afghan government at the Bonn Conference more than a decade ago, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pushed for Hamid Karzai. Karzai, they believed, was pliable. At the same time, Karzai was a figure who had relations with everyone—he had even been part of the Taliban before 1996. Never mind that Karzai was an opportunist who simply jumped on whichever horse he felt was strongest at the time.

It’s clear today that Karzai is a disaster. He has revealed himself to be a corrupt kleptocrat and in bed with drug lords. He has made a mockery of the U.S. mission and, having no more use for the Americans, works openly with our enemies. Even his Taliban reconciliation efforts have less to do with peace and more to do with his own desire to ingratiate himself to an enemy in the hope that they will let him remain in power once the countdown inherent in Obama’s timeline completes. In short, he may have made a good CIA asset in the past, but he was a horrendous choice to be Afghanistan’s leader.

Afghanistan is not the exception, but rather the rule. Prior to the Iraq war, the CIA tried an end-run against both Iraqis and the interagency process when it pushed former General Nizar al-Khazraji into Iraq’s leadership. Al-Khazraji may have shared whiskey with his CIA handlers and done everything they expected, but Iraqis knew him as a war criminal complicit in chemical weapons attacks on Kurds during the 1980s. With their top choice sidelined, the good folks at Langley then cast their lot with Ayad Allawi—a horse they continue to back. The problem with Allawi, as any Iraqi will acknowledge—is not his corruption or brutality—but rather the fact that he is lazy. He spends most of his time outside Iraq, awaiting his anointment rather than doing the hardscrabble work that folks like Nouri al-Maliki, whatever their faults, have been willing to do.

Among the Palestinians, too, the CIA has a record of picking and training losers. President Clinton’s deference to the Agency to train a Palestinian security force brought anything but security, but rather laid the groundwork for decades more terror.

Intelligence sources, even unsavory ones, are extraordinarily valuable. But they make horrid leaders. When it comes time to conduct the lessons learned from the decade-long Afghan debacle, let’s hope the CIA will not be immune from introspection.



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