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A Counter View to Fouad Ajami’s Skepticism Regarding Afghanistan

Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

The problem is that in carrying out this mission we must work with wholly imperfect allies. Karzai is no angel. But then neither is Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq — a leader whom Ajami presciently championed even when others scoffed at his potential to rise above his sectarian roots. In many ways, Maliki has been an even more troubling ally than Karzai. For all his faults, Karzai is not known to be personally sympathetic to the Taliban, who killed his father. By contrast, Maliki had a lot of sympathy for Shiite sectarianism. He has been surrounded by Iranian agents and Shiite extremists, who were deeply implicated in the work of the death squads that were killing hundreds of Sunnis every night in 2006-2007. It may be discouraging to hear that Karzai accepts a couple of million dollars in cash from Iran but is there any doubt that Maliki has taken far more money from Tehran? And not just money. As this article noted, Iran actually provided Maliki with his presidential jet, complete with Iranian pilots. Say what you will about Karzai, but at least he doesn’t routinely entrust his life to an Iranian aircraft.

Moreover, Maliki has been as notorious as Karzai for showing a lack of gratitude toward American efforts to save his county. As I noted in this 2008 op-ed, Maliki has had a pattern of dismissing the American contribution to Iraqi security, saying, for instance, in May 2006, that “[Iraqi] forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.” Maliki opposed the surge, which saved his country in 2007 and even when it succeeded refused to give us credit. As I noted:

In the famous interview with Der Spiegel last weekend, he was asked why Iraq has become more peaceful. He mentioned “many factors,” including “the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve,” “the progress being made by our security forces,” “the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias,” and “the economic recovery.” No mention of the surge.

Yet for all of Maliki’s maddening imperfections — which stand in high relief now as he ruthlessly maneuvers for another term — he showed ability to rise above his sectarian origins. He displayed real political courage in ordering his forces to attack the Sadrists in Basra and Sadr City in 2008. Now, of course, he is cutting deals with those same Sadrists. That, alas, is how the political game is played in unstable countries like Iraq — or Afghanistan. That should not cause us to despair of either country’s future.

If we could work with Maliki, we can certainly work with Karzai. The former, after all, does not speak English and spent years of exile living in Syria and Iran, two of the most anti-American states in the world. Karzai, by contrast, is a fluent English-speaker with several brothers who have lived in the U.S. for years and even hold U.S. citizenship. He is, in many ways, a more natural fit as an ally than Maliki. There is little doubt that he and his brothers are implicated in the corruption of Afghani politics, but at least, unlike Maliki, they are not cozying up to Iranian-backed death squads. To the extent that Karzai has cozied up to Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, it has been as a hedge against a precipitous American pullout. But Karzai also knows that the Iranians are double-dealing — they are supporting the Taliban too — which can give Karzai little confidence that Iran would be a reliable ally. At the end of the day, Karzai knows that his future and his country’s rests with the United States and NATO; that we are all that is keeping him from death or exile.

It would be nice if Karzai showed more political courage in working with us and refrained from denouncing us, but some of his denunciations have, alas, the ring of truth — and some of his actions are actually well intentioned. Take his attempts to close down private security companies that are terrorizing ordinary Afghanis and driving them into the arms of the Taliban. Most of these companies are, in fact, directly or indirectly, funded by American taxpayers — just as Karzai alleges. Many of them are also run by Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and by others linked to the Karzai clan. (See this report from the Institute for the Study of War for details.) So by closing down these firms, Karzai seems to be moving against his family’s economic interests. If he were simply interested in continuing to exploit this lucrative economic niche, he would leave the existing situation alone.

I don’t know what motivates Karzai but I suspect that, like most people, he is moved by a combination of noble and ignoble impulses — idealism and selfishness, self-interest and the public interest. He is no Adenaeur or De Gaulle or Ataturk or Washington — but then neither is Maliki. He is deeply imperfect, but he is the president of Afghanistan, and I do believe it is possible to work with him. Luckily, we have in Kabul the same general — David Petraeus — who skillfully worked with Maliki at a time when many Americans wrote him off as incorrigible. Already Petreaus has shown a similar ability to get useful concessions out of Karzai, for instance winning the president’s approval for setting up the Afghan Local Police, an initiative to supplement the Afghan Security Forces, which Karzai initially opposed.

Running through Ajami’s article is a deep skepticism not only about Karzai but also about Barack Obama. He criticizes Obama, rightly, for displaying irresolution. I too have been dismayed by the deadline Obama laid out for our withdrawal from Afghanistan — but I have been cheered to see, as I have noted in previous posts, that Obama is backing off that deadline. What foes for Karzai also goes for Obama: you go to war with the leaders you have — not the ones you would like to have. But I don’t believe that either Karzai or Obama is so flawed that it is impossible to prevail in Afghanistan — especially not when we have so many outstanding troops on the ground led by our greatest general.

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